On November 24, I was sitting at my laptop putting some of the final touches on the first set of entries for my blog. I decided that I needed to write that the Washington Wizards should fire coach Eddie Jordan and hire Jeff Van Gundy. Then, on Sportscenter, I saw that the Wizards had just fired Jordan after his team’s 1-10 start and replaced him with interim head coach Ed Tapscott, who last was a head coach in 1990 for American University.
Jordan did a good job overall, leading the Wizards to the playoffs in each of the last four seasons although the Wizards only advanced past the first round of the playoffs once, and that was in his second year. However, in his 6th season with the team, the Wizards apparently tuned Jordan out, and needed to get rid of a losing attitude. Injured all-star Gilbert Arenas said it wouldn’t be so bad if the Wizards reached the lottery. “If this is one of those years we don’t make the playoffs, we’re one of those teams that’s in last place the whole year — you know that’s what happened to San Antonio and that’s how they got Tim Duncan. If that happens with us, it’s for the better.”
This attitude of sacrificing the present for the future is a loser mindset. The Bullets already tried that around 1990 after most of the 80s being, you guessed it, just like the last 5 years – right around .500 with a bunch of playoff appearances. It took the franchise a decade and a half to recover. Those mediocre teams in the 80s were viewed as failures because the Bullets had won the NBA championship in 1978 and appeared in the finals three other times in the 70s. In the 1980s, the Wizards were remarkably consistent, winning between 39 and 43 games each year except once, making the playoffs 7 out of 10 years.
So the Bullets tried to rebuild and went for the lottery. The idea is to have a bad record, then get lucky and draft a Patrick Ewing, Tim Duncan, or Shaquille O’Neal. Sometimes it works. In the Bullets’ case, it didn’t. What resulted was missing the playoffs 15 of the next 16 seasons. Thanks, Gilbert, but trying to win is a better option.
After the awful 90s, making the playoffs each of the past four seasons didn’t seem so bad, but the results were not much better than they were in the mid 80s. Mediocrity has become acceptable in Washington because it seemed good when compared with the long playoff drought that preceded it. There hasn’t been one column about Jordan’s status as coach in the past month in the Washington Post. In most other cities, they would’ve been calling for the coach to be fired by now. At 1-10, though, Jordan had to go.
The Wizards have three all-stars – Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler, and Antawn Jamison. Sure, Gilbert is injured and so is starting center Brendan Haywood, but every NBA team has injuries. The fact is that Eton Thomas is not a huge dropoff from Haywood. They also have good veteran role players – Antonio Daniels, DeShawn Stephenson and Darius Songaila, plus young talent in Nick Young, Andray Blatche, Oleksiy Pecherov, and Javale McGee. Defense has been a problem with this team for a while – meaning several years.
Former Knicks and Rockets coach Van Gundy has a .575 winning percentage and led his teams to the playoffs in 9 out of 10 full seasons. True, he had Patrick Ewing with the Knicks and Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady with the Rockets, but 9 of 10 is good – 15 of 16 is even better if you count his years as an assistant with the Knicks, so he’s been around a lot of winning basketball for a lot of years, including appearances in the finals and conference finals.
JVG would add defense and accountability to the Wizards. I never thought I’d be calling for this brand of basketball, which in the 90s for the Knicks was awful, boring, slow down, fouling, no rhythm, constant free throws basketball. But I’d rather win ugly than lose pretty. If JVG and Gilbert can get along, it can work. It’s a big if because McGrady didn’t like JVG at the end. But who do you want running your team, the players, or the coach? Defense is an attitude. Former Wizard Richard Hamilton was awful on defense in DC. Then when Hamilton he went to Detroit, he became decent, even above average on D to go with his great jump shooting ability.
Other possibilities could be Flip Saunders or Avery Johnson.
Saunders knows the Eastern Conference, having coached the Detroit Pistons each of the last three years. He has a lifetime winning percentage of .597. His teams made the playoffs 11 times in 13 seasons, although with Minnesota they only made it out of the first round once (getting to the conference finals), and with Detroit they never made it to the finals (though they did get to the conference finals three years in a row).
Avery Johnson had a ridiculous winning percentage of .735 as the coach of the Dallas Mavericks from 2004 to 2008. He led the Mavs to the NBA finals in 2006 when they should have beaten the Miami Heat after a 2-0 lead, then led Dallas to a record of 67-15 the following year though they were upset by the Golden State Warriors in the playoffs. Johnson also emphasizes defense.
If Tapscott does well, I say keep him for a while, but JVG has the experience and the emphasis on defense and rebounding. I’m just not sure that Tapscott, having only coached at a small Division I university, and 18 years ago at that, will be able to sustain getting the best out of the Wiz after an initial emotional lift that may last a month or two, or even until the end of the season. We did see Bernie Bickerstaff, though, take over for Jim Lynam in 1997 and lead the Bullets to the playoffs that season, though the Wiz tuned Bickerstaff out a couple of seasons later. Players usually respect coaches who either played in the NBA (Johnson has the edge there), have won (Johnson, JVG and Saunders have all been deep into the playoffs), or have high profiles (JVG has been an ESPN commentator for two seasons now). Tapscott doesn’t fall into any of these categories, though he has been around the NBA a long time as a scout, executive, and assistant coach. I’m just worried the millionaire players won’t respect him as much as they should. I believe that Grunfeld plans to hire a coach sometime during the season unless the Wizards really respond to Tapscott.
Ironically, Wizards General Manager Ernie Grunfeld was fired as GM of the Knicks in 1999 after he lost a power struggle with JVG. I may be unrealistic in thinking that they could work together, but sometimes rivals years later respect each other and will both do anything it takes to win.
One final comment. I heard superagent David Falk rip Abe Pollin for firing Eddie Jordan. Falk is Michael Jordan’s agent and was obviously critical of the way Pollin let MJ go as President of the Wizards in 2003. It looks like Falk is holding a grudge. Today on WTEM, the DC sports radio station, Falk said Pollin made the move to fire Eddie Jordan because of his age and the fact that he wants to win now. First of all, I’m not sure of that. Grunfeld was hired two weeks after Eddie Jordan was, so Eddie Jordan wasn’t Grunfeld’s choice. I think it was largely Grunfeld’s decision to fire Eddie Jordan.
Falk said Abe is the only constant in the last 30 years since the Bullets’ last championship, implying that he is the only reason that the Wizards haven’t won a title since then. The fact is that there are a lot of teams who haven’t won a championship since then. Only 9 franchises have won the title since the Bullets did. Do you think the Bulls won 6 titles in the 1990s because of owner Jerry Reinsdorf? Pollin doesn’t have too many years left, but Falk still has to criticize him and hold a grudge for the contentious negotiations that ultimately resulted in Falk’s client Juwan Howard, the definition of a mediocre player, getting a 100 million dollar contract from the Wizards, which set the franchise back for more than 5 years.
Ernie, forget your pride and give JVG a call.