Wizards left searching for answers in a season that has disappeared

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No team in the NBA is suffering a greater shortfall this season between its October vision and its March reality than the Washington Wizards. In a town famous for broken promises, flawed potential, overspending and staggering deficits, the White House and the Capitol have nothing on what's gone on at the Verizon Center in 2008-09.

In a twist on the old joke among economists, a recession is when your neighbor's team goes in the dumpster but a depression is when the nation's team finds itself there. Especially when the truth gets juxtaposed against its, and others', expectations. A certain national sports weekly predicted that the Wizards would be the seventh-best club in the Eastern Conference. The only real caveat? Factoring in Gilbert Arenas' recovery from yet another surgery on his left knee, Sports Illustrated suggested that Washington "won't be any better than it was last year."

This was supposed to be the season in which the Wizards -- one of only two East teams (Detroit was the other) to qualify for the past four playoffs -- chased 50 victories. Instead, they're straining for 20. This was supposed to be the season after which Washington would count not just postseason games won but postseason series (the number has been stuck on one since '05, after being stuck on zero from 1982). Now it will be counting balls in the lottery hopper. This was supposed to be the season in which Eddie Jordan, the conference's All-Star coach two years ago, moved into the league's upper echelon. Not exiting stage left like that other Jordan in '03, who drove off in a convertible, top down, dobber down.

The obvious explanation has been injuries, and not just to team MVP Arenas, but to key supporting players such as center Brendan Haywood, guard DeShawn Stevenson and big man Etan Thomas. What initially was projected as a lost November in the wake of Arenas' recovery from his third knee surgery in 17 months has been season-long, and his absence (65 games) has been matched by Haywood, out all year after right wrist surgery. Stevenson has missed 33 (herniated disk surgery on March 6) and Thomas 29 (torn knee ligament).

The Wizards ranked fourth in the NBA last season in man-games lost to injuries (225) and are challenging for the top spot again. Prior to their clash Wednesday with New Orleans, the "bulletsforever.com" Web site listed the tentative starting lineup as: "PG -- Player Filling In for Injured Starter, SG -- Tough Juice (Caron Butler), SF -- Player Filling In for Injured Starter, PF -- The Last Man Standing (Antawn Jamison) and C -- Player Filling In for Injured Starter."

Granted, the Wizards only had Arenas for 13 regular-season games last year, and in those he was a bit player who averaged 11 points and sat out twice in their first-round loss to Cleveland. But such an extended absence, compounded by those of his his fallen teammates, can wreak havoc on a team's pecking order, that essential social contract from which all things (good or bad) flow. Forcing players to climb a rung or two in roles can get tricky.

"You're asking guys to probably step a little out of their skin and do stuff they're not as comfortable doing," Minnesota coach Kevin McHale said before his club faced Washington Monday."You're saying, 'Boy, we've got to make up X amount of points -- who's going to do it?' I do believe the pecking order is really, really important ... When you're in the right place in the order, you're very comfortable. When you go to move up a spot or two, and all of a sudden you're a 10-point-a-game scorer, but they're saying, 'Boy, for us to win, you've got to give us 17,' you get out of your skin a little bit."

Ed Tapscott, the personnel man who replaced Jordan as coach after Washington's 1-10 start, has used 14 starting lineups, and none with his preferred point guard or center. With Mike James out with the flu Monday, Javaris Crittenton made only the second start of his young NBA career; he got a pregame pep talk that has become all too common, head coach to elevated sub.

Said Tapscott: "You tell a guy now, 'You should relax. You're going to get plenty of minutes Stay within yourself and play your game. Know your personnel. We play through the two forwards. Your job is to make sure that they stay happy. [If] they're happy, I'm happy. And that means you're happy.'"

Happiness is not a 15-50 record, though. But Jamison and Butler at least "have kept me from going crazy," Tapscott said. Jamison is averaging 21.7 points and 9.1 rebounds, Butler 20.4 points and 6.3 assists, but it still hasn't been enough. A jet airliner can have three engines, lose one and be just fine. But a three-legged stool that loses one has a big problem. The Wizards have been more, ahem, stool.

"We know how to take on that role, as far as being that go-to guy, in certain situations," Jamison said. "But man, Gil's one of our big pieces. That's the guy who makes the team go. He's the MVP of the team. When you miss that, believe me, it's difficult to recoup. So much goes through him."

Tapscott, trying to keep focus sharp and ambitions manageable when he took over, invoked a system of evaluating the season in seven-game bites. The Wizards haven't had one yet in which they've won more than they've lost, and they're 1-4 in the current one.

With role guys such as Haywood (his size and defensive quarterbacking is a major loss), Stevenson and Thomas out, and vet Antonio Daniels traded in December, the roster quickly turns tender, with six players 23 or younger. Nick Young is the oldest of the youngsters, followed by Dominic McGuire, Oleksiy Pecherov, Andray Blatche, Crittenton and JaVale McGee. "We expected guys to pick up things on the fly," Jamison said, "but we've had to understand that not everybody can learn the game that way. It's been a lot about us learning how to communicate, get a point across to them."

McGuire, the 6-foot-9 forward from Fresno State, and the 47th pick in the '07 draft, has been a bright spot. "He's probably been the one consistent young fella we've had out there," Jamison said. "But in our situation, we take it game by game, whoever's going to step up."

A visitor to Washington's locker room Monday night revealed all sorts of roughhousing, jabbering and clowning around, and remarked that this might be the most immature post-game locker room in the league. Giddy, maybe, from a 110-99 victory over the Timberwolves? Nah, said a staffer. They're like this every night.

Soon the group will be getting younger, with one of the top spots in the draft this June. One possible selection: Oklahoma sophomore forward Blake Griffin, who -- if he comes out -- would bring size, toughness (meanness, even) and the maturity that comes with carrying a team through an extra college season.

Not a moment too soon, either. "It's frustrating for us, the last 2½ seasons, because before Gil was out, it was Caron," Jamison said. Butler missed 43 games in the two seasons prior to this one. "You haven't had the make-up of your team the way you were supposed to. It's like when you wake up, you think, 'OK, something's got to happen.' It's been very difficult just to deal with the injuries and develop the young players. It seems like it's always something going on.

"To go from the expectations of taking us to the next step to being one of the worst teams in the league is hard to fathom and hard to swallow. But we've still got a job to do, we've still got to stay upbeat."