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Wizards: 0111012

There is a chance Michael Lee not a particularly observant spectator.

A mere four sentences in to his recap of the Wizards loss to the Timberwolves, he reports that "Coach Flip Saunders helplessly searched for a player who would at least show mock interest in competing". Garbage. And I will name names.

The list starts with Chris Singleton. Unmentioned in the article, Singleton, with the help of Rashard Lewis's absence, (Also unmentioned in the article. These were the two most remarkable things from the game.) started his first career NBA game after doing more than compete in each home game this season. He flusters a variety of opponents on the defensive end in the SF to G slots and passes the ball on offense.

The list does not include Andray Blatche, who, as best as I can tell, does not like playing basketball and isn't particularly good at anything other than being appropriately sized and wanting to score. Noncontextually, of course.

The list includes John Wall, whose one-man fastbreak layups are not only the best offensive option the Wizards possess, but they are his inexplicable otherworldy talent. This is what is worth watching about Wall. This is his gift. He will take the ball from below the defensive FT line, look upcourt, see 3-4 defenders and 1-2 teammates and proceed beat them all to the basket. John Wall + Water = Fast Break.

The list does not include Jordan Crawford. He's like a cross between Andray Blatche and Jamal Crawford. Except without Jamal's ability to get scorching hot or Blatche's ability to collect rebounds by default.

The list includes JaVale McGee. This guy is a true NBA center. He's, admittedly, still developing moves other than "Fake to the lane, pivot to the baseline and out-freak-athlete the defender toward the rim somehow", but he blocks shots, rebounds, runs the floor and finishes at the rim. Plus the announcer loves his name.

The list includes Nick Young. I know it looks like he isn't trying. And his chronic inability to pass to the wide-open player is spellbinding. The thing is, he simply doesn't do either of those things. He also doesn't play defense. He is, however, the most reliable isolation scoring option on the team. He can score buckets against NBA-level defenders. He cannot read a defense and make decisions. One-on-one, he's a tough cover. Oh, and he's constantly using his lack of obvious effort to trick you into a cheap turnover or two.

The list includes Booker, Seraphin, Mason and Mack. They're all good. None of them seem particularly great at anything. They don't stand out, but they can play. They don't know when it is their turn and when it is someone else's turn, but they're not black holes on offense, and they're not terrible at defense. They are system guys. They have to be taught the O and D and how to make decisions based on the system, rather than what they are individually thinking. Heck, McGee, Singleton and Wall are ALL system players in a half-court offense. They do each shine at other individual aspects of the game though.

The list does not include Flip Saunders. He has a young athletic team which thrives on being aggressive. To wit:

1. The 10 blocked shots by the Wizards against the Timberwolves.
2. The Wizards lead the league in blocked shots and average 3.25 more blocks than their opponents per game.
3. The Wizards are 8th in the league in total steals and outsteal their opponents by 2.38 per game, good for 4th best in the league.

I don't mean to suggest that the Wizards are particularly good at defense. That would be dumb: They are giving up the 4th most points per game in the league, and are being outrebounded by 8 per game, the worst in the league. Sure, this has to do with their lack of an actual PF who beats the piss out of his opponents down low to compliment McGee's athleticism, but it also has to do with a lack of belief. To commit yourself to rebounding is to commit yourself to punishment and redemption. You must believe that even though your idiot teammate can't shoot, that you'll give up your body and the team will do better with this extra possession. You must believe that even though your opponent got off a shot, they missed it and now you will give up your body so that the team will score on offense.

The Wizards, as a collective, totally lack this belief.
Individually, players believe they can score. Systemically, they do not. They do not believe that they get easy buckets from their offense, because they don't. The ball stops at inappropriate times and continues at worse. The players run the plays, but they don't know what, exactly, is supposed to come out of them.

On the other hand, they go on runs. They get a generate a couple of steals/blocks back-to-back and Wall generates a couple of one-man fastbreaks. The pace of the game increases. The heartrate in the building and the opponents goes up.
They show off how athletic they are by taking risks and covering for each other. Steals and blocks indicate activity and effort.

Then the Wizards lose hope. Blatche tries to ride someone else's fire. Crawford self-immolates. Someone other than Nick Young tries to create on offense. (I'm looking at YOU, Singleton and Wall.) JaVale doesn't jump for a board. They lose belief in their ability to compete.

This team needs to play faster. This team needs to press. This team needs to gamble. This team, the youngest team in the league, needs to run their opponents out of the gym. They need to run into their opponents on fastbreaks. They need to run right up their defender's chest on the break. They need to never be in a half-court offense. They need to learn the slow break to compliment the fast break. The best way to forget about failure is to move on to the next act as quickly as possible.

This team needs to know their roles. They do not. They are all alternately overreaching and under-efforting. Taking it easy during the parts of the game they need to work harder and putting too much on their own shoulders when they need to share the load. These are things a coach teaches them to do.

When I first started watching the Wizards this season, Flip Saunders looked like he was in his first season. I was shocked to learn that he's been here for years. Then, I read Mike Wise's piece on the Wizards being "dismal by design" which inexplicably exonerates Saunders from any wrong-doing. While the piece does succinctly recap what, exactly, led to this team being 0-8 over the years, it paints a picture of Flip painfully sitting on the sideline while Blatche says crazy shit, JaVale says ignorant shit and players-only meetings are the end of the world. Well, Blatche is lost on this team, JaVale is trying to be friendly while playing rather well, and player-only meetings are just meetings.

Then Mr. Wise plays a quick round of the Blame Game, as if something like an 0-8 start can be directed at an individual. The problem is systemic. The players do not believe in their system, Flip is powerless in Leonsis&Grunfeld's system, Leonsis&Grunfeld system is built within the league system which works over years rather than games.

Flip is therefore one who must change his system. He has already lost the ability to make these players believe that they can compete. As he was quoted in Mr. Lee's article, "You can't give 82 Knute Rockne speeches every night." Yes, I agree. The issue is that speeches, while they can pull deeply-felt truths to the surface, cannot create belief. In competition, success creates belief. With the Wizards, Mr. Saunders has not created success. No, 49-123 is not all his fault, as Mr. Wise adeptly explains on his behalf. It is, however, the record the Wizards see when they look at their coach as well as the record they feel in the ruts of the offensive and defensive strategies they implement.

The Wizards do not have hope, redemption, faith, belief or science to cling to. They simply need change. They need something exciting. They need new traditions. Dig out that old full and 3/4 court press. Opponents are scoring just fine, maybe they'll be caught off-guard. Drop into some trap-zone and trap-man looks in the half court. Losses don't come by much more than 13 pts per night, which leads the league. Convince your opponents to sign the turnover compact and plot a more variable course for the evening. Bring out an irrational box-and-one or a goofy 2-2-1. Increase the total number of possessions in the game for both teams by encouraging quicker shots on both ends with defensive gambles matched with a constant dead sprint on offense. More possessions equals more steals and more blocks. More abrupt changes from half-court defense to full-court offense. More running, more gunning. There is literally nowhere to go but up.

This is the turnaround moment in the movie. The moment when the old ball coach tries something new, or the moment when the old ball coach is fired for a new experimental ball coach. This is when we receive grainy footage transmitted by slightly arcane technology of something fresh, yet totally ancient. An inspiration for a group of rebels, waging an uneven war. Mobilizing the youth to believe in an iconic, photogenic leader. Decked out in an interpretation of the colors of his home nation's flag: Red, white and blue.

No, not President Obama in 2008 as HOPE for the legions who had not felt their vote mattered before him. A reference far more lasting:

"Help me Obi-[J]an, you're my only hope."

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