Hex on Wizards only gets worse

NBA: The coach tries to be upbeat, but Washington is in a 7-31 free fall and on pace for the worst season in franchise history.

Pro Basketball

January 14, 2001|By Milton Kent | By Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - The scene was a Wednesday night early this month, but it could have been virtually any other night over the course of the 11-week-old season.

Leonard Hamilton, coach of the Washington Wizards, walked wearily into a room of reporters, looked at the night's box score, ran a hand across his closely cropped pate, exhaled deeply and proceeded to field questions about the team's latest failure.

On that particular night, the topic of conversation was a three-point loss to Seattle at MCI Center. But in what has become a horrific season of losses, even for a franchise that has come to define mediocrity, Hamilton's words were consistent from the times before.

"We're not going to get frustrated. We have really come together as a unit. We're determined. We'll make mistakes, but we encourage each other, and we don't play selfish, and they play with heart. We're not going to back away. We know the challenge in front of us. We'll figure out a way to overcome it," said Hamilton.

The evidence, however, suggests the misery will continue.

The Wizards, the first team in the NBA to reach 30 losses this season, are 7-31 and on track to finish 15-67, which would be the worst mark in franchise history, supplanting the 1961-62 Chicago Packers, who were 18-62.

At the current pace, the Wizards would win three fewer games over an 82-game schedule than they did in the strike-shortened 50-game 1998-99 season.

The Wizards' sorrow is embodied in a hail of negative statistics:

The team is tied for 23rd among the 29 NBA teams in points scored per game (90.3) and is 24th in points allowed (97.4).

The Wizards shoot just 43.1 percent from the field, tied for 21st in the league, but allow opponents to hit 45.3 percent, 24th worst.

Only Houston (38.3 percent) allows teams to hit for a better percentage from three-point range than Washington (38.0).

The Wizards' 17.6 turnovers a game also rank next to last, just ahead of Cleveland.

Perhaps most damaging, the Wizards have lost 16 games by 10 or more points. Only Chicago, which Washington has battled to avoid the worst record in the league for the past few weeks, has been blown out more times (19). The Wizards have been involved in only two games decided by three points or fewer, including Wednesday's 104-101 loss to Seattle.

`Inferior talent'

"You have the uphill battle of inferior talent, and you're asking for a miracle, because we've only played 2 1/2 months," said Hubie Brown, television analyst with Turner and a former NBA coach. "If the coaching staff is good, and the philosophy is good, and you can move the dead weight, and the people you keep are hard-working on a daily basis, playing to potential, then you've got a chance. But it's just not one thing."

And yet, amid all that gloom exists hope, stubborn in the face of all the losing perhaps but persistent nonetheless, that all of the suffering will end soon enough.

"We're feeling like we're playing better, and we're hoping we can put a stretch together where we get some wins," said backup point guard Chris Whitney. "We have a lot of guys [who] don't believe that we're out of anything yet. There are some leaders here, and we tend to feed off that. That's the way it is."

Of course, it wasn't supposed to be this way.

Sure, the team went 29-53 in 1999-2000 - its third straight non-playoff season and 11th with a losing record in the past 13 - and came into this season with essentially the same personnel and a new coach, Hamilton, who had never coached professionally.

But this Wizards team would be different, the operating theory went, because it would be the first full season that Michael Jordan, the new president of basketball operations, would put his personal stamp and his own brand of magic on the moribund franchise.

And Jordan, two years removed from winning his sixth championship, fueled the optimism by declaring that the team would at least get to .500 and challenge for a playoff spot. When the Wizards beat Charlotte, 95-77, on the road in their second game, there was perhaps a reason to believe in a change.

But it didn't take long for things to revert to form.

By mid-December, the Wizards had endured five- and nine-game losing strings, which included double-digit losses at home to New Jersey and Atlanta, two of the Eastern Conference's weakest teams.

The worst indignity, with Jordan in attendance, came in a home game Dec. 6 against the Los Angeles Clippers, the NBA's poster children for bad play. Washington - after leading by 21 in the third quarter, 16 with 10 minutes to go, and 10 with six minutes remaining - lost, 93-88.

Jordan, who has been criticized for failing to attend many games in person, blistered the team privately in the locker room, then blistered the players publicly.

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