Posted Dec 30 2011 8:46AM
The Wizards came into the season ready to show everybody how they've matured, and one game in, the only person who grew old was coach Flip Saunders.
Not only did the Wizards cough up a 21-point lead in their home opener to the Nets, their loopy big man, Andray Blatche, moaned about his role in the offense. For those who bet Blatche would require two games to say or do something regretful, our sincerest apologies.
Making matters worse, Blatche (two-for-13 shooting) and the Wizards followed that collapse with another in Atlanta and suddenly Washington finds itself battling a pair of forces: competition and perception.
We really don't know if the Wizards are headed for another losing season, nor is it fair to speculate so early. But they still have some growing up to do, that much is clear. Whether they can do that quickly enough to save their season and their coach is the real issue here.
You'd like to think a team that decided to go retro with the uniform this season -- love the look, by the way -- would also demonstrate an aging process on and off the floor. Really, it's time. Or is it? You must keep in mind the Wizards, the core anyway, are still playing video games. And when you're between 20-25 years old in the league, you're still figuring it out. Like, how to cut down on mistakes. How to keep a lead. How to finish a game. How to keep your ego in check. How to work smoothly as a unit. And definitely how to get respect from 29 other teams.
"We've got eight guys whose combined NBA experience doesn't add up to Rashard Lewis' experience," said Saunders. "Sure, you'd like to say you're beyond it, but it's a process."
Oh, we know. Saunders gave Blatche a book on leadership to read this summer. Then he made Blatche the captain (a designation that rotates among all the players) on opening night and the honor of addressing the fans. Blatche took the mic and said all the right things, how the Wizards "strongly appreciate y'all sticking around this summer" and how "we're gonna need you guys" and then felt the applause.
Well, he got outplayed and out-hustled by Kris Humphries, and ruined all the goodwill with a post-game rant: "You can't keep having me pick-and-pop and shoot jump shots. Give me the ball in the paint, that's where I'm most effective at. I've been saying that since training camp."
Blatche then took to Twitter to criticize anyone who criticized his criticism (follow along, now), telling them to "shut up."
Usually an organization can just write it off as a player who got too emotional after a bad loss. It happens. Except Blatche has always thought of himself as a star, without actually being named an All-Star. He has a history, in addition to a massive contract, so his speed record for discontent was a red flag for the Wizards. The good news is he has no such peer in the locker room, so there's no real danger of a virus spreading or another Gilbert Arenas incident happening.
No, the immaturity shown by the Wizards is mostly confined to the court, where mistakes unfortunately for them can be contagious. John Wall is 21, JaVale McGee and Jordan Crawford 23, Blatche 25 and Nick Young 26. There are veterans, but Lewis and Ronny Turiaf and Maurice Evans and Roger Mason are all role players at this stage of their careers. There's no veteran All-Star to command everyone's attention and a larger degree of respect.
Even Lewis admits he's had to go out of character for this team, which he joined late last season.
"When I came here there were no veterans at all," Lewis said. "Normally I'm a lead-by-example guy, but it's such a young team that you find yourself doing a lot of talking. This year is the first time I've had to talk this much in my career. What I found is the guys need to be a lot more focused and this year we will, I believe."
Last year the Wizards showed all the diseases of immaturity. They played sloppy defense at times, turned the ball over, showed a selfish streak, collapsed late in games and lost games. The last three years they won 19, 26 and 23 times. Most of that was due to the Arenas debacle that prompted this youth movement. But with so much potential with Wall and McGee especially, there are reasonable expectations in Washington that the Wizards should at least press for a playoff spot and reduce mistakes.
This isn't the team Saunders thought he was getting when he was hired. He had a playoff-ready team. But things happened -- well, Gilbert brought his guns to practice -- and before long, he was in charge of a rebuilding project and everything that goes with that.
"Guys are just different today," said Saunders. "The things that used to motivate players don't always motivate them now. You keep working on them, telling them that winning is more valuable than anything. They'll get it; it's just a matter of when they get it."
If they don't get it fairly soon, then Saunders, who has another year on his deal, might not be around when the light bulb finally does comes on. Whenever that might be.
It's all about getting wiser and making better choices. The organization spent the last three years acquiring youth and dealing with the issues of youth. If this keeps up, then you might say the process will begin to get, well, old.
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