Randy Wittman’s frustration was evident. Like a teacher with a classroom full of young students, the Washington Wizards’ coach does what he can, given the challenges of a post-lockout season. The instruction, Wittman believes, is getting through to his charges. But then they promptly go out and flunk the test.
“Maybe I’ve got to play another veteran guy, other than Rashard [Lewis],” Wittman said after a 107-81 loss to the L.A. Clippers on Feb. 4.
“It’s one thing to put the young guys out there, but they also have to learn to compete at this level of competition, and to me, I didn’t think that we were ready for that.”
It was the most candid statement from a Wizards coach since the opening game of the preseason, when former coach Flip Saunders substituted all five players at once, saying after the game, “I was tired of looking at that [expletive].” Saunders’ comment came on the heels of a 25-point shellacking at the hands of the Philadelphia 76ers, who had led by 40.
The mandate from owner Ted Leonsis is that the way to turn the Wizards around, and build them into a playoff contender, is to develop the young players. That mandate is repeated nearly word for word by president Ernie Grunfeld. Often.
But so far, the strategy isn’t working. Washington is one of the NBA’s worst teams and has a lot of bad habits it can’t seem to break.
The Wizards need some solid veteran leadership, ideally, a couple of All-Star caliber players. Perhaps the organization plans to address the matter this offseason, but fans’ patience is wearing thin.
Because what the fans haven’t heard is that management gets it — the youth movement is fine, but not in a vacuum. The team needs a better mix, more balance and more maturity.
Of the team’s 14-man roster, half are rookies or second-year players (i.e. John Wall, Trevor Booker, Chris Singleton, Shelvin Mack).
JaVale McGee and Nick Young are in their fourth and fifth years, but neither seems ready to become a grown-up just yet.
Andray Blatche and Ronny Turiaf are entering their seventh seasons, but Turiaf is out with a broken hand and can only do so much from the bench. Turiaf also is four years older than Blatche, who’s also out with an injured calf.
The seasoned veterans? There’s Lewis, who at 32 and with creaky knees can only show flashes of the two-time All-Star he used to be. There’s Maurice Evans, 33, who began the season on the bench with a sore knee and has played in just eight games. Finally, there’s Roger Mason Jr., 31., who’s racked up eight DNP-CD’s (did not play — coach’s decision), and averages just 6.7 minutes.
Mason, a D.C. native, wanted to come home and help provide leadership, but it’s tough to do when you can’t get off the bench.
But it’s Blatche who’s the lightening rod. He signed a five-year, $35 million contract extension two seasons ago and is the poster child for fans’ frustrations.
On opening night, Blatche addressed the crowd and announced he was the team captain. His statement was met with derision, and his very presence is met with boos, sometimes as early as the announcement of starting lineups. Saunders defused the captain controversy at the time by stating that the team had “rotating captains.”
Blatche also is the subject of trade rumors, most recently for Charlotte Bobcats forward Tyrus Thomas. Whether Blatche stays will determine the direction of this franchise for the next five years. That, and whether Wall, who becomes a restricted free agent in 2014, starts looking longingly at other options.
The coaching staff can only do so much. A former All-Star and a couple of well-traveled role players can only do so much. Drafting and developing a solid, young group of players to build around may be a good place to start, but it’s just the first step. The questions remain — will Leonsis admit that his kids need some more grown-ups to play with, and if so, will he spend the money to make it happen?