It’s only two games. It’s only two games. It’s only two games.
Yes, of course, when you’re talking about 2.4 percent of an 82-game season, there’s no need to get in a big uproar when it’s two games up, two losses down. Or is it? Maybe just a mild disturbance is adequate. Warn friends, family and other Wizards fans, but don’t push the panic button.
Why? Well, there’s the injury narrative. John Wall and Nene are hurt. We don’t exactly know how badly they are hurt, and we don’t know when they are coming back. With both, the Wizards are a significantly better team. But what appears to look good on paper is as uncertain as their injuries—Wall, provided he doesn’t have a setback, is scheduled to return in December, and Nene, well, he’s out indefinitely—which leads to the usual trepidation with this franchise. But, all teams deal with injuries, and you move forward with the players you have.
Here’s the problem: the two newest veteran players, the duo that’s making a combined $20 million this season—Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor—are not pulling their weight. It’s only been two games, but who, exactly, are the Wizards trying to sell that to? The media? The fans? Themselves? I certainly hope not.
“It’s only been two games” works well in a ‘we are athletes, and we can only go to the next one’ type of manner, because it’s true. Watch film, adjust, play ball, move on. “It’s only two games” doesn’t work if players start to actually believe it. It doesn’t work if they are not establishing a sense of urgency that translates into the tangible—hustle plays, rebounds, tenacious defense. And that’s exactly where the Wizards need to be. Without Wall, without Nene, they can’t afford to operate under anything but a sense of urgency. Two games turns to four, then to six, then to eight, and so on. Then how deep will the hole be when the horses return? Someone, somewhere once said that if you’re in a hole, stop digging.
After practice on Monday, Trevor Ariza said it’s never taken him this long to adjust to a new team; he’s now with his sixth franchise in nine NBA seasons. Through seven preseason games and two regular season games with Washington, Ariza is shooting 18-for-67 from the floor (26.9 %) and 6-for-24 from the 3-point line (25%); his career averages are 43 percent and 31.8 percent respectively. Maybe the shooting will come, but more concerning is the fact that Ariza has looked lost, showing waning interest in defensive stances and rebounding. Ariza turned 27 in June. Is he really that much of a step slower than the 35-year old Paul Pierce as it appeared on Saturday night, when Pierce often easily lost Ariza in off-ball action, leaving the Wizard forward grasping for jersey?
“He’s just got to worry about two things: he can defend multiple positions, and he can rebound and he can run. That’s all I care about seeing him do right now,” said Randy Wittman about Ariza on Monday—coach-speak about an observed drifter, if you will.
“I think if you just concentrate on that rather than so many other things, then it simplifies, and now you get into a little bit of a rhythm. Bradley (Beal), the same thing. Bradley’s playing with no rhythm to his game,” said the coach, also saying that Beal can’t afford to play 22 minutes and only muster a single rebound like he did against Boston. Beal, another early-season drifter who needs more focus, is 2-for-13 from the floor with just four rebounds in 43 minutes. Evidently part of Beal’s “rookie hazing” has been having to tie Ariza’s shoes. Um, yea… might want to stop that, pronto. The Wizards certainly don’t need Ariza tainting the 19-year old rookie with his waning confidence and words of “encouragement,” like telling Beal that it might not be his year … Yes, a mere two games in.
“Again, it’s very early in the season, and in an 82-game season, you’re not going to be ‘on’ every single one of those games. Now to make a big deal out of two, I don’t think it’s fair,” said Emeka Okafor after the Celtics loss. Okafor is less of a concern than Ariza, although Okafor may eventually be better coming off the bench as a sub, albeit an expensive one who is the second-highest paid player on the team. With a dearth of scoring from Washington’s starting five, Okafor has tried to fill the void, but with diminishing returns. He’s not a back-to-the-basket big who will draw double-teams like Kevin Seraphin, and, when faced with a one-on-one matchup, Okafor is not skilled enough to consistently produce. Rebounding, or rather, keeping opponents off the glass, is more of an issue. Okafor has been much less physically imposing than his 6-foot-10, 255-pound frame suggests.
These should be correctable mistakes, but Wizards fans have witnessed enough from the incorrigible set over the past couple of seasons (you know who). And that certainly shouldn’t taint expectations and shorten patience with newcomers. It’s just, again, with veteran players, you expect more. They should know better. Other Wiz kids should look to Ariza and Okafor for confidence, not salivating because the vets are hemorrhaging minutes. Okafor and Ariza have combined for a total of two minutes and 15 seconds (all Ariza’s) in the fourth quarter over the first two games. Don’t make a big deal about who starts? Maybe you should look at who finishes.
Wittman indicated that he would not be changing his starting lineup for Wednesday night’s return game in Boston. Makes sense. Not wholly productive to “change the lineup every other game,” as Wittman said. But also, “If it doesn’t improve, now that’s a decision I’ve got to go with. But right now, I want to have trust in them that they’re going to try to fight through and do the right things.” There are no sacred cows on Wittman’s roster, it seems.
“You can do other things, and all of a sudden—you get three, four rebounds—now you’re feeling good about yourself. Now you run, you get a layup, you get a couple free throws, that’s how you get good rhythm back,” said Wittman about his struggling players.
Sounds simple, you just gotta play ball. Take pride in hustling. Prove to the world that you aren’t a couple has-been veterans who have come to die, and get paid, by the Wizards. “It’s only two games” could be meaningless, but just as easily could be writing on the wall. The guys Ernie Grunfeld bought in to push his team to the next level have to prove their worth (and I’m not just talking dollars). That starts tonight in Boston.