It’s been a long time since the Washington Wizards were title contenders. The last time that the team won more than 46 games, won its division, or made it past the second round of the postseason was during the Carter administration (when it was still called the Bullets!). When a team performs this poorly, for this long, fans care less. At the Verizon Center, crowds are usually sparse — the Wiz ranked 16th in attendance last season — and applause is usually loudest during free food promotions. It was in this kind of atmosphere that KD2DC was born. In 2014, when Wizards fans started to believe that Kevin Durant might be interested in a LeBron-like homecoming after his tenure with the then-struggling Thunder, they became more excited about the prospects of winning 50 games with Durant than the actual basketball currently happening right in front of them. Now it’s June 2016, Durant’s deal is over, and he’s taking meetings with the Thunder and five other teams to consider where he’ll play next. One team he won’t even speak with? The Wizards.
D.C. has always been, and still is, a football town. But the football team in Washington hasn’t been really competitive for a long time. Well, no team in Washington has been to a conference title game or series for a long time. So, two years ago, the prospect of luring one of the NBA’s three best players back to his hometown (Durant is from Prince George’s County, a Maryland suburb of D.C.) to play with the young backcourt of All-Star John Wall and pretty-good-if-you-ignore-the-stress-injuries-in-his-leg Bradley Beal seemed promising and likely, if you looked at things in the right delusional light.
To sign Durant, the Wizards would need a lot of cap room and the promise that they were just one Kevin Durant away from competing for a championship. They began working on the money two seasons ago when they let Trevor Ariza walk and signed Paul Pierce to a two-year deal that would end after the 2015–16 season (and that Pierce opted out of after just one year) in order to have the cap room to offer Durant a max deal. In making room for said deal, the Wizards sacrificed much of the veteran talent they once had while adding few young assets.
Once KD2DC began, Wizards-Thunder games became more important than simple regular-season matchups — they became recruiting events. In early 2015, the Thunder won an overtime matchup in Washington on a Russell Westbrook layup, but the game was secondary. During the contest, Wizards fans wore shirts and held signs that read “KD2DC” while Durant was shown on the Jumbotron Photoshopped into a Washington jersey. Durant was not seduced and called the display “disrespectful” to Wizards players.” In a November 2015 matchup with the Wizards the following season, again at the Phone Booth, Durant sustained a strained hamstring before halftime. In the second half, he watched from the bench as his supporting cast cruised to a 24-point victory against his suitors, who played without an injured Beal. The game proved, if nothing else, that Durant’s current team was simply better than the group that would be awaiting him in Washington.
Who’s to blame for the weak roster? The likely answer is Michael Jordan–successor Ernie Grunfeld, the Wizards GM and president of basketball operations, who is now entering his 14th season at the head of the front office and is the longest-tenured head executive in the NBA who has not won a championship. Grunfeld — who has overseen two rebuilds of the team (and again, say it with me: hasn’t reached the conference finals) and is best known for botching draft picks and completely misunderstanding the value of the tools available to him — spent the past two offseasons priming the team for a shot at Durant. He hired an assistant coach from Durant’s high school as well as Durant’s former professional coach, but seemed to forget that those things mean nothing if a championship-caliber roster wasn’t in the cards.
The team’s hopes were dashed this week when it was announced that the Wizards were absent from Durant’s list of six teams that he would be meeting with at the beginning of his free-agency courtship period.
It’s easy to sit around and wonder what went wrong, but a lot of missteps are obvious. Maybe if the team had used a real head coach for the past four years instead of this, Washington would have been good enough to get a meeting. Maybe if instead of trading up in the 2015 draft to take a wing player with questionable shooting ability, they’d just taken the player who was available at their original pick and would have fit right into the gaping hole in their frontcourt, the Wizards could have reached the playoffs. Maybe if the black hole that is Nene’s contract hadn’t been eating up half of the city for the past five years, money could have been spent on a legitimate frontcourt complement to Wall. But none of those things happened. And now, the Wizards haven’t just missed out on this offseason’s highest-profile free agent, they’ve left themselves with no obvious backup plan for getting into contention.
“Every day, everybody said KD-to-DC, coming to our games wearing all the Kevin Durant stuff,” Wall said, “he didn’t like it at that time because you should cheer for the team that you got. That might sway him.”
“If [Durant] feels like he can win a championship here, so be it. If not, he probably won’t come. The way this season went might play into it,” Wall said. Generally, when something like this happens and your franchise player essentially says, “I guess we sucked too hard this year. Makes sense that he wouldn’t want to play for us,” it’s not just a bad sign for the offseason but for the future of the franchise as a whole.
The very thing that was supposed to give Wizards fans hope may have cost them their future. They put all their eggs in a basket with no bottom. There’s something just so D.C. about that.