Some nights they're as good as anyone. Some nights they perform like a team with three All-Star-caliber players, and they don't need to hold an election to determine who will take the big shot down the stretch. On such nights—miracle of miracles—they even hit their free throws, and they run the Seattle SuperSonics off the floor or beat the Utah Jazz on the road or stun the Bulls in Chicago.
But some nights they only think they're as good as anyone. They come at you with this swagger, this attitude. The power forward celebrates by dragging his finger across his neck in a throat-slitting pantomime, and every fast break turns into :sonic sort of highlight-reel audition, as if they expect to get points for degree of difficulty. Some nights the Washington Wizards seem so impressed with what they can do that they forget to do it. "There are times," coach Bernie Bicker-staff says, "when we carry ourselves in a way that infuriates people." Those are usually the nights when the Denver Nuggets or the Dallas Mavericks or some other team with half their talent leaves them staring blankly at the scoreboard, wondering how they lost.
Everyone else wonders, too. They wonder not so much about why Washington loses games it shouldn't but about when the Wizards will finally figure out the reasons for themselves. When will they see that there's a correlation between two teammates punching each other out hours before a game and the loss that follows? When will they understand that it's no coincidence that they lack a true leader when they can't depend on the most obvious candidate for the job not to get ejected from a crucial game? When will they learn that talent and emotion without maturity and stability will win games some nights but not enough nights?
The Wizards aren't exactly your paragons of professionalism. Rod Strickland, their marvelous point guard, is so habitually late that his recent efforts to arrive at the required time for practices and games were praised by some of his teammates as an example of his commitment. Washington's preferred starting center, 7'7" Gheorghe Muresan, strained a tendon in his right ankle during the off-season, when he was also filming a Billy Crystal movie, My Giant. The Wizards—some of whom have insinuated that Muresan didn't make a serious effort to rehabilitate the injury—will have to go to theaters when the movie opens April 10 if they want to see Muresan in action, because he will not play this season; the injury has been slow to heal, and his career may be in jeopardy.
It's no wonder, then, that the Wizards are a some-nights kind of team, but in the NBA some nights won't get you any further than the middle of the pack, which is where Washington has been all season. The Wizards are the gifted student who doesn't do the reading all semester and then crams for the final exam to pass the course. At week's end they were languishing at 36-36, in 10th place in the race for the eight Eastern Conference playoff slots. Washington shouldn't be scrambling just to reach the postseason. In Strickland and forwards Juwan Howard and Chris Webber, the Wizards have the kind of three-man nucleus many teams dream of. "I think that outside of Chicago, obviously. Washington has as much talent as any team in the East," says New York Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy. That may be a stretch, because Webber, Strickland and Howard are surrounded by a group of solid but largely one-dimensional role players. Terry Davis, Muresan's replacement, has given the Wizards defense and rebounding but no offense. Guard-forward Calbert Cheaney and forward Tracy Murray are mainly spot-up shooters. Still, there is no question that the Wizards have above-average talent.
Last year the Wizards won 19 of their final 26 games and earned the final playoff spot by beating the Cleveland Cavaliers on the last day of the season, then gave the Bulls fits before being swept in the first round of the playoffs. After the series, Michael Jordan anointed Washington as a rising power in the East. But this year the Wizards have gone back to "some nights." They are maddeningly inconsistent, the most unpredictable team in the league. They somehow lost to Dallas by 26 points on Feb. 28, then followed that with a win over the powerful Los Angeles Lakers two nights later. They stopped the Charlotte Hornets' 10-game winning streak on March 14, then handed the woeful Nuggets their eighth win of the season three nights after that. A month of betting on Washington could persuade a gambler to take up needlepoint. "I wish I could give you the answers, but I don't know what they are," says Webber. "Is it concentration? Is it experience? Is it injuries? It's probably a combination."
The general approach to playing the Wizards is to let them fill up the highlight reel and wait for them to beat themselves. "They spend too much time showboating instead of playing hard-nosed, grindstone basketball," says Houston Rockets forward Charles Barkley. "It's O.K. to have one or two flashy plays a game, but it's the other 100 plays that win the game. They concern themselves so much with making highlight plays that they forget the fundamentals."
The Wizards, to their credit, won't use Muresan's injury as an alibi, though his absence robs them of an intimidator in the middle. Howard also missed 16 games with a sprained left ankle, and Webber sat on the bench beside him for six of those games with a strained right shoulder. Even so, Washington has problems that injuries cannot explain. The Wizards too often fail to make crucial free throws, which isn't surprising when you consider that, through Sunday, their percentage of .695 ranked 26th in the 29-team league. Against the Phoenix Suns last Friday, Webber missed two foul shots with 6.7 seconds left that might have helped Washington avoid an 89-85 loss.
But lack of discipline is even more telling. With the Wizards leading the Portland Trail Blazers by three points late in the third quarter on March 24, Strickland picked up a technical, then kept talking to referee David Jones during a timeout even after Bickerstaff and teammate Harvey Grant went on the floor to drag him away. Jones eventually gave Strickland a second technical and an automatic ejection. Even though Washington went on to win 99-87, getting tossed from a close game when your team is battling to make the playoffs is boneheaded, especially for a veteran who is supposedly a team leader.
But then Strickland has no interest in being the team leader, at least not the kind who lights a fire under his teammates with words of inspiration. "Vocal leader? Bernie's our vocal leader," says Strickland. "That's his job." Which might be just as well, because it's possible that Strickland's delicate system couldn't handle the pressure of being more demonstrative. Strickland, who is partial to pregame meals of hot dogs or pizza, has been known to call for a towel on the bench and deposit the contents of his stomach into it during a game. On March 22, during a road game against the New Jersey Nets, he wasn't able to be quite so discreet MMMI and left it all on the Continental Airlines Arena floor, so to speak, while he was still in the game.