The Washington Wizards are off to their worst start in franchise history, and with each loss Coach Flip Saunders and his players find it harder to explain or excuse the struggles.
They are the third-youngest team in the NBA, with an average age of 25.02, and eight players on the roster have fewer than three years of experience. But while youth and inexperience have contributed to the Wizards’ 0-8 record, several scouts and league executives believe the problems run much deeper than the usual bumps that come from rebuilding. The Wizards, they argue, suffer from a lack of overall talent and a toxic culture of losing that has prevented the growth of their developing players.
The Wizards are at a decided disadvantage nearly every night they step on the court, as they field a 15-man roster that features just one top-five draft pick in John Wall, two lottery picks in Wall and Jan Vesely(who just made his NBA debut on Sunday), and one current or former all-star in 32-year-old forward Rashard Lewis. Indiana is the only other NBA team with fewer than three former lottery picks on its roster, but it also has two all-stars.
“I think most of the time, if you were to look at their matchups, as they go into a game, position by position, they are probably going to lose out almost every matchup,” said one Eastern Conference scout, who like other scouts and executives spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t at liberty to speak on behalf of his organization.
“If you were to go throughout the league and say Washington would win a position matchup, I don’t know what team that would be. I don’t know a team that would give up their starting five for Washington’s.”
With his team set to host Toronto at Verizon Center on Tuesday, Saunders said the talent disparity should be expected when a team is starting over. “Part of it is that when you’re building a team, sometimes you can’t get everything you want all at once, and so you build by pieces, and sometimes all those pieces initially don’t fit together. One piece you may add all of sudden, and all of a sudden it completes the puzzle, and the picture looks a lot better.”
Indiana and Denver are the only teams in the league without at least one top-five pick, generally considered building-block selections.
But they were both playoff teams last season. The Wizards have been in the lottery in each of the past three seasons, but traded away the fifth overall pick in 2009 to Minnesota for Randy Foye and Mike Miller. Both those players were gone a year later, when the Wizards selected Wall with the No. 1 pick.
Looking back, sacrificing a high draft pick has helped to delay the rebuilding efforts. “They have nothing to show for that,” one former NBA assistant general manager said. “Those are the kind of deals that hurt organizations. You can’t give away draft picks.”
Washington elected to hit the reset button on the franchise nearly two years ago, when it traded away former all-stars Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler near the trade deadline. They decided to develop three players selected in the middle of the first round (JaVale McGee and Nick Young) and the second round (Andray Blatche). Those players have exceeded the production often set for players at their draft position, but the former NBA assistant general manager said the team is now building around “teaser talent that isn’t ready for the prime time yet. It teases you in games, but at the end of the day, you aren’t going to get the win. Flip’s hands are tied there, because he doesn’t have a lot to work with.”
A Western Conference assistant general manager said the Wizards were correct in deciding to start over, but questioned if they had the right foundation on which to build. “Teams have tried to do it, but unless you have high-character people, it’s not going to work. Otherwise, it becomes a house of cards. . . . You need a Dwight Howard or a dominant force to keep it all together, or it’s going to be tough. And they don’t have one guy to hold it together. Wall, he’s a big-time talent, but he can’t hold it together for these guys. Character has to shine through tough times. I wish somebody was able to hold Wall’s hand while he’s going through this, because it’s going to be tough.”
An Eastern Conference assistant general manager echoed that the Wizards need to establish a culture of accountability and high character to deliver a successful rebuild. “No team in the league, if the environment was good, would be 0-for-the-season,” he said. “Whatever the optimum each guy has, it’ll never be realized when it’s dysfunctional. The talent on that roster can’t win. You can’t win with Andray Blatche. I don’t care what anybody says. He has talent. He has some talent. But tell me where he’s won. . . . John Wall is a young player. Where’s the veteran leadership for those guys? Gilbert [Arenas] was the former example. What kind of example was that?”
The Eastern Conference assistant general manager mentioned how the Portland teams of the early 2000s were loaded with talent but never won because they didn’t have an environment conducive to winning.
He added that teams such as San Antonio have succeeded while not always having access to the best talent because they have stability and leadership. “If the environment is pretty solid, guys tend to be solid, no matter what their draft status is. You throw Tony Parker into the Wizards’ situation, and he was 18 coming out, he might not be Tony Parker right now,” he said.
The Eastern Conference scout said even if the Wizards were stockpiled with young lottery talent, the team would experience some growing pains. “It takes a while. Look at Minnesota. All they have are lottery picks all over their roster and they are just now starting to reap some of the benefits. So it is a process. But should [Washington] be 0-8 and losing by  to Minnesota? No. There’s still some issues there.”
The Eastern Conference assistant general manager said the Wizards’ rough start to the season shouldn’t come as a surprise. “It was dead before it started,” he said.