- The Washington Times - Monday, December 11, 2000

The Wizards are making the descent from being a bad team to a notoriously bad one.

They are on a 16-win pace, and that is giving their 4-17 mark the benefit of a slight statistical push.

It is no longer panic time. It is call-it-a-season time. It is wave-the-white-flag time. The Wizards have fallen and can't get up.

The Wizards are not rebuilding. They are waiting for the contracts of Juwan Howard, Rod Strickland and Mitch Richmond to expire. They are waiting for someone, a desperate general manager, to free them from this financial ball and chain.

The Wizards have the fifth-highest payroll in the NBA and the least maneuvering room. They are stuck.

Theirs is a 12-player pileup, and aside from Michael Jordan coming to the rescue in his basketball clothes, there is no hope, only despair and a hard truth.

This is going to be a long, arduous ordeal, as grim as it gets in professional sports.

The team's loss at home to the Clippers last week was rock bottom. If the Wizards go any lower, they will be in China instead of Tony Cheng's neighborhood. They will need a miner's lamp, pick and canary instead of their basketball shoes.

The Clippers have been the long-running gag line of the NBA, so where does that leave a team that squanders a big lead to them at home?

This is not about the coaching staff. This is not about a lack of intensity or professionalism. This is about a team that has no small forward, no real low-post presence on offense and a backcourt that is showing its age. This is about a team that spent the last two seasons hinting it would be where it is now.

The Wizards were 18-32 during the lockout-abbreviated asterisk in 1999 and 29-53 last season. Coaches have been hired and fired in that time, players have come and gone, and Jordan has joined the operation and remade the front office. The one constant has been the so-called "Big Three," the team's foundation of Howard, Richmond and Strickland.

The three have been unable to get it done, and with the athletic clock ticking on Richmond and Strickland, they are not about to get it done, at least not in their present capacity as allegedly heavy lifters.

Howard always has been miscast because of his contract, and Richmond and Strickland are no longer the players they once were. The three still could be useful players, with different teams in redesigned roles, but the Wizards do not have the personnel to adjust the hierarchy in a meaningful manner.

Coach Leonard Hamilton needs big minutes and production from the three if the team is to be vaguely competitive most nights. The team's margin of error is slight, and no trade involving the 10th player on the roster is going to change that.

As it is, the Wizards have made enough of those moves over the years, with minimal benefit.

Role players succeed or fail depending on those around them. Steve Kerr served a valuable function in Chicago as long as Jordan warranted double-team attention and passed the ball to him. Kerr now feeds off to Tim Duncan and David Robinson in San Antonio. In Washington, Kerr would be just another insignificant body, a Tracy Murray without the size.

Jordan is upset, as everyone connected to the franchise is. Losing is no fun, and in the Wizards' case, the losing does not carry the promise of better days ahead.

Even the Clippers, as dreary as they are, can find comfort in their youth. If Elgin Baylor can keep his core intact no easy prospect around penny-pinching owner Donald Sterling the Clippers could advance to mediocrity in the next season or two.

Jordan and the Wizards can make no such claim. They must wait. They must stew. They must hope for the best, whatever the best is after it is defined down.

This team is not going anywhere, certainly not to the playoffs, as Jordan wanted to believe before the season. This team is on a path to nowhere, and genuine relief won't be provided until the 82-game schedule is completed.

Twenty-one games down, 61 to go.

Hang in there.

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