WASHINGTON D.C. - Given the way Flip Saunders was talking about Andray Blatche, it almost didn't sound like he was talking about the same Andray Blatche fans have seen all season. The Wizards' head coach was holding court with reporters before Tuesday's game against the Denver Nuggets, answering questions about Blatche's horrendous 2-10 game the night before against the New York Knicks. The theme was clear: he had a bad game, and great, developing players have bad games.
"I hate to say it, but John [Wall] has had [bad games] too, and we still play John," Saunders said, to defend his decision to play Blatche down the stretch. "Sometimes, in order to develop, you have to fail. What you hope is that they become fewer and far between. John has done that."
"Maybe we are giving [Blatche] a lot of responsibility, but there's also been games where he's come through in the end. It's a fine line," Saunders continued. "It's the Michael Jordan line - how many times has he failed compared to how many times he's had success taking the last shot."
As for that prickly little "lack of effort" issue that Blatche shot back against earlier in the day on the radio, Saunders pretty much poo-pooed the notion.
"You can take everybody - Andray, John, [Trevor] Booker, JaVale [McGee] - sometimes, when your performance isn't at the level you want it to be, it sucks the energy out of you," he said. "I think he's giving everything he is. Is he disappointed at times with how he plays? Yeah, because he wants to do good."
Finally, Saunders mirrored his player's criticism of the criticism directed at him, essentially passing some blame on the fans.
"Those same people that might get down on him, those were the same people cheering him in the Boston win [on Saturday]. That's how everyone is. That's why they're fans."
The whole situation sounded like a coach trying to find explanations for his superstar big man. And therein lies the problem.
Blatche has not been anything close to that level all season, yet the Wizards keep talking and acting like he is an essential part to their present and future. They defend him in the press, put him on billboards and continue to give him his guaranteed 35 minutes a game, instead of treating him like ... Andray Blatche, the talented but inconsistent big man who can be an X-factor, but never a reliable, every-game core piece. Given that type of soft treatment, is there any surprise that Blatche doesn't actually change?
None of this is to say that Blatche is blameless, of course. If he put together five years of hard work off the court, rather than just one (maybe), he would probably be a much better player than he currently is. If he went about rehabilitating his broken foot from the summer more effectively, he would probably be a much better player than he currently is. If he had been more diligent about cutting out his bad on-court habits, like his behind-the-back dribble, his tunnel vision, his disinclination to mix it up inside and his inattention to detail defensively, he probably would be a much better player than he is.
Alas, he is not, and he probably lacks the mentality to get there. Whether Blatche's responses to his critics in his two radio appearances this month are correct or not, he comes across as someone feeling sorry for himself both times. That's not unlike mercurial former superstar GIlbert Arenas, but there's a difference, as one Bullets Forever commenter put it.
At the same time, this doesn't mean Blatche is totally useless. He is a pretty good jump-shooter for his size when his feet are set, and he is quicker than many power forwards. When he's right, he has an excellent shot fake and drive move that many bigs can't handle. He can play in the high and low post, and contrary to what many think, he does make a concerted effort to get to the basket.
(I also don't buy that he doesn't try during games -- his bigger issue is what happens between games and how well he maintains himself then).
He just isn't capable of doing those things all the time, just like many talented players in this league. Many fans express frustration because they expect him to be more, and because Ernie Grunfeld handed him a five-year contract extension he may not have "earned." But the truth is that even Blatche's new salary is not the kind that franchise players are given. Here are six players who signed free-agent contracts in the range of Blatche's five-year, $35 million extension this summer.
- 11/25 at Atlanta, a 20-point loss in which Blatche sat most of the fourth quarter with the game in hand.
- 10/28 at Orlando, a game that was pretty much decided by the second quarter.
- 11/17 at Boston, same deal.
- 11/13 at Chicago, a seven-point loss in which Blatche shot 2-10. He still played 27 minutes.
- The Knicks game, in which Blatche sat most of the second quarter, but played most of the fourth and came up short.
- 1/11 vs. Sacramento, an overtime win in which he played 29 minutes.
- 1/7 vs. New Jersey, a game the Wizards won going away. Blatche played 29:56.