A Ghost of a Chance
With Two All-Stars Out for Playoffs, Wizards’ Hopes Appear Greatly Diminished
When Caron Butler broke his hand and Gilbert Arenas buckled to the floor with a knee injury early this month, the Washington Wizards stumbled into a conundrum few teams in professional sports have ever had to face: They were forced to shut down and reboot with most of the season already complete.
Nearly everything that worked during the first five months of the season — and produced enough victories that the Wizards could not slip out of playoff contention — had to be tossed aside.
NBA teams have lost key players before the postseason or during the playoffs, but a team losing two of its best appears to be unprecedented. “I can’t remember two allstars going down this late in the season,” TNT analyst and five-time NBA champion Steve Kerr said.
In 1989, the Los Angeles Lakers swept each playoff opponent in the first three rounds, then lost the league’s most valuable player, Magic Johnson, and Byron Scott to hamstring injuries and were swept in the NBA Finals against Detroit.
The New York Knicks lost franchise center and leading scorer Patrick Ewing to an Achilles’ injury during the 1999 Eastern Conference finals against Indiana. The Knicks, however, rallied to defeat the Pacers in six games before losing to San Antonio in five games in the NBA Finals.
And two years ago, the Chicago Bulls lost leading scorer Eddy Curry to an irregular heartbeat and fourth-leading scorer Luol Deng to a wrist surgery in April. The Bulls still finished the regular season strongly, won home-court advantage in a first-round series against the Wizards, and took the first two games before losing in six.
Asked to compare the situations last week, Bulls General Manager John Paxson said: “We were not replacing two all-stars, especially one who was a top five scorer in the league like Gilbert. We had to win that whole year playing as a group regardless of
who was on the floor,” Paxson said. “I think that philosophy served us well because we were not reliant on that one player to bail us out in critical situations.”
“It’s hard,” Wizards Coach Eddie Jordan said. “It’s hard for us to wean ourselves from Gil. It’s hard for us to wean ourselves from Caron. It’s almost a new way of playing for us.”
Possibly the only advantage the Wizards have going for them is that they have three more games (including today’s contest against the Bulls) to establish a new identity before heading into the playoffs. Jordan is still figuring out the limitations of the Wizards’ current incarnation. During their recent sixgame losing streak, the Wizards played several close games. The process of finding a go-to guy in the closing seconds has been excruciating — and has yet to be resolved.
“Sometimes I didn’t know what to expect from Gil. [But] you sort of had the feeling he was always going to come with it,” Jordan said with a laugh. “What I expect [now] is a team that is going to try to execute exactly what we want to do.”
Miami Heat Coach Pat Riley, who coached that 1989 Lakers team, said the challenge of motivat- ing a team in such a dire situation is difficult. “I know for them it’s devastating because it was two of their best young players,” he told reporters last week in Miami. “You just say, ‘Who’s next?’ and you do the best you can and you don’t get down on yourself and you hope somebody steps up at the end of the day.”
That isn’t always enough, former Lakers forward A.C. Green said last week. “It’s like going into a fight when you were in middle school against the neighborhood bully without your big brother behind you. . . . It has a great effect on you when your guys go down. Your first instinct is to step up, to rise up. Your competitive juice is the first thing that triggers when you’re at the level that you’re at in terms of being a professional. But the human nature side is, ‘Man, how are we going to do this now?’ It’s totally deflating.”
Losing Ewing and changing playing styles actually worked in the Knicks’ favor during the 1999 conference finals because they exploited the Pacers’ starting lineup of 30somethings with the speed and athleticism of Latrell Sprewell and Marcus Camby and the outside shooting of Allan Houston. “In some ways [the Knicks] were more difficult for us to guard because when they played smaller they put us in a tougher position defensively — and that’s not to take anything away from Ewing because he’s a great player. Their quickness was an issue for us,” said Pacers Coach Rick Carlisle, who was an assistant under Larry Bird that season. “I wouldn’t say we took them lightly in ’99, but they got on a terrific run and it was one of those special times for their team.”
That special time ended, though, when the Knicks faced Tim Duncan and David Robinson in the Finals. “Obviously, [Duncan and Robinson] had a big advantage not having to go against New York’s best center,” said Kerr, then a reserve guard for the Spurs. “It’s not something that you rely on, but you definitely jump on the opportunity. There is not a lot of sympathy involved here.”
Kerr added that the playoff prospects of any NBA team losing two all-stars this late in the season are dreadful but not hopeless. “More than anything, the team has to say: ‘Let’s go have some fun. Let’s play. Let’s see what happens,’ ” Kerr said. “You never know. But in some ways the pressure is off. They need to use that to their advantage. Throw caution to the wind and let it fly. All the pressure is on the opposition.”