- The Washington Times - Monday, January 9, 2006

Ernie Grunfeld, president of basketball operations with the Wizards, expressed frustration and disappointment in the team’s 13-18 record but dismissed the NBA’s reflex measure of a coaching change.

“Nobody’s job is in jeopardy,” he said yesterday. “We all wish our record was better, and we all wish the team was more consistent. We do have a lot of new faces on the team, and we are still waiting to put all the pieces together.”

Eddie Jordan, the coach of the Wizards and a D.C. native out of Archbishop Carroll High School, is in the third season of a four-year contract. He has labored under the outside perception of not being Grunfeld’s guy after being selected the coach of the Wizards by owner Abe Pollin 11 days before the hiring of Grunfeld in June 2003.

It is a perception that Grunfeld brushed aside as idle talk. Yet it is one that has surfaced in recent weeks as the Wizards have floundered following a 5-1 start. Their 8-17 record since Nov. 13 is the third-worst mark in the NBA.

However competitive the Wizards have been in most of their losses, they have shown serious signs of defensive slippage in their last four games, allowing 128 points to the Heat, 123 points to the Yao Ming-less Rockets, 113 points to the Knicks and 102 points to the Celtics.

Even the 103-102 victory over the Celtics that halted a four-game losing streak was fraught with evidence of a team nursing a delicate psyche.

The Wizards held a seven-point lead with 29.4 seconds left, only to go down by one point after Delonte West hit a 20-footer with 9.7 seconds left. Among the most unnerving failures of the Wizards in that span: two missed free throws by Caron Butler, an 88 percent free throw shooter going into the game, and an inexplicable inbounds pass from Antonio Daniels to Chucky Atkins that went out of bounds.

Two free throws by Gilbert Arenas with 3.5 seconds left prevented what possibly would have been the team’s most crippling loss of the season.

The recent offensive onslaught of opponents is an indication of a flawed defensive team now compounding the deficiency with a lack of energy and commitment.

“We have to do a better job on defense and with our execution down the stretch of games,” Grunfeld said. “We’ve lost a lot of close games.”

As the longest-tenured coach in the Eastern Conference, Jordan understands the volatile nature of his profession and the tricky nature of team dynamics.

Jordan has grappled with various player combinations because of the team’s defensive liabilities. He also has been required to endure the inconsistent play of Brendan Haywood, Etan Thomas and the wretched December of All-Star Antawn Jamison.

Daniels, seemingly a positive free agent signing in August following his career year in Seattle last season, has not found his comfort level on the team yet. A career .449 shooter coming into the season, Daniels is ailing with a .326 shooting percentage.

Jordan has maintained his calm amid the sense that the team is adrift and teetering on the edge of an unfulfilling season. He has taken to calling this series of home games a “playoff” stretch because he knows if the Wizards do not soon come out of their funk and begin to show more grit and nastiness on defense, the talk will turn to next season.

The Wizards pointed to January as a favorable part of their schedule going into the season. Nine of their 15 games in January are at home, with most of the opponents carrying sub-.500 records.

Yet the Wizards have started the month with a 1-2 record, and every game now seems to be an adventure that reveals the team’s lack of confidence.

When the Knicks fashioned a scoring run in the second half against the Wizards, that was pretty much the game. The Wizards showed no resilience at all, failing to mount even a small response to the Knicks.

Butler has been a model addition to the team. His defensive performances against both Kobe Bryant and Paul Pierce were impressive. Arenas, of course, has morphed into one of the elite players in the NBA.

The rest of the personnel either serves one or two utilities or has been prone to lapses.

Jamison’s awful December was especially hurtful because he is the team’s No. 2 player and he goes into each game as a player without a defensive position. That means his production on offense has to be there because of what he is surrendering on the defensive end.

Haywood worries forevermore about his minutes, not quite realizing that a two-point, two-rebound effort in 15 minutes is the cause of his extended bench time. Nobody likes a sleepwalking 7-footer.

Thomas plays with fire only if someone has offended his sense of righteousness.

In the case of the eternally soft Haywood or the motivationally challenged Thomas, the responsibility rests with each player.

As much as it would be nice to have the option to fire either player after a particularly dreadful no-show, that, of course, is not how the game is played in the NBA.

Wrong as it often is, NBA coaches are routinely sacrificed for the sins of others.

Jordan was the toast of the city last spring after he led the franchise to its first playoff series victory in 23 years. His name was hot, and he was considered one of the bright, young faces of the NBA coaching ranks.

Now that is a distant memory, as Jordan endeavors mightily to pull this team out of the muck.

The difference between being a hot name and being on the hot seat is sometimes just a couple of tough calls late in the game.

The Wizards have been victimized by the referees in the waning moments of three games: at home to the Bucks and Bulls and on the road to the Heat. Flop those three games and Jordan and the Wizards are 16-15 and feeling a lot differently about where they are.

“It’s a long season, and we have a lot of home games this month,” Grunfeld said. “We’re not pleased with our record, but I think we have shown we can play on a high level [in victories over the Spurs and Pistons]. And we’re in the eighth playoff spot right now, even with all the stuff that has happened.”

As Grunfeld knows only too well, nothing could right the Wizards like a tough power forward, someone in the manner of Kurt Thomas, whom Grunfeld signed to the Knicks in 1999.

Of course, the line for that prototype forward is fairly long.

That leaves Jordan still seeking tiny steps of improvement from one of the worst defensive teams in the NBA.

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