When the Washington Wizards returned from the All-Star break, the veterans expressed hope that their young, still-developing teammates would turn the corner in this second half of the season. And maybe - just maybe - the squad could go .500 in the final 29 games.
So far the results have been mixed, and Washington's troubles have continued.
Swingman Dominic McGuire has responded to the challenge, nearly doubling his output. After averaging 3.6 points and 4.6 rebounds in the first 53 games, McGuire in the last 13 games has averaged 7.5 and 7.8.
And backup point guard Javaris Crittenton, after posting 3.5 points and 2.1 assists in 14.1 minutes a game before the All-Star break, is now averaging 6.7, and 2.9 in 26.3 minutes.
The production of the other four Wizards players with four or fewer seasons of experience - Andray Blatche, Nick Young, JaVale McGee and Oleksiy Pecherov - either have remained steady or dipped slightly. And when the Wizards get fairly solid play from all those players, the team still seems to come up short. The Wizards are 1-6 this month and 4-9 in their last 13 games.
Take Wednesday's loss to New Orleans. McGuire, who has started the last 41 games, had eight points, seven assists and four rebounds, and Young complemented four starters in double digits by adding 14 points off the bench. But Washington stalled offensively and broke down defensively at the end as Chris Paul and the Hornets pulled away for a win.
On Friday against the Magic, Young was the second-leading scorer for the Wizards with 20 points. McGuire added 10 points and seven rebounds, and Crittenton recorded 10 points and seven assists.
But given the theme of the season, all that still wasn't quite enough because Washington played the entire second half without second-leading scorer Caron Butler. And after the Wizards cut the score to 99-97 with four minutes left, Orlando's strategy shifted to doubling up on Antawn Jamison, and the Magic pulled away to win 112-103.
It was yet another reminder for the Wizards that regardless of how well they play, they remain short-handed without franchise player Gilbert Arenas, guard DeShawn Stevenson and center Brendan Haywood.
"Let's be honest, [in] close situations our closer still is not there, and that's Gilbert Arenas," Jamison said. "Whether he's knocking down shots or drawing attention and creating opportunities for others, that's when it becomes easier. So when you don't have him on the court and don't have Caron, the young guys, let's be honest, have never been in that situation before. As far as next year, it's a totally different perspective. We're going to have guys healthy who are accustomed to being out there and making it easy for other guys as well."
Wizards interim coach Ed Tapscott remains steadfast that he won't hand out unearned minutes to his younger players despite his team's 15-51 record. He gives them opportunities, but at the first signs they're having an off night he pulls them and looks for a spark elsewhere.
Crittenton remains focused on capitalizing on the extra minutes he gets and using that time to earn a rotation spot next year.
"You have to have experience, and this is my time of experience," said the second-year player, who has already been traded twice in his career. "I didn't play in L.A., didn't play in Memphis, and they're giving me the opportunity here and this is the experience I'm learning from. Next year things will be better. I'm playing, but I'm studying film and trying to get better each game."
McGuire also has succeeded and appears well on his way to becoming a solid rotation player. But for players in his position, whose minutes and production fluctuate greatly, uncertainty remains. So as he aims to prove himself, he finds it difficult to do so and get into a rhythm without a clearly defined role in this lost season.
"It's hard. One day you play a lot, one day you don't," Young said Friday. "It's just a learning process for me, and I'm trying to build on every opportunity you can because you never know what will happen next year, so I'm trying to get out there and show my stuff."