- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Washington Wizards coach Flip Saunders said it would probably take 20 games to learn what kind of a team he would have.

By that time, the core players would have gotten used to playing together again while settling into Saunders’ system, the new players would have learned their new teammates, and Saunders would have learned which role players he could count on to round out his rotation.

That was the plan. But 15 games into the season, the Wizards have made little progress in those areas. Injuries have derailed the starts of Antawn Jamison and Mike Miller, leading to eight different starting lineups, and Gilbert Arenas’ return from injury has been anything but smooth.

All that has resulted in a 5-10 start for the Wizards, who are fast approaching that 20-game mark but not the clarity that was expected.

“I think that’s what we’re trying to find right now - who are we?” backup guard Randy Foye said. “We’re trying to find our identity. Are we a run-and-gun team? Or are we a team that plays halfcourt defense and halfcourt offense? We’re trying to find that out, too.”

They’ll attempt to keep finding that out Tuesday when they visit the Toronto Raptors to open a stretch of four games in six days.

Saunders said implementing a new system hasn’t slowed the Wizards as much as the injuries have. Because of all the juggling he has had to do, players haven’t been able to grow accustomed to their roles. The Wizards may start getting comfortable with a certain situation, but then the subtraction or addition of a player causes more reshuffling.

“They’re picking things up. Things change,” Saunders said. “Like I said, when you lose a player, it almost affects three players - the guy [who] is out, the guy that was more a of bench guy, and the guy that was not in the rotation at all.”

But even while having to play musical chairs, Saunders is preaching the importance of “playing the right way.” Regardless of what spot Saunders puts his players in, or how plentiful or scarce their minutes, the coach has stressed that the Wizards must stick to the principles of not only his system but also the universal basketball fundamentals.

“Our main thing is playing basketball, playing the right way and playing how they would almost playing controlled when you play pickup basketball,” Saunders said. “You’re playing pick-and-rolls, you’re moving the basketball. You’re playing how you’ve been playing since you were in ninth grade. It’s not really a major change of how guys are going to play. It’s just a matter of understanding matchups.”

This time next week, the Wizards already will have played four more games and be nearly a quarter of the way through the season. Of course they would love to have some do-overs. But they won’t let the trying start allow them to readjust their expectations for the season.

“Once you look at it, we’re only five games away from being at .500,” Jamison said. “And our biggest thing so far is not putting a string of victories together. We did that the previous two games. But [Saturday’s loss to Charlotte] was tough.

“I think tomorrow will initially let us know how well we rebound from losses like the other night. I just think four or five victories in a row will ease things around here, especially in the locker room. Guys were frustrated that we played well like we did in Miami, and then didn’t play well here at home, and knowing the type of team that we were facing. But it’s the NBA, and you have to deal with it.”



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