The Wizards appear to be succumbing to a mental fatigue that eventually overtakes a team banished to basketball purgatory yet again by injuries.
The Wizards are hurting not merely because Gilbert Arenas and Brendan Haywood are on the shelf. The Wizards are hurting not merely because Antonio Daniels is showing his 33 years, Roger Mason Jr. has taken up with the Spurs and Andray Blatche is not in the mood to impose himself on the proceedings.
They are hurting because they have been in this unsettled state since late January in the 2006-07 season.
That wears on a team regardless of its leadership in the locker room, where the Wizards have been adequately covered with Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison.
It was not supposed to be this way again. The Wizards were supposed to be whole this season. That was one of the offseason talking points of the organization. That was the message interspersed in the news conferences touting the re-signing of first Jamison and then Arenas.
The Wizards were poised to find who they were at full strength. Arenas reminded everyone at his press conference that the Wizards were in first place in the Eastern Conference before injuries started to ravage them in early 2007.
All that optimism left the organization the moment Arenas underwent surgery on his left knee a third time before the start of this year's training camp. And the outlook became only bleaker after Haywood, coming off a career season and a vital piece on defense, tore a ligament in his right wrist.
It was then you almost could hear the team thinking to itself, "Not this again."
Of course, the coaches and players have all mouthed the right words. They noted how they persevered last season. They pointed out how they fashioned a 43-39 record and earned a fifth seed in the playoffs.
But teams can overachieve for only so long, can endure only so many blows to their psyche before the corrective forces of the NBA take hold. We saw that with the Bulls under Scott Skiles. We've seen that with a few of Larry Brown's teams over the years.
The Wizards are finding that their well-documented resilience is possibly tapped out. They are finding that the incremental changes that occur with any team from season to season have eroded their margin of error even further.
They are finding that both Butler and Jamison need to play at a high level each game if they are to have a chance against most opponents.
That challenge becomes even more necessary if the starting backcourt is not producing sufficiently, Blatche is in La-La Land, and the team is fighting itself on the free throw line.
The Wizards could be 2-1 instead of 0-3 based solely on better free throw shooting against the Nets and Bucks.
Yet a plummeting free throw percentage was inevitable after Haywood's one-season proficiency there gave way to the adventures of The Poet. Even Butler, who shot a career-high .901 from the free throw line last season, is off to an .810 start.
One aspect of free throw shooting is mental. It is knowing on some level that a so-so free throw shooting performance does not necessarily result in defeat. It is the freedom of being allowed to fail.
The psychology is not unlike that of a high-volume shooter who is permitted two bad shots a game. He is allowed his two bad shots because of a trade-off that favors the team.
The Wizards lack that sense of liberty now. They need consistency from Butler and Jamison, they need to take care of the ball on offense, and they need to convert a high percentage of their free throw attempts.
If not, a 14-point lead early in the fourth quarter is not necessarily large enough, as was the case in Milwaukee.
The Wizards, forever defensively flawed, have regressed there in the absence of Haywood, a genuine shot blocker. Opponents are shooting 50 percent from the floor, a troubling statistic.
None of it is pretty.
And the grim prognosis is not apt to change appreciably in the short term.
By Douglas Holtz-Eakin
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