Is All Hope Lost?
Only the most eternal optimist can look at the Washington Wizards' 4-21 record and still believe that the playoffs are a possibility. With the Wizards matching the 1966-67 Baltimore Bullets for the worst start in franchise history (with the help of a six-game losing streak), DeShawn Stevenson benching himself, Caron Butler having sideline rants and no timetable for Gilbert Arenas's return, the NBA draft lottery is the more realistic expectation for this team.
The Wizards' chances of recovering are faint, at best. In order to finish with a .500 record, they would have to go 37-20 the rest of the season. Not likely. Last season, the Hawks got the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference with 37 wins, which would require an impressive 33-24 finish. Possible. But again, not likely.
Being down 17 games in the win-loss department usually leads to visions of ping pong balls dancing in your head, but the Wizards may actually be able to find some hope in the Cleveland Cavaliers. Huh? You ask. How can the Wizards find hope in the team that eliminated them from the playoffs the past three seasons; the Christmas Day opponent that currently has the second-best record in the NBA? Let's go back in time a bit.
Back in 1984-85, George Karl was a 33-year-old rookie coach and he couldn't have asked for a more difficult start to his coaching career. The Cavaliers lost their first nine games, and after 21 games, they were 2-19 (17 games below .500, just like the current local five). Karl also feuded with the team's star, World B. Free, who wanted to be free to jack up any and every shot he wanted. Free once said that he and Karl butted heads like two rams. Karl, now head coach with the Denver Nuggets, once described the rough start as "misery."
That season, though, the Cavaliers rallied from the gutter to finish the season on a 34-27 tear and make the playoffs with a 36-46 record. Cleveland then played a tightly contested four-game playoff series against the defending champion Boston Celtics in which they led in the final two minutes of each game before losing the best-of-five playoff series, 3-1. Current Wizards assistant Phil Hubbard was a member of that team, which also featured Roy Hinson and Johnny Davis.
"It was a little bit, we had some injuries, we got some guys back," Karl said recently, explaining how the team made something out of a seemingly nothing season. But the turning point for the season, Karl said, came when his 21-37 team left for a six-game road trip in late February and won the first five games in a row against Chicago, Seattle, Portland, Golden State and the Los Angeles Clippers before losing to the Los Angeles Lakers.
"And that got us into a position where we weren't that far from the last spot," Karl said, adding that the Cavaliers "hadn't made it nine years, so the karma of the season, got to be, 'Hey we can do this.' Everybody got into it."
The Cavaliers went on another six-game winning streak to push their record to 34-43, making the playoffs even more of a probability. After failing to clinch a playoff spot in their next game against the Washington Bullets, the Cavaliers completed their improbable climb in their next game against the New Jersey Nets.
Cleveland fell behind by 13 points early in that game, but Hubbard, who was having a career year with the Cavaliers that season, scored eight points during a decisive 10-0 fourth-quarter run that helped his team secure the eighth and final playoff berth with a 114-100 victory.
Then - in a move that is rarely, if ever, seen in the NBA - Free and Hinson celebrated by lifting Karl on their shoulders and carrying him off the floor. Karl said he can't imagine that ever happening again. "I was a little skinnier," Karl said, with a laugh. "I've never seen it happen before."
At the time Karl said making the playoffs was a "miracle." Free said the team "had help from God." Karl actually wept after the series against the Celtics. "It was probably one of the best years that I've ever enjoyed coaching," Karl said.
Of course, this doesn't mean that the Wizards will make the same dramatic turnaround, or that Butler and Antawn Jamison will be carrying Ed Tapscott on their shoulders come April. It's just a little something to give you some hope, or better yet, pause before ramming your heads through a wall with this miserable season.
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