SAN ANTONIO | The Washington Wizards may be only 12 games into the season, but at 3-9 - only one game better than last season at this point - the squad that was supposed to be a contender is again headed in the wrong direction.
Injury woes were to blame for last season’s struggles, and the Wizards now have all their core players back. The results have not improved, however, and signs of dissension are becoming more evident as the losses mount.
Two weeks ago, soon after the Wizards suffered their third straight defeat to fall to 2-4, one player told a reporter to “read between the lines” to find the source of the team’s struggles. But after Saturday’s 106-84 drubbing by the San Antonio Spurs, Brendan Haywood and Gilbert Arenas saw no need for tact.
“Our talent is not winning out over our egos. If you want to win, you have to check your ego at the door. Bottom line,” Haywood said while sitting in a silent visiting locker room. “If you normally score 20 and you don’t get your 20 but the team wins, who cares?
“Check your ego at the door. Let’s try and win,” Haywood said, raising his voice to make sure everyone in the locker room heard him. “I watch the Celtics, and that’s what they do. Paul Pierce can have 12 in the fourth quarter; if they’re up, he don’t care. That’s what we gotta do. Check your ego at the door. Move the damn ball. Play some defense!”
Arenas, on the other side of the room, then gave reporters his assessment, which wasn’t totally contradictory of Haywood’s to start with. But then he continued with a different twist.
“Hidden agendas. You can’t win like that,” Arenas said. “I’ve never been on a team where you have eight free agents next year. … I’ve never seen it turn out well. Sometimes it works out for the best because everybody’s hungry and everybody’s fighting. Sometimes it works out for the worst when everybody’s out for their own.
“I guess when you start losing, everyone wants to start pointing fingers everywhere else,” Arenas added. “I converted my game to try to get people involved. … I think the only person who actually had to sacrifice was me. Everybody else can just play their game.”
The Wizards indeed appear to be on a few different pages, but whether impending free agency is to blame is debatable. Of the eight free agents-to-be, only five played, and Haywood - the player calling for selfless play - took only four shots. The other four (Randy Foye, Fabricio Oberto, Dominic McGuire and Earl Boykins) came off the bench. Oberto took no shots, recording four rebounds and two blocks in 10 minutes, and McGuire had only one shot attempt in six minutes. Boykins and Foye were asked to come out gunning but both struggled, going a combined 5-for-20.
Arenas admitted last week that this season he has been driven by trying to measure up to New Orleans’ Chris Paul, whom he views as the best point guard in the game; Arenas’ goal is to average 20 points and eight to 10 assists a game. But that desire to rack up assists has made him hesitant to pass to fellow All-Star Caron Butler at times while criticizing him for not being a catch-and-shoot player.
Arenas has, however, remained the team leader in shots taken, averaging more than 19 a game, but his .390 shooting percentage is the worst of all the starters. On Saturday against San Antonio, Arenas scored a team-high 18 points but needed 18 shots to get there.
When asked about the ego/agenda accusations Haywood and Arenas laid on the team, Butler insisted he’s guilty of neither.
“Going from how it was, I feel like I’ve sacrificed a lot. From shots to being a role player to just whatever it takes to make the chemistry or whatever it is flow,” said Butler, who last season averaged 17 shots a game but now is attempting 15. He also has accepted Saunders’ challenge that he become the team’s top defensive perimeter defender.
“I think that’s how it’s got to be with everybody in order to make this thing work,” he said of his new mindset. “You’re going to have one guy averaging 20-something and a couple other guys have to be 19, 18, and guys are going to have to come in and do the little things. Be effort guys, rebounders, fall into the scheme of what coach is trying to get, and if we don’t have that, it’s going to be Groundhog Day around here.”
Jamison - co-captain along with Butler and Arenas - admitted that solo play has been a problem for the Wizards, who are getting outdone in the assist category 20.9 to 18.1. But he doesn’t believe his teammates are intentionally cutting each other out.
“I think a lot of guys, when you get down and things aren’t going well, you try to put everything on your back,” he said. “I just think we really need to concentrate on 48 minutes defensively and offensively. Whoever is rolling, we’ll roll with him.”
Jamison, the vocal leader of the team, stressed that the Wizards must remain united rather than falling prey to finger-pointing.
“Right now, we got people panicking. … We got to put all that aside and just go out there and play,” Jamison said. “We got 12 games into the season, we still got a long way to go. … It has to be 12, 15 guys all on one page.”
Arenas, however, said that he can wait only so long before he returns to the player many outsiders perceived as a ball hog but who led Washington to three straight playoff appearances starting in the 2004-05 season.
“I’m sitting here thinking, ‘Damn, do I have to go into attack mode like I was two years ago to get us over the hump?’ I hope not,” Arenas said. “But like I told [Jamison], couple more games before I just say, ‘Hey, I’m going to have to carry you guys on my back.’
“The NBA’s a ship. It’s going to keep moving. Teams are not waiting for us,” Arenas continued. “As the captain, I’ve got to steer my ship. If I’ve got to steer it to land until everybody wants to jump on, then I’m going to do it. [Dwyane] Wade had to do it last year [in Miami] until everybody was ready to play; I’m going to have to do it this year. We’ll see who comes and follows. [If] nobody wants to follow, then the thing’s just going to keep moving.”
As Arenas said that, Haywood walked by and, calculated or not, began singing a line from the latest Beyonce song. “I got a big ego,” crooned the center, who kept on moving.