The list of compelling story lines for this NBA season was threatening to include the first step toward a Washington Wizards revival.
Providing the major excuse for such optimism was the draft-lottery-night triumph that dovetailed nicely with John Wall’s decision to leave the University of Kentucky after one Dougie-crazed season. With speedy point guards now employed by several fine teams, Wall represented the Wizards’ opportunity to build an actual future.
And there was additional evidence of a potential uprising.
Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee were tall and talented (still are), Nick Young was a rising threat from the two-guard spot and card sharp Gilbert Arenas was promising to play nice alongside Wall.
But the Wizards have hit a few snags. Injury has kept Wall out of 12 games, Arenas wasn’t producing and was shipped to Orlando for Rashard Lewis, and those tall, talented guys have been a bit light on consistency. Yet the team has been reasonably entertaining for the home fans, winning 10 of 18 games inside the Verizon Center.
Unfortunately, those roaming charges are brutal. With Thursday’s loss to the Timberwolves in Minnesota, the Wizards are winless in 19 road games this season. That’s impressive. So is the list of cities in which they’ve managed to lose. The hometowns for these slouch teams are Detroit, Sacramento, Newark, Charlotte, Philadelphia and, of course, Minneapolis. Quite a gauntlet.
How can this happen?
Start with experience. Yeah, the Wizards are pretty young. They have a rookie point guard, which often is a head start . . . in reverse. Young and three-man Al Thornton are in their fourth seasons, McGee is 22 and Blatche, though he’s in his sixth season, is still a baby at 24.
OK, so the Wizards, who also have a couple of rookies playing reserve roles up front, are loaded with kids. And kids struggle on the road; imagine coach Phil Saunders driving his team cross country in a station wagon with Wall, McGee and Blatche roughhousing in the back seat and shouting “Are we there yet?” every 10 minutes.
Saunders and the Wizards aren’t even close to there. And even though they aren’t the only NBA team overloaded with whippersnappers, the Wizards are the only franchise to have gone winless on the road this season. In Thursday’s loss to the young T-Wolves, veterans Kirk Hinrich and Lewis were on the floor during Minnesota’s game-closing 19-3 run.
So what gives?
Well, aside from not exactly being a great team in the first place, our launch point for studying the Wizards’ road predicament is � drum roll � the schedule. Washington’s first five road dates were the Orlando Magic, Atlanta Hawks, New York Knicks, Chicago Bulls and Boston Celtics.
Those are five of the top six teams in the Eastern Conference. Losing those games is expected. But the road-losing habit was just warming up when the Wizards hit Detroit without Wall and lost. He also wasn’t in uniform when the Wizards reached Sacramento for a showdown with the Kings, whom Washington should’ve been able to compete with on the road.
By then, the Wizards had quite a road-kill streak going. Having Wall on the floor helps, but it doesn’t eliminate the biggest issue, the snowball effect.
The snowball effect often has a great psychological impact on sports: A team that has learned how to fail at something specific has a greater opportunity to repeat that failure. Take the Wizards’ 19-3 collapse in Minnesota, a stretch in which the Wizards actually ran their sets and came up with decent looks � and still missed.
Included in the snowball effect is the hero crisis, an affliction that often appears when several well-meaning players attempt to rescue a struggling team singlehandedly. Wall, Young and Hinrich all have been guilty of trying too hard to make big plays with road games on the line.
The snowball effect isn’t easy to overcome. It greatly assisted the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers, whose 9-73 masterpiece included a road record of 2-36 (they played 13 games at neutral sites). The 1992-93 Dallas Mavericks finished with a 4-37 road mark, and the 1997-98 Denver Nuggets were 2-39 away from home. The Sacramento Kings lost 43 road games in a row, including the final 37 of the 1990-91 campaign and the first six away games the next season.
As the Wizards’ road nightmare continues, they draw even closer to those stars of dubious NBA history.
But there is something that might be able to prevent the snowball from rolling. On Feb. 13, the Wizards roll into Cleveland.