Halfway There

Between injuries, losses (both on and off the court) and various other distractions, the need for the Wizards to overcome adversity cannot be denied. At the halfway point of the 2009-10 season, the Wizards are 14-27, but don’t count them out just yet.

Touted as a playoff team by experts around the country prior to the start of the season, the preseason held much promise for the Wizards. A busy offseason that included the acquisitions of Mike Miller and Randy Foye in a trade with Minnesota, a new championship caliber coach in Flip Saunders, and the promise of the healthy return of the team’s trio of All-Stars, contributed to the mounting excitement for the season ahead.

The Wizards got off to a 2-1 start, including an 11-point road win over the favored Dallas Mavericks in the season opener - despite the absence of All-Star forward Antawn Jamison, who missed the first nine games of the season with a shoulder injury that he suffered in the preseason. In early November, the Wizards bolstered their backcourt with the signing of NBA veteran Earl Boykins, who spent the 2008-09 season playing professionally in Italy. Boykins began receiving major minutes immediately, and in his debut as a Wizard on November 14, he tied Mike Miller for a team-high 20 points in almost 31 minutes of playing time in a three-point loss to Detroit. Jamison returned on November 18 to a 2-7 Wizards team, and immediately proved to be the missing link, as he recorded a double-double with 31 points and ten boards in his first game of the regular season, as the Wizards downed LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers, 108-91.

The Wizards showed flashes of brilliance in a stretch of games between November 24 and December 2, in which they were victorious in four of five games, with the wins coming at the expense of Philadelphia, Miami, Toronto and Milwaukee. December 18 brought Caron Butler’s best game of the season, when he exploded for 28 points and ten rebounds in a 118-109 win at Golden State, and in the New Year the Wizards have again showed their ability to win big games, by doing so against the defending Eastern Conference champion Orlando Magic on January 8, with a 104-97 win at home. Washington’s 96-86 win over Sacramento on January 16 brought Coach Saunders his 600th win of his coaching career.

The Wizards have been rattled by a slew of injuries once again in 2009-10, perhaps none more noteworthy than those of guard/forward Mike Miller. Miller has missed 28 games with two separate injuries – a shoulder sprain and a strained calf. Though Miller has been known as a three-point shooter throughout his career, Coach Saunders values him for other attributes. “We move the ball so much better (with him in the game),” said Saunders. “He gives a calming effect and he can rebound, force the two-guard to turnover, and he’s big. He can make plays as a passer; he’s just a basketball player.” While injuries have been a significant player in the struggles that the team has faced this season, so too has off-the-court sadness.

On November 24, Wizards owner Abe Pollin passed away at the age of 85, losing his longtime fight with the rare neurological disease, corticobasal degeneration. Pollin bought the Wizards in 1964, and throughout his 45-year tenure as an NBA owner, he became one of the most respected businessmen and humanitarians in sports. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment was the construction of Verizon Center, which helped not only to revitalize Washington DC’s Chinatown, but moved the NHL’s Capitals and the Wizards into the heart of downtown DC. Pollin’s death not only sent shockwaves through the entire Wizards organization, but throughout the NBA, the world of sports, and the Washington DC community. Losing a cornerstone figure so central to the functioning of the organization was bound to take its toll on the team, as many players considered Pollin a friend and mentor. As Bullets legend Wes Unseld put it, “I just lost a real good friend. I think it is more than any of you will ever understand. There is just going to be a big void in this community and even further out.” Pollin will forever be remembered in the hearts and minds of countless players, coaches, employees and fans, but he will also be remembered for the remainder of the 2009-10 season with a black and white patch on the Wizards’ jerseys and decal on the Verizon Center floor that simply reads, “Abe.”

The team’s loss against Dallas on Wednesday night marked the halfway point of the season for the Wizards, leaving Washington’s playoff hopes just a solid stretch of games away. With the Eastern Conference’s fifth and 14th place teams separated by just 8.5 games at the end of action on Thursday night, and the Wizards sitting just 4.5 games out of a playoff spot, things are looking up for Washington as they enter the second half of the season. The Wizards will play 18 of their remaining 41 games against opponents with losing records, including four against the NBA’s only remaining teams with less than ten wins (three against the Nets and one against Minnesota), and they will play 21 of those 41 games at Verizon Center. The team is currently in the midst of a six game homestand in which they are 2-1, and will play five of their next six games in DC with their lone road game coming on January 29 when they travel to the Meadowlands to play the Nets. Between February 17 and February 26, the Wizards will play at home in five of six games, which will be followed by another trip to New Jersey on February 28.

One of the most encouraging storylines of the season thus far has been the emergence of 26-year-old Randy Foye. His development as the team’s starting point guard has not only helped improve the on-court communication between players, but it has helped Coach Saunders better implement his championship-caliber coaching philosophy. In the eight games that Foye has played since taking over the starting point guard duties, he has led the team in assists in all but one game, en route to averaging 6.6 assists and 19.5 points in those games. As Foye becomes more comfortable and confident with his new role, Ernie Grunfeld’s off-season move to acquire him looks even better than it did when it was made. “I think that, for me, being on the bench for some time, I got a chance to watch,” said Foye. “I was like a sponge. I try to do anything I can to help the team win, whether that’s guarding someone, rebounding, passing, or scoring. Whoever’s got it going, that’s who I try to get the ball to. If I come off and I’m open, I’ll let it go. My mindset is just to sit back and look at the whole picture and then go from there.”

Washington has also been aided by the expanding versatility of Brendan Haywood’s game. His shooting percentage of .538 is the highest that it’s been since the 2006-2007 season. The longest-tenured Wizard, Haywood is averaging 10.9 rebounds per game this season, the highest of his career and the first time he has averaged double digits in that category. Haywood is also ranked fourth in the league in blocked shots with 87, and Haywood’s 34.0 minutes per game marks the first time that he has averaged over 30 in his career. “He’s been doing a great job rebounding,” said Antawn Jamison. “Of course, he’s the captain on the defensive end, and he’s really come into his own offensively. Teams really have to pay attention to him when he has the ball, as well. He definitely has opened up the paint a lot because of his play. He’s been doing a phenomenal job as far as rebounding and being a force on both ends of the floor.”

Behind Jamison’s leadership, Foye’s unselfishness, Butler’s consistency, and Haywood’s versatility, Washington is focused on taking advantage of their remaining four home games this month. With controversy behind them, improving health and the establishment of defined roles, the Wizards have the opportunity to leap frog their way into the playoffs.

As Dallas Mavericks Head Coach Rick Carlisle puts it, “They have a good complement of guys and you can tell that they like playing together by watching the games. I personally think that they are going to hang around in the playoff race.”