WASHINGTON - The question was simple, but offbeat enough to make Wizards guard Laron Profit chuckle last night:
When exactly did things go south for the franchise this season?
"When did things take a turn? What was the first game we played?"
"Things haven't gone for us the way people expected for a lot of different reasons. You can use a lot of different excuses, but the bottom line is that as a team and an organization, we didn't get the job done."
To say the least.
With last night's 98-92 loss to the Toronto Raptors serving as the merciful end point, the Wizards concluded arguably the worst season in the franchise's 39-year history - a year in which they lost at least five straight seven times -and landed themselves in the thick of May's draft lottery.
Immediately after the game. which the Wizards played with only seven healthy players, first-year coach Leonard Hamilton was summoned to a meeting with Michael Jordan, Washington's president of basketball operations. That touched off speculation that Hamilton, who left the University of Miami to coach the Wizards, was being fired.
"I have no idea what's going on," said Wizards assistant coach Larry Drew. "I was in the locker room walking around, thanking each player for their cooperation and I was told that Leonard had to go upstairs to meet with Michael and [for me] to come in and do the post-game. It [Drew addressing the media] never happened all year. Certainly, when you're asked to do something that hasn't taken place all year, you're concerned.'
In a franchise history chock-full of mediocrity, the 2000-01 season will go down as a special brand of bad for the Wizards, who avoided a franchise record for fewest wins but still managed to set a record for most losses in a season.
But unlike many historically dreadful teams, Washington never managed to be bad the same way twice. There were close losses to New York, San Antonio, Portland, Miami and Philadelphia, all playoff teams, mixed in with desultory home setbacks to dreg teams like Atlanta, New Jersey and Chicago.
In perhaps the worst defeat of the year, with Jordan making one of his rare appearances, the Wizards blew a 16-point, fourth-quarter lead to the Los Angeles Clippers in a 93-88 loss at MCI Center.
After that game, Jordan, who promised the club would make the playoffs, blistered the team both in the locker room and in print, saying the players didn't seem to want to push themselves to do what it takes to win.
"Maybe that's part of the problem," said Profit. "On some teams when things go wrong, you hear about teammates that get into it or take offense to the way certain things are going on the playing field. That may have been part of the problem.
"Maybe we didn't hold each other accountable enough or get on each other enough. Maybe we do need to get after each other and not be so friendly when it comes to playing the game as it relates to the team."
By January, it had become clear that drastic changes were needed, and those changes came starting in February. That's when Jordan dealt Juwan Howard to Dallas for a package of five players that included Courtney Alexander and forward Christian Laettner, who became key contributors in the final two months.
In March, the team waived recalcitrant point guard Rod Strickland, who had essentially stopped playing for two months. He contended that he was injured and had been unfairly been made an example of for missing a December practice and being benched for a subsequent game.
With nearly the entire lineup revamped, the Wizards at times looked more like a CBA team than an NBA squad. They used Richard Hamilton, a natural shooting guard small forward, and Profit, also more suited to the wing, to play the point for Chris Whitney, who missed most of the last month with ankle injuries.
A recurring knee injury also forced Mitch Richmond out of the lineup for the final month of the season. Richmond, the lone remaining member of the "Big Three" (with Howard and Strickland) has one year left on his contract at $10 million and is expected to be bought out this summer.
Leonard Hamilton, who replaced Gar Heard and Darrell Walker, who coached the team last year, had been thought to be safe for at least the start of next season, but last night's post-game events left his future in doubt.