Throughout the dismal 19-63 campaign of last season and the offseason that followed, Washington Wizards officials and players drew hope from the anticipated reunion of their three All-Stars: Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler.
A healthy “Big Three” coupled with the offensive genius of newly hired coach Flip Saunders would return the franchise to the winning ways that produced four straight playoff appearances before the injury-plagued 2008-09 season.
The pieces all are in place, but the winning hasn’t returned to the District.
The Wizards own a 7-12 record and find themselves plagued by turnovers and inconsistent offensive execution. The three All-Stars, meanwhile, have yet to find comfort in Saunders’ system.
Of the three, Jamison, who missed the first nine games of the season, has suffered the smallest drop-off, averaging 20.1 points and 8.7 rebounds (down only two points and two-tenths of a rebound from last season).
Arenas is averaging 20.4 points, his lowest total as a healthy player since his first season in the District in 2003-04 and 7.3 points fewer than he averaged in three All-Star seasons. Arenas’ assists are at a career high (6.5), but his .330 3-point shooting clip is a career low in his healthy seasons.
Butler, meanwhile, is averaging the fewest points (16.6) and field goal attempts (14.1) of his five seasons with the Wizards. And after averaging 4.3 assists the last three seasons, he’s mustering a career-low 1.5 a game.
From 2004 to 2007, a healthy Arenas, Jamison and Butler averaged 67.4 points a game - a number that has dropped to 57.1 this season.
Butler said the Wizards just need to be patient.
“It doesn’t happen overnight. A lot of people keep forgetting and [are] thinking that this thing’s supposed to jell immediately,” Butler said. “Gil’s been away for two years. Roles changed. Everything changed. So we’re trying to get back to the form that that’s our guy, he used to close games and everybody’s trying to adjust to the new situation.”
The Wizards missed the Big Three most in the fourth quarter of close games, when teams generally turn to their stars.
But so far, no member of the Big Three has proved reliable.
Butler has averaged 6.3 fourth-quarter points in games played with Arenas and Jamison, and Arenas has averaged five with Jamison and Butler. Jamison, meanwhile, has mustered just 3.2 fourth-quarter points since returning to action 10 games ago.
On Friday against Toronto, Butler and Jamison didn’t take a shot in the fourth quarter. Sunday at Detroit, Jamison and Arenas went a combined 0-for-7.
With his All-Stars struggling, Flip Saunders turned to backup point guard Earl Boykins, who is averaging seven points in the fourth quarter. But that hasn’t been enough to get the job done, and it’s not the potent attack the organization expected.
“We’re putting the ball in those guys’ hands, and they’re not making plays,” Saunders said of Arenas, Butler and Jamison. “Earl doesn’t necessarily want to be the guy. But sometimes those other guys don’t have it, so he ends up being the guy.”
Arenas - once the club’s closer - said his lack of a fourth-quarter presence is a result of game flow and the fact that things have changed during his two injury-plagued years.
“Before, the whole building knew who was going to shoot the last four minutes,” Arenas said. “Now we’re in the case where we have enough scorers where sometimes I won’t shoot in the fourth quarter, I won’t shoot in the last four minutes. To be honest, I don’t even think about it. I just go with the flow now. I don’t want to get on anybody’s bad sides, so I’m just trying to play my role until that weeds out.”
With Washington already 8 1/2 games behind division-leading Orlando, Jamison said he and his sidekicks must take responsibility for their team’s struggles.
“Earl has done some good things for us, but it’s time for us to step up,” Jamison said. “When things are going great we get the credit. Now, fourth quarter, nobody’s stepping up, so it has to be on us.”