Yet again, the Wizards are back at the same crossroads at 6-6 that they were at 2-7 two years ago. Questions about their mental toughness have arisen three consecutive seasons, and coach Randy Wittman brought it back after Wednesday's disaster in Charlotte.
"We don’t have guys that are making plays right now. Again, good looks but until we quit feeling sorry," said Wittman, who could've gone this road after a 123-106 loss to the Indiana Pacers on Tuesday but didn't. "When things go bad like that I had to twice in timeouts and tell them to lift their heads up. There’s plenty of time left. We’re up nine during this whole thing. We start feeling sorry, start pouting putting our heads down and it becomes a snowball. We got to grow up in that aspect of it. If the shot doesn’t go in, it doesn’t go in.
"Makes, misses, that’s the game. You never give in. We haven’t gotten over that. That’s been that way for the last couple of years. Guys don’t play well, put their heads down and we pout, feel sorry for ourselves."
Those words followed a 101-87 loss to the Hornets, who held the Wizards to 1-for-20 shooting in the fourth quarter and erased an 85-76 deficit with 9:53 remaining.
When confronted with Wittman's words, Bradley Beal only would shake his head before giving this retort: "I’m not going to comment on that."
It's uncharacteristic of the fourth-year shooting guard, who'll usually give some sort of answer and shrug it off. By saying nothing, he's staying plenty. That the Wizards are in this zone again is a bit shocking, especially given how Beal and John Wall began the season. They were taking big shots and closing games in the fourth quarters. When Paul Pierce left in free agency, the season after Trevor Ariza bolted, the front office was content to hand off the leadership duties to their dynamic backcourt. Both of them claimed they'd be the leaders.
It's not showing despite Wall being a two-time All-Star and Beal being in a contract year, a restricted free agent next summer who is banking on a max deal. They're also coming off a playoff run in which they dominated Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan in a sweep of the Toronto Raptors and outplaying Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver of the Atlanta Hawks until Wall broke his wrist.
Wittman went out of his way to give his players a pass for unraveling Tuesday, a game that they trailed 62-61 at halftime that suddenly turned into a blowout. It was calculated because in a long season he doesn't want to overdo it this early. Gary Neal, a role player, has led them off the bench in scoring in both games. Beal and Wall again were fourth-quarter no-shows.
"We just collapsed. We fell apart a little bit. We got out of our concepts and they just ended up playing harder than we did. That and we didn’t make any shots," said Beal, who began shooting 5-for-9 only to go 1-for-7 after that, of the fourth-quarter collapse in Charlotte. "I don’t think we did a good job of executing. I don’t think we were aggressive enough. I don’t think we got to the basket. I don’t think we were taking the shots that we wanted. We were just kind of taking what they were giving us.
"We have to turn it around and figure it out. We know what to do. It’s just a matter of us doing it."
That last line has worn thin because it has been said ad nauseam. It doesn't matter if it's the pace-and-space offense they're trying to succeed with this season or the previous two seasons when Nene was starting alongside Marcin Gortat in the middle.
What is alarming is that after 12 games, there has been enough drama for 82. Gortat has been upset with Wittman for calling him out as "soft" two weeks ago, Beal already is having injury issues and clearly isn't pleased with Wednesday's critique and Wall has been unhappy with his lack of shots (Wall took a total of nine vs. Indiana but had nine after the first quarter in Charlotte) and is showing a short fuse with teammates for not being in the right spots or available for his passes resulting in turnovers.
They should be past this sort of pettiness. Remember Nene's rant about young players on the team needing to get their heads out of their butts two seasons ago? Last season during a streak when the Wizards lost 12 of 15, Beal and Wittman agreed when they were asked specifically about Al Harrington's observations from the 2013-14 season that they crack under the slightest duress. It was a 92-88 loss to the Hornets on their home floor last season that drove Wittman to lament his team stopped playing hard.
Wittman and Wall have clashed plenty of times, with the coach having a chat with him about "counterproductive play," questioning his leadership and judgment particularly on the defensive end when he gambles. No one will say it aloud, but when the Wizards lost that pivotal Game 5 to the Hawks in the playoffs last season it was Wall's gamble -- allowing Dennis Schroder to penetrate the lane for a block from behind -- that caused multiple defensive breakdowns that led to Al Horford's putback the game-winning dunk at the buzzer. Coming out of the timeout that was not the game plan. He was supposed to allow Schroder to shoot it from 20 feet given his jumper was considered suspect. That wasn't the first time that Wall did his own thing out of a timeout, to Wittman's chagrin, on a final play that caused confusion such as in a coverage switch that led to a game-winning layup for George Hill of Indiana last year.
Though more low key than Wall, Beal hasn't been exempt. He had a major blowup with the coaching staff early in 2013 after they lost an overtime game to Cleveland that they should've won. It went largely unnoticed as they walked off the floor, but he talked to CSNmidatlantic.com about it.
To rehash all of this background is to suggest that these squabbles aren't anything new, but also that they should be past this juvenile stage of development. The chemistry between Wall and Beal isn't there, and being passive aggressive isn't going to help matters.
This was an astute observation from Jared Dudley before the season began that bears repeating, after he'd joined them for a players-only workout in Los Angeles: "On this team everyone seems a friend. No one seems like they’re the aggressor so I could see why Paul (Pierce) was perfect. He was that guy, that lone wolf."
Pierce saw the same issues with the young guys that tweaked Nene. Tactfully, Pierce called out the young players for living too fast during road trips when they struggled last season.
But while some will blame the speed of play on offense for being the culprit now, how is it that the Wizards' second unit, with lesser-skilled players, has had more success in it than the first unit? In the last five games, the bench has contributed 31, 46, 51, 51 and 31 points and defensively they're every bit as effective. When the Wizards took a 42-35 lead vs. the Pacers, that was with mostly second-unit players on the floor. The same goes for the nine-point lead established late against the Hornets.
The starters haven't carried their weight, and it all begins with the primary ballhandlers in the backcourt -- Wall and Beal -- who are supposed to be the best in the East and second-best in the NBA. Twelve games in, they've proving only to be second-rate. There is no wolf.