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Taking the fall
His team rife with injuries, underachieving veterans and young players learning on the fly, Washington Wizards coach Eddie Jordan was fired Monday after five-plus seasons with the team.
Team president Ernie Grunfeld named Ed Tapscott, who had served as director of player development the past two seasons, the interim coach for the rest of the season. Grunfeld also dismissed associate head coach Mike O'Koren in the wake of a 122-117 loss Saturday to a seven-man New York Knicks squad that dropped Washington to 1-10.
The Wizards' record matches their worst start in franchise history, tying a mark set in 1966 by the Baltimore Bullets. Jordan's firing came two months after Grunfeld picked up the option on the coach's contract, extending his deal through the 2009-10 season. But after the Wizards failed to overcome the absences of guard Gilbert Arenas (knee surgery) and center Brendan Haywood (wrist surgery) and blew fourth-quarter leads in seven of the 10 losses, Grunfeld had seen enough.
"I felt like things were going in the wrong direction, that things were getting a bit stale," Grunfeld said.
Grunfeld's issue, he said, wasn't with the injuries or the roster, which is filled with players Grunfeld acquired - center Etan Thomas being the lone exception, although Grunfeld in 2004 re-signed Thomas to a six-year, $38 million contract. Instead, Grunfeld said he believed a different philosophy would better suit the Wizards.
"Obviously, I'm aware of our injuries, and other teams have to deal with injuries," he said. "We had injuries last year. We've been through this situation before and were able to have success. This year, we weren't able to do that. Our record is 1-10, and that's an unacceptable record, obviously. We have two All-Stars and some talented young players and some savvy veterans, and we have to get him to play at a higher level, so I felt like we needed to make a change."
Jordan was in his sixth season with the Wizards, whom he guided to the playoffs each of the past four seasons - including last year, when Arenas missed 69 games. He was the third-longest tenured coach in the NBA behind Jerry Sloan and Gregg Popovich and the longest-tenured coach in the Eastern Conference.
The news came as a surprise to the players, who reported to Verizon Center for practice as usual, then learned the news.
"Why wouldn't I be shocked?" said team captain Antawn Jamison, a two-time All-Star. "This team was 1-10, not the coach. Next question."
Butler left Verizon Center following practice, declining comment and saying he couldn't bring himself to talk. Juan Dixon agreed that the slow start was the players' fault, not Jordan's.
"I wouldn't say he lost the locker room," the guard said. "Someone had to be the fall guy, and unfortunately it was Coach. I wish we could've had a better start for him because, personally, I think he's a tremendous coach, great teacher and he worked hard preparing us."
Jordan did not return calls seeking comment.
Tapscott, whose ties to Grunfeld date to 1991 when Grunfeld hired him while working for the New York Knicks, has never coached in the NBA. His only head coaching experience was from 1982 to 1990, when he guided American University to a 109-117 record.
He brings a unique perspective having worked as an NBA executive - both for the Knicks and Charlotte Bobcats - a broadcaster and, the past two years, a mentor/tutor to the Wizards' youngest players: guard Nick Young and forward Dominic McGuire. Grunfeld trusts him because of his strengths as a communicator and motivator and because of his high basketball IQ. He passed over fellow assistant Randy Ayers, who has NBA head coaching experience, but promoted Ayers to the top assistant position.
Tapscott said the first thing he hopes to change is the Wizards' level of physicality and intensity, citing the high number of easy drives they give up and soft defense as key troubles. He said for now he will stick with the starting lineup of Dee Brown, DeShawn Stevenson, Caron Butler, Antawn Jamison and JaVale McGee.
"We need to be a more physical as a team. That doesn't mean I'm going to try to turn greyhounds into Clydesdales, but we have not been a very physical team," said Tapscott, who will make his debut Tuesday night at home against the Golden State Warriors. "We're going to try to play more physical on defense. We're going to try to be more of an execution team. We really have to execute and be efficient on offense. ... We have to finish, which means we have to rebound, and we have to play defensively until we have procured the ball.
"We're not that far away," he added. "We're not talking about completely changing the character of this team. We are simply giving new definitions and refining what we do. We are going to be very emphatic about what we ask for and the level that we ask for."
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