- The Washington Times - Monday, January 9, 2006

Washington Wizards president of basketball operations Ernie Grunfeld said yesterday no coaching change is imminent despite the team’s struggles.

“No, nobody’s job is in danger, and Eddie isn’t in jeopardy,” Grunfeld said following a film session at MCI Center. “We just want to work and pull together, and the playoffs are our only goal. Having said that, we know we have to improve in certain areas, especially in the defensive area and execution down the stretch.”

Grunfeld also discredited the notion he is looking to make a change because Jordan, who is in the third year of a four-year deal, was hired by team owner Abe Pollin instead of him.

“That has nothing to do with anything,” Grunfeld said.

Last season, Jordan — the longest-tenured coach in the Eastern Conference — took the Wizards into the second round of the playoffs for the first time in 23 seasons, coached them to their highest win total in 26 seasons and improved their record by 20 wins in his second season as coach.

However, the team has not lived up to expectations this season. Washington is 13-18, compared to 18-13 at the same point last season. The defense, which was the team’s biggest problem last season, has gotten worse, allowing teams to score 102.2 points a game, third worst in the league, compared to the 100.8 last season.

All-Star guard Gilbert Arenas has been critical of Washington’s play recently and rightly so. After beginning the season 5-1, the Wizards have won just eight times in their last 25 games. At the same time, Arenas has been critical of the way teams seem to throw away coaches, and he said it would be a mistake not to stick with Jordan.

“It would be foolish to fire him,” said Arenas, fourth in the league in scoring at 29.5 points a game. “You can’t punish the coaching staff for the way we’re playing. There have been a lot of changes here this season, but Eddie is a players’ coach. No, it would be a mistake to even think about brining somebody else in here.”

As an example, Arenas pointed to the final 30 seconds of the Wizards’ 103-102 win over Boston on Saturday. Up seven points after Caron Butler hit two foul shots, the Wizards gave up a pair of 3-pointers, committed a turnover on an inbounds play and actually trailed by a point until Arenas sank a pair of decisive free throws with 3.5 seconds left.

“That’s not him,” Arenas said. “We’re throwing the ball away. We’re not making shots. It has to be on us. It’s just in this league that the easy way out has been to fire the coach.”

Somehow, the Wizards remain in the playoff chase. As of last night, they technically were tied with three teams for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Chicago Bulls, at 14-19, are .06 percentage points ahead of the Wizards and Orlando Magic and would be the eighth seed if the playoffs began today.

Part of the difference from last season could be the makeup of the team, which is decidely different from the one that finished 45-37 and fifth in the East. The biggest change, of course, was Larry Hughes leaving as a free agent to sign with the Cleveland Cavaliers, but Washington also didn’t bring back four other players who appeared in at least 40 games.

As a result, the Wizards added four players — Butler, Antonio Daniels, Chucky Atkins and, lately, Calvin Booth — to their rotation.

“Any time you have change, it takes a while to come together,” Grunfeld said. “I think we have shown that when we play up to our abilities, we can be a very competitive team. We’ve had some very good wins this year against some very good clubs: Detroit, San Antonio, Phoenix.”

How much the Wizards have missed Hughes, who averaged 22.0 points a game and led the NBA in steals last season, is a matter of dispute. Center Brendan Haywood recently said Hughes’ defection has been costly, but team captain Antawn Jamison has said his absence has not hurt that much.

The main reason the Wizards didn’t sign Hughes — his fragility, according to team sources — already has proved a problem in Cleveland. Hughes, who played no more than 67 games in his last three seasons, broke a finger recently and could be out for two months.

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