Monday November 24th, 2008

Why was Eddie Jordan fired by the Washington Wizards on Monday, just two months after the team picked up his contract option for the 2009-10 season? That's easy: defense.

Jordan is regarded by most league insiders as a polished offensive coach. As an assistant, he was credited with developing the offense that helped the New Jersey Nets advance to back-to-back NBA Finals, beginning in '02. His schemes were brilliant: using the Princeton offense as a template, Jordan's plays were fluid and spread the metaphorical wealth evenly among stars such as Jason Kidd, Kerry Kittles, Kenyon Martin and Richard Jefferson.

Jordan had similar success after he took over the Wizards, who, when healthy, were regularly among the NBA's best offensive units. His brilliance, however, did not translate defensively. As disciplined and effective as Washington was on offense, it was equally as disorganized and mediocre on defense. Whether in halfcourt or transition, opponents rarely struggled to score against a Washington team that appeared to have the size and skill to be stingier. In '06-07, Washington surrendered a whopping 104.9 points per game. And that was a playoff team.

Washington's defensive deficiencies were not lost on Wizards management, particularly GM Ernie Grunfeld. According to league sources, Washington had considered firing Jordan on several occasions, including early in the '06-07 season, just a few months after he signed a new three-year, $12 million contract. Among the team's concerns was Jordan's propensity to spend most of Washington's practices working on the offense.

In fact, when Washington did step up its defense, Jordan didn't receive much credit. Last season the Wizards were downright stingy, giving up 99.2 points per game, the 12th-best average in the league. However, assistant coach Randy Ayers, a defensive specialist who was hired the previous offseason, was given the bulk of the praise for that turnaround.

A return to Washington's sieve-like form this season may have been the straw that broke the camel's back. Washington's perimeter defense has been downright pathetic (the gun-from-anywhere Knicks connected on 29 threes in two games against Washington this year). In 11 games this season, 10 of which it lost, Washington gave up 103.5 points on 47.5 percent shooting.

With Jordan gone, it increases the possibility that Gilbert Arenas, recovering from his third knee surgery, and Brendan Haywood, who has been out since training camp with a wrist injury, will not play this season. Arenas' original target return date of Dec. 1 is a pipe dream, and even if he were healthy enough to come back in, say, February, the Wizards might soon decide not to risk his long-term health on a lost season.

Arenas has gone on record as saying a high lottery pick might be "for the better" for the Wizards. In the long run, Washington may benefit from continuing to develop prolific second-year-guard Nick Young. Haywood, who was expected to miss 4-6 months, may be given a similar reprieve as the Wizards continue to bring along promising rookie center JaVale McGee.

Ed Tapscott, the team's former director of player development, will take over for Jordan, but Grunfeld will conduct a national search -- one that could end with Avery Johnson. The former Mavs coach is just the defensive taskmaster Grunfeld is looking for and he would change the mindset of a team that, if healthy, would be considered a contender in the Eastern Conference next season.

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