It was a typical pre-game scene for the Washington Wizards, a team with a well earned reputation for having one of the loosest locker rooms in the league. Laying on a training table in the middle of the visiting locker room, Caron Butler peered over the shoulder of Wizards trainer Eric Waters to observe reserve forward Oleksiy Pecherov shoveling an orange into his mouth.
"Man, why are you eating oranges right now?" asked Butler.
"I like them," said Pecherov. "They're good for me."
"How about chewing them?" replied Butler.
"I am chewing them," said Pecherov.
"No," JaVale McGee chimed in from the other side of the room. "Three bites and swallowing does not equal chewing."
It's wasn't exactly a line that will earn McGee a spot at Catch A Rising Star, but it was funny enough to spark a smattering of laughter throughout the locker room. That's the way the Wizards are. They goof off. They have fun. They genuinely enjoy each other. They are the Cheers gang with hops. And in previous seasons, that was fine. They were winners.
But this season, they are losers. Big losers. Bad News Bears-type losers. Wednesday night's loss to Boston dropped Washington to 19-63 on the season, a tie for the worst record in the team's history
"This is the worst season I have ever been a part of," said forward AntawnJamison. "Even though we had a lot of injuries, we had enough talent to play better than what we have."
Talent isn't an issue in Washington. The Wizards have scoring (Gilbert Arenas, Butler, Jamison, Nick Young), rebounding (Brendan Haywood, Etan Thomas) and shot blocking (Haywood, McGee). But as Jamison alluded to, keeping them on the floor and out of the training room has been the problem. Over the last two seasons, Washington has been home to the world's most expensive M.A.S.H. unit. Three knee surgeries have forced Arenas to miss 149 games over the last two years. Thomas missed all of last season with after undergoing open heart surgery, and Haywood missed the first 75 games of this season with a broken wrist.
"An unbelievable number of injuries," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers.
Presumably the Wizards will have a complete roster when training camp opens in October. They will have Arenas, who had no setbacks after playing two games this month and says his goals going into next season are to develop as a point guard (he had a 20 assists to one turnover in his two games this season) and to lead the NBA in triple-doubles.
The Wizards will have a high lottery pick, which could yield prized forward Blake Griffin or intimidating center Hasheem Thabeet. And they will have a new coach in Flip Saunders; multiple team sources confirmed published reports that Saunders will be hired to replace Ed Tapscott sometime this week. Saunders is a brilliant offensive mind -- his playbook is the size of an encyclopedia -- whose Detroit teams were strong defensively and who brings the credibility that comes with coaching in four conference finals.
"Hands down, just with everybody healthy, this is a playoff caliber team," said Jamison. "The biggest question is going to be, 'is this a championship caliber team?' Is this a contender? Are we going to be the type of team that can honestly contend for a championship and come out of the East? Are we going to have the mindset to sacrifice for the sake of the team to achieve the ultimate goal? Good questions, and very important ones."
Both Jamison and Arenas point to the development of the Wizards young talent as the key to Washington's success next season. While Young, McGee and Andray Blatche have shown the ability to be quality role players, they have been inconsistent. Young can be a Jason Terry-type combo guard off the bench, but teammates worry about Young's lack of intensity some nights. Blatche has proven he can be a double-figure scorer one night (as he was 37 times this season) while completely disappearing the next.
Jamison says, to keep everyone on the same page, the youngsters should spend a few days a month working out with the veterans in D.C.
"We got to work," said Jamison. "[The younger players] don't have an identity. There is a certain work ethic you got to have. The coaching staff is going to have to get on them. They have been [at] a nice bed and breakfast the last couple of seasons. We've messed with too many people's livelihoods the last couple of years. It's time to own up to the importance of [their] role with this team."
Said Arenas, "It's going to be a very challenging summer for everybody. All we can do is go into the summer and try to perfect our games as much as we can. Like I told Nick, keep that killer instinct all the time. JaVale, he has to work on his post moves. We have to get better."