Woeful Wizards. Not only does the phrase roll off the tongue much easier than Washington Wizards, it's an accurate description of current conditions. The NBA's only winless team is a national laughingstock, a punch line waiting to happen for comics, columnists and late-night TV hosts. What a joke!
Except there's nothing funny about the pained expressions of coach Randy Wittman when he addresses the media after yet another loss. Humor is nowhere to be found in the Wizards' locker-room as players — their voices barely registering as whispers — try to explain the latest setback. There's nothing but broken hearts and wrenched guts, grown men in a public battle against their ravaged emotions and sinking spirits.
The Wizards have no victories through 11 games. Ten of the defeats were tightly-contested affairs, none more so than the past two, a pair of excruciating, overtime losses against Charlotte and Atlanta. The Bobcats and Hawks won by a total of three points with Charlotte needing a couple of extra periods Saturday.
Some folks believe blowout losses are easier to digest than nail-biters, that being hopelessly behind in the last quarter is better than a punch in the stomach at the final horn. But neither style makes a "0" look any slimmer in the win column, or reduces the weight of figures in the opposite column.
"We had a number of opportunities to seal the game," Wizards swingman Martell Webster said after the Bobcats' 108-106 victory. "All I can say to anything is we all just want to win. We all just want to win. We kept fighting, but I know that gets old. We just gotta win. I can't say anything else."
According to a formula on basketball-reference.com, the Wizards' expected record is 3-8. That wouldn't earn them a parade on Pennsylvania Avenue, but it would've tied them with Detroit, New Orleans and Toronto for fewest victories through Saturday. It also would've blown up the team's mental block, a wall that continues to grow unabated.
Clearing the first hurdle figures to be more difficult starting Monday, when San Antonio visits, followed by games against Portland, New York, Miami, Atlanta and Golden State. The Wizards could be staring at 0-17, which would create newfound appreciation for the 2-15 start that got Flip Saunders fired last season.
Wittman has looked a lot like his friend Saunders lately, displaying the same grimaces, wincing at the same questions, fighting the same frustration. Saunders didn't lose 11 consecutive games to start the season (just eight), but Wittman has the better Wizards team. The results don't prove it, but Washington has upgraded talent, maturity and professionalism.
"I've got to figure a way out to get this right," Wittman said Saturday. "That's what my job is. I'll take full responsibility for that and continue to work to find starting combinations and people to play. Obviously, I'm not pushing the right buttons or pulling the right strings."
As tough as the upcoming schedule promises to be, one part of Wittman's decision-making will be easy. Play Nene as much as the center can stand. After missing the first nine games with a left foot injury, Nene has been instrumental in the past two near-wins. His lack of conditioning is evident, yet he was the Wizards' most valuable player against Charlotte.
If the coach wants to blame himself for anything, I nominate the error in judgment that put Jan Vesely in the starting lineup.
Unless he is absolutely killing them in practice, his teammates surely were puzzled, too. I understand that players have been wildly inconsistent, forcing Wittman to experiment with his lineup and rotation. But Vesely hasn't provided a hint, a glimpse or a sniff of anything promising.
There's already enough pain and suffering surrounding the Wizards. No need to increase the misery with heavy doses of an apparent bust.
The entire season has been a bust, but Nene's return provided a boost. After his impressive outing Saturday — 19 points, five rebounds, three assists and two steals — he was too exhausted to recall the streak's length. "I lost the count of how many games we've lost," he said. "I just know one thing. A couple of games we were supposed to win."
Whether it was failing to box out on missed free throws against Atlanta, missing crucial free throws and open jumpers against Charlotte, or digging huge holes against nearly everybody, the Wizards have only themselves to blame. There's no time for feeling sorry, though, because other teams won't. Opponents are more likely to crack jokes, which isn't a terrible idea altogether.
As long as they're not the butt, the Wizards could use something to smile about.
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