WASHINGTON (AP) _ With the underachieving Washington Wizards struggling to become a .500 team, general manager Wes Unseld decided ``it was just not working'' and fired his coach before the season was completely lost.

That happened two years ago. It also happened Monday.

Unseld sent old friend Bernie Bickerstaff on his way with much the same words he used to dismiss Bickerstaff's predecessor, Jim Lynam. When Bickerstaff took over at the All-Star break in 1997, the team rallied to its first playoff appearance in nine years.

Now Unseld needs someone new to provide that same kind of spark to the 1999 Wizards, now 13-19 after back-to-back losses to Toronto and Miami.

``It just wasn't happening,'' Unseld said. ``And it didn't seem to change. With 18 games left and a chance to still be in this thing, I decided to do it.''

Assistant Jim Brovelli takes over as interim coach, but Unseld made it clear he has some candidates in mind and will start contacting them to try to fill the position before season's end.

``If I can get the individual I am looking for, I will do that immediately, if possible,'' Unseld said.

Brovelli, 57, was 1-1 in his NBA head coaching debut earlier this season when Bickerstaff was out with the flu. He would not say whether he's interested in keeping the job.

``It makes it harder, because it's Bernie,'' said Brovelli, who worked with Bickerstaff at San Diego State and with the Denver Nuggets. ``He gave me the first opportunity to coach in the league. I'm going to miss him.''

The Wizards, who play host to the New Jersey Nets tonight, probably need to finish at least 13-5 to have a shot at the playoffs. Their backcourt of Mitch Richmond and Rod Strickland is one of the best and Juwan Howard is a top forward, but they lack a quality center and have shown a tendency to fall apart in the fourth quarter.

Several players said Bickerstaff's uptight demeanor made the atmosphere too tense, leading to nine losses in games they've led after the third period.

``In some cases, it did get tight a little bit,'' swingman Calbert Cheaney said. ``You tend not to play the way you're capable of playing when you're tight. In the fourth quarter, when it's time to make some buckets and try to win the game and you're tight, you can't win.''

Bickerstaff sometimes left players baffled with his novel player rotations. Several times this season he would play a starter for five minutes or so, then bench him the rest of the game.

``A lot of guys weren't very relaxed in their roles and weren't sure exactly what was expected of them on a nightly basis,'' guard Tim Legler said.

As the losses mounted, Bickerstaff admitted he wasn't able to coax his players into producing the hustle and desire necessary for a fourth-quarter victory. He also said his team simply wasn't as talented as some of the opponents, which didn't sit well with his players or Unseld.

``As a player, you don't like to read that,'' Legler said, ``that your coach says you're not as good as another team.''

Bickerstaff's comment that ``Miami is a better team than we are'' after Sunday's 90-79 loss to the Heat might have clinched Unseld's decision.

``The personnel we have should be in the playoffs,'' Unseld said.

Bickerstaff was in his 10th season as an NBA coach. His record was 338-348, including 77-71 with the Wizards. He began his coaching career in Washington in 1973, serving as an assistant until 1985.

Unseld, who played for Washington in the 1970s, lured Bickerstaff from his job as general manager of the Denver Nuggets in 1997 season. The Wizards made the playoffs that year, but were eliminated on the final day last season.

Bickerstaff's best showing as a coach was in 1987, when he led Seattle to the Western Conference finals, one of three postseason appearances with the SuperSonics.

Bickerstaff's dismissal is the NBA's fourth coaching change this season, following Del Harris (Lakers), Dave Cowens (Charlotte) and John Calipari (New Jersey).