Thursday December 11th, 2008

More frightening than the defense of the Celtics, the depth of the Lakers or the relentless improvement of LeBron James was the 1-10 start of the Wizards. When Eddie Jordan was fired last month after a loss to the depleted, seven-man roster of the Knicks, his fellow coaches were reminded of the awful truth: All NBA teams are fragile, and injuries can undo any club.

The Wizards can't do anything about their poor health other than to keep rehabbing in hopes that Gilbert Arenas will come back from his latest knee surgery in January and Brendan Haywood will return from wrist surgery a month later. Interim coach Ed Tapscott has emphasized defense while focusing on simpler principles and holding his players accountable, as he did last week from his sideline the instant Andray Blatche missed an assignment during a loss to the Lakers. "It's nothing personal,'' Tapscott said afterward about his pulling aside the 22-year-old forward; Blatche needed to understand his mistake so he could correct it the next time.

The Wizards have tried to make the best of Haywood's absence by replacing him with 7-foot rookie Javale McGee, a skinny 20-year-old shot-blocker who outruns most centers and shoots a surprising step-back 18-footer. On Wednesday, they dealt 33-year-old guard Antonio Daniels to New Orleans as part of a three-team trade that gave them second-year point guard Javaris Crittenton from Memphis as well as Hornets veteran Mike James. Yet the Wizards aren't looking to cash out and begin rebuilding for next year.

"Making the playoffs is always a goal,'' said team president Ernie Grunfeld, who isn't ready to sacrifice Washington's streak of four postseasons. "It's a long season, and we're trying to change some things.''

The differences include spending more practice time on defense than on offense. The Wizards are installing more screens in place of Jordan's Princeton-based offense, which relies on handoffs and perimeter play around the elbows.

"It didn't take one day to get us to where we were, and it's not going to take us one day to get out of where we were,'' said Grunfeld, which is as close as he will come to criticizing Jordan (who should be among the leading head-coaching candidates next summer after going 171-157 over the last four playoff years). "In the middle of the season, without having a training camp and only having three or four practices, you can't completely change everything.''

Tapscott is among the league's more erudite coaches, a fluid communicator who speaks off the cuff as if reading from a script. A longtime colleague and friend of Grunfeld's going back to their days together with the Knicks in the 1990s, Tapscott has worked every job in the NBA from scout to general manager to team president to director of player development/programs, which was his title with the Wizards before he replaced Jordan. He has a chance to extend his latest occupation beyond this season because he does, after all, inherit a couple of All-Star forwards in Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler.

"I called them in on the first day and I said, 'Fellas, I'm no genius at this, there are no geniuses at this,' '' Tapscott said of his meeting with Jamison and Butler. '"But I will tell you what I believe. Very simply, I believe in putting the best players on the floor, and in having the best of the best shoot. So that's what we're going to do: We're going to run this through you because I trust you guys and we're going to work and develop a rapport.'

"I said, 'I don't think any coach in this league can have success if he doesn't have a rapport with his best players. So we're going to meet periodically and we're going to talk about the team in a sort of global-culture sense, because you'll be as much a part of setting that as I will.''

Tapscott was asked last week how often he was meeting with his stars. "I've been here a week, so I've only met with them once,'' he said. "I don't want to give them too much of a chance to dislike me.''

The Wizards were 3-5 under Tapscott heading into Thursday's home game against the Celtics, with all but one of the losses by six points or fewer.

"We try to set the example on and off the court,'' Butler said of himself and Jamison. "Going to practice early, getting up shots, showing the guys how to prepare for the game mentally and physically.''

Said Jamison: "It's not over with. We dug ourselves a hole, but the one thing I keep saying is let's not dig it any deeper. Right now, it's not impossible. If you look at the standings, there are a lot of teams that are right at .500, so if you win six or seven in a row, you can turn your fortunes around quickly.''

The 4-15 Wizards woke up Thursday trailing the No. 8 Bulls by five games, with the likelihood that a .500 record or worse could make the playoffs.

"That's the one positive thing about it is that it happened early, so you still can find a way to turn things around, you still can find ways to improve on mistakes and get back in the winning column,'' Jamison said. "For us it needs to happen soon; if it doesn't, we can really dig ourselves a hole that we can't get out of.''

Which is to say they can't just wait for Arenas on the chance that he may solve their problems next month.

The Lakers have been slumping on defense. After holding their first seven opponents to fewer than 100 points, they've yielded 100 or more in six of their last eight games while surrendering a combined 231 points in losses to the Pacers and Kings. They rank 14th overall in scoring defense at 97.6 points per game, though they're still outscoring opponents by an impressive 10.7 points (which ranks second only to the Cavaliers at 13.4).

The Lakers stumbled toward the end of last season defensively before improving in the Western Conference playoffs. Then they ran into the moving wall of the champion Celtics, who set the highest standard during the NBA Finals.

"Their defense is tough,'' Kobe Bryant said, "and so we understand if we want to win a championship, our defense had better be just as tough.''

The Lakers should be better this year with the return of center Andrew Bynum to protect the basket alongside power forward Pau Gasol. Coach Phil Jackson likes the dynamic developing between his 7-footers.

"The idea of who's going to block and who's going to rebound is quite easy for them,'' Jackson said. "It's a lot easier than I thought. A lot of times big guys have a tendency to go over and block, and now the ball goes over the top and there's an easy rebound [for the opponent] on the other side. But he and Andrew have worked it out really well.''

While other teams are losing money and lack direction, the Hornets are -- for the moment at least -- a franchise of remarkable stability in the second year of their return to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.

Chris Paul remains among the league's most valuable young stars, and the 12-6 Hornets are off to the same start that led them to the Western semifinals and a near series victory against the reigning champion Spurs last season. Even more impressive is the absence of speculation about their departure from New Orleans. An option in their lease would have allowed them to escape if they failed to average 14,735 fans from December 2007 through the end of this season. But the success of last year has resulted in the sale of close to 11,000 season tickets and average attendance of 16,612 this season, effectively extending the Hornets' lease with New Orleans Arena to 2014.

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