Floundering Wizards make coach disappear
Years of lottery picks, salary dumps, and uniform changes have apparently done nothing to generate hope for the NBA team in the nation’s capital. It is as if the Washington Wizards are riding a bicycle with a broken chain; they keep pumping feverishly, hoping to make some progress, only to wear themselves out and not move an inch.
The Wizards are starting over again, after firing coach Flip Saunders, whose status was tenuous at best to begin the season, and replacing him on an interim basis with Randy Wittman, who was fired from his previous head coaching stop with the Timberwolves.
The problem in Washington, as it is in Toronto and Charlotte, is stagnant young talent. The Wizards are filled with prospects who would likely flourish in a more refined system, but in Washington, they are like a pack of teen-agers left to fend for themselves in a teacherless classroom.
They have spent the past two years firing spitballs at each other, so much so that even the good kids (i.e. John Wall) are taking part. Wall’s regression was so profound that Saunders had to pay with his job, because the former Kentucky star is the centerpiece of the Wizards’ rebuilding plan.
Wall’s numbers are down across the board, and he was moping and sulking during games because of large deficits, such as Monday against Philadelphia, when the Wizards trailed by as many as 30 in the first half. Saunders was fired the next morning.
The consensus among NBA experts is that the Wizards have a wealth of potential in Wall and JaVale McGee, but the rest of the crew is just not that talented or is uncoachable (Andray Blatche).
While management blamed Saunders for the team’s 2-15 start, the fans are turning on the perpetually troubled Blatche, who was booed during pregame introductions in consecutive home games and has been blamed for the team’s turmoil the past few years.
Blatche has the potential to become a front-line small forward but he has shown up to camp in less than optimal condition and continually allows opponents to pester him with mind games. The Celtics’ Kevin Garnett privately considers Blatche one of his favorite trash-talking targets because of its dramatic effect.
“Randy Wittman and Flip, I mean, they worked together,’’ Blatche said. “I can’t say that we needed a new voice. We just needed somebody to actually check us like Wittman did [after his first game as coach]. That’s what we need. You put everybody on front street and tell them about themselves and tell them what it’s going to take to win.’’
Pam McGee, JaVale’s mother and a former US Olympic team member, complained last week about the Wizards’ lack of attention toward her talented but wildly inconsistent son, and said he needed tutelage that he wasn’t receiving from the current coaching staff. During his pregame press conference when the Celtics played the Wizards Jan. 22, Boston coach Doc Rivers joked, “I am not saying anything [negative] about him, I know his mother.’’
Meanwhile, Blatche was showered with boos before that game and scored 8 points, two nights after totaling just 2 against the Nuggets.
An NBA scout who watched the Wizards said they may be the most dysfunctional young team in the league. Management is hoping the coaching change has the most effect on Wall, who has been given the mantle of team leader although he’s just three years removed from high school.
“I think for us not playing hard every night, the record we have, that puts a tough decision on the coach,’’ Wall said. “We didn’t go out there and play hard enough for him. Me and Flip had no problem. There were times when I got frustrated for not playing good. I talked to him [after the firing] and he told me the same thing - he said, ‘Just keep working hard’ - and I’m sorry that happened to him.’’
Wittman has to work to change a losing culture in a city that has been waiting two decades for a consistent winner. When Wall was drafted first and McGee emerged as a difference-making defensive center, hope soared that the Wizards would grow, as Oklahoma City and Portland did a few years ago.
Those spurts have been stunted, but Wittman believes the plan can be put back on track. It will take more than promises.
“A good man walked out the door, and it’s always hard,’’ he said. “I didn’t come here to Washington to be the head coach. As I met with a couple of players today, I told them, I would have walked with [Saunders] if I didn’t believe this team could be better than what they are.
“We have to change. I am not the miracle maker here. We have to change the outlook on how we play.’’
Said general manager Ernie Grunfeld, “We’ve said all along it’s not about wins and losses. Eight of our players are first- and second-year players. We’re trying to build a foundation.’’
Wittman will have the rest of the season to prove he can do the job, but the Wizards have to hit a home run with their next coaching hire. They desperately need a commanding and respected coach who can hold the youngsters accountable. Those are difficult to find.
HAPPY BIRTH DAY
Allen gets son, Celtics get win
Wystan Ryan Allen was born at 7:12 p.m. Thursday, about an hour before the Celtics were scheduled to take on the Magic in Orlando. Wystan’s dad, Celtics guard Ray Allen, said he found the time to watch the game, which featured one of the most stunning comebacks in team history. Allen remained in Boston nursing his jammed left ankle and attending to his wife Shannon, who delivered their fourth son.
“It’s interesting, because this is my second son [born during a season], and I was in Seattle and the team was playing in Denver and I remember having to leave the hospital to go down the street to get something to eat,’’ he said. “The game was on TV and I was trying to pick a bar that the game wasn’t on because I didn’t need to walk in and answer the question why I wasn’t on TV. That was similar to [Thursday] night.’’
Allen said the nurses wanted to get all the tests done on Wystan before tipoff as a courtesy to Ray.
“People will make you feel like you are in the wrong place when you know where you’re supposed to be, but I am like, ‘This is my job, but this is where I’m supposed to be at,’’ he said. “It’s a weird situation. You’re there for your family, but your family too you’re not there for.
“When I am watching on TV, piecing together what we’re doing, I feel like I’m not there to be able to help these guys.’’
Allen said he watched the entire game, once it was clear that the baby was fine.
“Once he was out, he was good,’’ Allen said. “He didn’t cry. He was literally just sitting there just chilling. He slept. He barely opened his eyes. I was like, ‘Man, this little guy is all right.’ He wasn’t crying.’’
The Allen family is a mainstay at home games, watching Ray’s every move. But he said he won’t push basketball or athletics on his sons.
“The one thing I won’t do with my boys is direct them,’’ he said. “I tell people all the time, I don’t want them to be like me or do what I do. I just want them to have passion for whatever it is they do.’’
That doesn’t mean Allen doesn’t want his sons to be competitive. He races them to the car and putting on their seat belts.
“In their minds, whatever they do, they want to win at,’’ he said. “If it’s education, if they want to become a doctor, whatever it is, they are going to be the best at it because they know competition and winning. Both my [older] sons hate when they lose.
“But I’ll never tell them where they should go or what they should do. They can pick that for themselves.’’
Redd feeling reborn as Sun
Over the years, ailing players have gone to Phoenix to have their careers revitalized by the Suns’ standout training staff. Grant Hill and Shaquille O’Neal are recent examples of players who sought healthy refuge in Phoenix and extended their careers.
Hill was able to revive his career with more modern treatment of his surgically repaired left ankle and O’Neal gained more flexibility in his ailing hip that caused him to miss significant time in Miami.
Michael Redd was coming off two anterior cruciate ligament tears in his left knee, and after 11 years with the Bucks, he signed with the Suns. He was an All-Star-caliber player in his prime, a pinpoint perimeter shooter who averaged at least 20 points for six straight seasons. Now he is simply trying to get healthy enough to regain a bit of that prowess. He picked Phoenix because of the positive results Hill and O’Neal had.
“Man I’m happy,’’ he said. “It’s different after being in Milwaukee for 11 years. Kind of like [Kevin Garnett] in Minnesota for all those years. Being here is a breath of fresh air. It’s been great so far. Just glad to be back in the league.’’
Redd has played in just six games since joining Phoenix, as he tries to strengthen the knee slowly to become a rotation player in the second half of the season. He scored 12 points in his Phoenix debut Feb. 12, and played four games in a stretch of six nights before taking a week off.
His jumper has been a work in progress but Redd said he is excited about playing without the fear of another knee injury.
“I’m producing good fruit since I’ve been here,’’ he said. “Things that I didn’t recognize that were wrong with my body, I recognize. It’s a lot of hard work, too. You’ve got to put the work in. But at the same time, it’s been great, a lot of individual treatment on the body. It’s a process, but I’m loving the process.’’
Redd was a protege of Ray Allen when he was drafted by the Bucks in 2000, and they have remained close. Redd said he views Allen and Hill as career role models, examples of players playing productively into their late 30s.
“Watching Steve [Nash], watching Grant, watching Ray, watching Kevin, and Paul [Pierce] performing is encouraging to me, man,’’ he said. “I’m still in the prime of my career. I’ve just got to keep working at it.
“Grant is totally inspirational to me. He told me last year when I was in Milwaukee that if I did it right, I could come back and get those years back. Watching him work out and keep his body in great shape is amazing, it definitely inspired me.’’
Redd said he briefly considered joining the Celtics, who were seeking a long-range shooter off the bench. They opted for Mickael Pietrus.
“We talked to Danny [Ainge] about the possibility of coming and I talked with a number of teams, but Phoenix ended up being the one I felt more comfortable,’’ he said. “It was a good conversation with Danny, though.’’
Tough times for James
Remember when the Celtics had former Texas forward Damion James in for a workout and considered drafting him with the 18th pick in 2010 that was used on teammate Avery Bradley?
Well, the Nets declined to offer the often-injured James a contract for his third season and he will be an unrestricted free agent. James has been troubled by foot problems the past two seasons, including a season-ending injury this year after breaking the screw in his surgically repaired foot.
Meanwhile, the Celtics took care of business last June with the third year of Bradley’s contract, so he is secure for at least another season.
The deadline to exercise the third-year option on second-year players was Wednesday.
Bobcats guard Gerald Henderson, son of the former Celtic, is a candidate for Most Improved Player, averaging 15.0 points after playing sparingly during his first two seasons . . . At Amway Center in Orlando watching the Celtics-Magic game were Yankees television play-by-play man Ken Singleton and former Red Sox outfielder Carl Everett . . . A coach to look out for is Villanova’s Jay Wright, who would draw considerable attention if he decided to pursue NBA interests . . . Toronto’s Andrea Bargnani had a serious chance at making his first All-Star Game but the former No. 1 overall pick has been bothered by a strained left calf and will miss an indefinite period of time after aggravating the injury in a double-overtime win over the Suns . . . The Bucks are reeling again after it was revealed that center Andrew Bogut will miss 2-3 months with a fractured left ankle. Bogut has played at an All-Star level when he has been physically fit the past few years, but he has missed 81 games over three years with various injuries, and the Bucks have not been able to progress from their playoff appearance two years ago . . . Free agency is still alive in the NBA because of the lockout. Kenyon Martin has about three weeks left before he is eligible to join a team, and the veteran center will be a popular choice for contenders. Martin bolted the NBA to join the Chinese Basketball Association but then quickly asked out of his contract. FIBA ruled that Martin has to wait until the Chinese season ends in mid-February to sign with a club. The Knicks and Heat are interested, and the Celtics would love to bring in Martin but could only offer the veteran’s minimum . . . The most stunning of the contract extensions for the class of 2008 was the three-year, $9 million contract given to former Ohio State player Kosta Koufos by the Nuggets, his third team. Koufos has averaged 3.3 points in his career but doesn’t turn 23 until next month. He is a big body with defensive skills, and those types come at a $3 million per year price tag.
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.