Flip Saunders entered Christmas week with his team coming off a blowout loss to Phoenix, a veteran squad that ranks among the Western Conference leaders.
Saunders said then that he still believed his team was close to improving and winning five or six straight games. The Wizards started to follow that path in winning two straight - before getting thumped 101-89 on Saturday by Minnesota, the worst team in the Western Conference.
So much for progress.
Instead, there’s more frustration for Saunders, who boasted a resume with 11 playoff appearances in 13 seasons and was supposed to put the Wizards over the top.
“You go back to principles, and it’s like pounding on a rock. You keep pounding and pounding, and eventually you break it down,” Saunders said. “But you can’t vary away from the process of where you want to go. … It’s a long-term project - that’s what you have to understand.”
It wasn’t expected to be a long-term problem. The Wizards - when healthy - already were a high-scoring team with Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler leading the way.
But Washington owns a 10-18 record, and already Saunders has endured two six-game losing streaks - one fewer than his teams had during his previous 13 seasons.
The coach elected to install a base playbook but give his players freedom to freestyle and rekindle the chemistry they had before Arenas’ two injury-plagued seasons.
Freedom hasn’t produced anything but erratic play and more losses than wins. Saunders last week said he was going to rein his players in and make them play within the framework of his system. Since then, the Wizards are 2-2 - with both losses being lopsided embarrassments.
At the pace they’re going, the Wizards will be lucky to top the 30-win mark, which would give Saunders just the third losing campaign of his career.
Consistency has been the Wizards’ main problem, whether it is playing with the same level of intensity and effort for a full 48 minutes or managing to build on victories. Instead of carrying over positive developments and building momentum, the Wizards take a step or two forward only to regress.
The past two weeks have provided a prime example. After losing six straight by a combined 14 points, Washington handily beat Golden State on Dec. 18 only to get trounced by Phoenix the next night. The Wizards then beat Philadelphia and followed that up by taking care of Milwaukee 24 hours later.
Then, instead of dispatching the Timberwolves, the Wizards failed to heed Saunders’ warning that they must protect the boards. Minnesota pulled down 19 offensive rebounds and hammered the Wizards 22-7 on second-chance scoring opportunities.
Saunders was visibly upset the majority of the game, but the Wizards’ players didn’t seem to share in his frustration. Their biggest problem is mental, Saunders said - not anything he’s doing. But until the Wizards can adjust their focus, the losses will likely continue to mount.
“It’s like I told our players: As coaches, I’m not going to change what we do - a coverage defensively or something - just because we don’t do it hard or do it right,” Saunders said. “When you don’t do it hard or do it right, no matter what you do, it’s not going to work.