- Life on the road hasn't been easy for Flip Saunders and his team this season. (Photo: Associated Press)
Tonight, at about twelve minutes past 8:00, Eastern Standard Time, an NBA referee will throw an official, NBA-approved Spalding basketball into the air, JaVale McGee and Nenad Krstic will vie to tip it to one of their teammates, and the game between the Washington Wizards and Oklahoma City Thunder will be underway. It will be Washington's 22nd regular season road game this season, and the first of a four-game trip that will take them through Oklahoma City, Memphis, Dallas and New Orleans.
Oklahoma City will be trying to consolidate their advantage atop the NBA's Northwest Division (a designation that's a holdover from their days as the Seattle Supersonics). Washington will be trying to do something much more simple, but so much more challenging: win a road game for the first time since April 9, 2010, when they defeated the Boston Celtics 106-96 at the TD Garden.
It's tough enough to try and stop Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. It's even tougher to stop your own march toward history. But that's exactly what the Wizards are trying to do on this trip.
Losing at a Historic Level
The teams in the National Basketball Association have played an 82-game schedule since the 1967-68 season. No team has ever lost all 41 road games that they have played in a season. Only one team has ever come close: the 1990-91 Sacramento Kings, who lost all but one of their 41 road games. The one game they did win was this one, played on November 20, 1990 against (you can start laughing or crying now) the Washington Bullets at the old Capital Centre in Landover. The Kings lost their final 37 road games that season, then lost their first six road games of the following season before beating the Orlando Magic 95-93 on November 23, 1991. That's a 43-game road losing streak, lasting a year and three days.
No team has gone deeper into a season without a road win than the 1992-93 Dallas Mavericks, who lost their first 29 road games before finding that the 30th time was in fact the charm, in an 89-87 win over the Philadelphia 76ers on March 19,1993.
That's a lot of losing.
It's unclear if the Wizards know all this history by heart, but it is clear that the specter of a winless road season is haunting them. Andray Blatche (more on him later) has repeatedly called the losing streak "beyond embarrassing." Wizards coach Flip Saunders, more enigmatically, has called it "our lightning bolt," and has used it as a significant qualifier whenever he is asked about whatever progress the team has made.
"I'm happy with our ability to win at home [the Wizards are 13-10 at the Verizon Center so far this season] and the development of our players," Saunders said prior to last week's 109-91 home loss to Phoenix, which marked the exact halfway point of the Wizards season in terms of number of games. "I'm obviously disappointed in our inability to win on the road."
Anyone looking for an answer to the Wizards' travel difficulties could start with their road defense. The Wizards are currently allowing 108.7 points per road game, a difference of 11.3 points from the 97.4 points per home game they've allowed. Now, it is reasonable to expect teams to give up more points on the road than at home (due in large part to the other team being more familiar with their own arena and its shooting backgrounds, as well as a tendency for referees to give home teams an extra couple of foul shots), but consider the following: the best road team in the NBA to this point, the San Antonio Spurs (current road record: 14-5) allows only 5.2 points per game more on the road than at home (99.9 compared to 94.7).
It's hard enough to win when you're giving the other team an extra 11 points, but it's even more difficult when, as the Wizards are currently doing, you essentially subtract an extra four points from your own total. The Wizards average 98.8 points per home game on offense, but only score 94.6 points per road game. In fact, several major statistical indicators head in the wrong direction when the Wizards go on the road. Their field goal percentage holds steady at around 44%, but their free throw percentage goes down (78.7% at home, 75.8% on the road) with an average of 1.7 fewer attempts (24.4 at home, 22.7 on the road). It's a similar story with their total rebounds (42.7 at home, 37.7 on the road), and assists (22.3 at home, 19.2 on the road). In fact, only two statistics see increases on the Wizards' travels: turnovers (14.5 per home game, 16.4 per road game) and personal fouls (21.3 per home game, 24.0 per road game).
Yes, the overall statistics make for grisly reading, but overall statistics don't tell the whole story in basketball. This is because basketball, unlike baseball, is not a game of individual situations disguised as a team sport. Basketball is a game of team situations. This is why it seems OK that John Wall is averaging 15.8 points per game on the road compared to 14.4 points per game at home when, in fact, it is not. In reality, it's a symptom of the rookie point guard feeling a greater urgency to take over the game away from home when his teammates are struggling. The fact that he drops almost a full assist in road games (8.9 per game) compared to home games (9.8 per game), should be a matter of far greater concern.
And make no mistake about it, Wall and his teammates have struggled. The Wizards have only led twice entering the fourth quarter in their 21 road games. On November 21, they led Detroit 78-77 after three quarters before going on to lose in 115-110 in overtime. On December 27, Washington led the Houston Rockets 73-68 after 36 minutes. Unable to handle prosperity, the Wizards allowed 32 points in the fourth quarter and lost 100-93. In 19 of the 84 12-minute quarters the Wizards have played on the road (22.6%), they have been outscored by 10 points or more.
This leads to quotes like this from Flip Saunders after Monday night's 115-106 loss to the New York Knicks: "[The starters] lost some of their purpose."
And this from Nick Young: "I got to talk more and try to get things done," Young told The Washington Post. "Us, me and [Blatche], the older people, we have to speak up a little bit. Once we become more [like] leaders, we'll start winning more games."
Herein lies another problem: the Wizards' lack of experience in dealing with road games and road environments. Young, 25, is a fourth-year player who as late as this past preseason was dependent on the munificence of the departed Gilbert Arenas to receive playing time (though to be fair, he has made the most of his opportunity).
Blatche, in his sixth season in the NBA at the ripe young age of 24, has most recently picked a fight with the team's fanbase (for whom he has been a constant whipping boy), had his play in that same Knicks game Monday night called "terrible" by his coach, and earlier this month turned up in the locker room with a haircut that looked like it had been done with safety scissors by a nearsighted kindergartner. He called the 'do a "rollercoaster" that "signified [his] life," and declared he would only get it cut after he had a good game (which he eventually did). In addition to his personal eccentricities, Blatche is a remarkably inefficient player. As of Friday morning, he'd taken the 45th most field goal attempts in the league (573), but only made 42.2% of them (tied for 105th in the league).
Wall, for all his potential, is still a 20-year-old rookie, and it would be unfair to ask him to bear the burden of leadership at this point in his career. That leaves the 31-year-old Rashard Lewis, now in his 13th year in the league, who has taken over captaincy duties while Kirk Hinrich (age 30) is on the sidelines with a right elbow injury. Acquired in the December 18 trade for Gilbert Arenas, Lewis is a stabilizing influence on the locker room, at least according to his coach. "People think he's real quiet," said Saunders after last Saturday's 85-83 win over the Boston Celtics. "But after [the previous night's loss to Phoenix], he was the guy who stood up and said, 'Guys, we had a bad game, we just have to put it behind us and get ready for the next one.'"
Naturally, Lewis's name has already come up in trade speculation, which is understandable considering that the main reason he is with the Wizards in the first place is because his contract is slightly less odious than Arenas' deal was. Such are the joys of being in rebuilding mode.
So, when will it all end?
For myself, I will stick with the prediction I made more than three weeks ago, and say that the road losing streak will stop at 25 games with a win at Cleveland on Saturday, February 13. The Cavaliers, who suffered a big loss in the summer free agency period, have lost 18 in a row and are the last NBA team remaining with fewer than 10 wins (they're 8-37 as of this writing). If the Wizards can't get the job done there, they would have to beat one of Miami, Philadelphia, or Orlando to avoid tying the infamous Dallas mark.
But first things first. The Wizards' march toward history starts Friday night. It's up to them to stop it.