The Washington Wizards are not light-years ahead, but they are doing just fine in the here and now.
John Wall and company are 30–20. They’ve won 11 of their past 12 games, are only two and a half games out of the Eastern Conference’s second seed, and are leading a division that they haven’t won since 1979. This is the same team that started the season by losing nine of their first 12 while trouble brewed in its backcourt. When I wrote before the season that the franchise needed to trade John Wall and hit reset, I could still imagine Washington winning a fair number of games; in the modern NBA, having a winning record is hardly an indicator of managerial competence or eventual contention. But there’s a lot to be lost by looking at the big picture. We’re hurtling toward a conclusion that seems preordained. The Warriors will win, and, if they don’t, the Spurs or Cavs will. Through that lens, it’s best for most franchises to set their sights at a run a few seasons down the road. Teams know when it’s not worth trying to win, and, often, so do fans.
The Wizards have always been masters of the small picture.
For better or worse, I wasn’t born into a tradition of sporting victory or suffering. The macro ideas of championship droughts or dynasties were not ones that were introduced to me at an early age. My parents emigrated to the United States less than 30 years ago, and I was born a few years after they settled in Philadelphia. Both of them were general sports enthusiasts, but American fandom was new to them. They took to Philly’s teams and they still occasionally reminisce about Randall Cunningham’s Eagles or speak dismissively about the Sixers’ selection of Shawn Bradley in the 1993 draft.
I was too young to be ashamed of jumping on a bandwagon, so the first team that I rooted for was Michael Jordan’s Bulls. At the time, I didn’t quite have the motor skills required to operate a television, but whenever the team had a nationally broadcast game, my family plopped me in front of the TV. One night, my parents found me rubbing crayons against my head. Understandably, they asked what I was doing. I told them that I was trying to make my hair look like Dennis Rodman’s.
A few years later, we moved to the Washington, D.C., area. The first colors we embraced as a family were burgundy and gold. Now just old enough to turn on the TV, I heard that Jordan was coming out of retirement to play for my city’s team and couldn’t believe my good fortune. I adopted the Wizards and watched every game that I could. History doesn’t remember Jordan’s Washington stint fondly. But it made me happy; the image of Rip Hamilton and Jordan walking down the court pumping their fists side by side after a tight win will be burned into my memory forever. I never thought about the playoffs. I didn’t know or care that the Lakers were title-bound. Their games started past my bedtime.
A few years later, Jordan had retired again, but the team stumbled into a dynamic core. Swingmen Antawn Jamison and Larry Hughes (replaced in the 2005–06 season by Caron Butler, who would complete the team’s iconic Big Three) and point guard Gilbert Arenas would propel the team to national relevance. Again, the team wasn’t actually that good, but it was electric.
Arenas was a player ahead of his time. He was a fearless scorer with a big, goofy smile whose basketball persona made his habit of giving himself nicknames endearing. The confidence he had at the end of games was infectious. Today, his game winners look like standard fare, now that Nick Young and Steph Curry have made premature celebration and unnecessarily deep 3s into memes. But Arenas and the Wizards crackled with an energy that fueled delusion. They regularly made appearances on SportsCenter. They weren’t the best team every night, but in the right conditions they could beat anybody.
One night in 2006, Arenas scored a franchise-record 60 points, outdueling Kobe Bryant in an overtime thriller. Arenas’s 16 points in the extra period stood as an NBA record until Curry scored 17 during last season’s playoffs. I remember excitedly checking The Washington Post the next morning, disappointed that the box score wasn’t included due to the game’s late finish.
I don’t remember checking the standings.
We don’t have to check the newspaper for box scores anymore. We don’t have to wait too long or look too hard to find almost anything related to the NBA. We know which shots are the best and which players refuse to take them. We know how unlikely it is that upsets will happen. We see the matrix, know when it isn’t engineered in our favor, and then contentedly watch as our teams stockpile assets and prepare for the future. A close win is rapturous while the buzzer is still sounding, but by the time we’ve left the arena, the big-picture concerns pop up again: The starters played a lot of minutes tonight. The opponent was a pretty awful team. Can we really keep this up? Oh, look, the Warriors won by 40.
Many of the same worries I had at the beginning of the season still stand for this year’s Wizards.
Marcin Gortat will turn 33 in less than two weeks and he’s playing more minutes than he has at any point in his career. Gortat’s 34.5 minutes per game is about the same amount of time spent on court as Russell Westbrook. But Gortat is not Russell Westbrook. Over the past two seasons, the Polish Hammer has averaged 30 minutes per game. Those extra miles will add up as the season goes on, and, with an exceptionally shallow frontcourt rotation, the Wizards cannot afford to see Gortat get injured or even have a drop-off in production. Speaking of injuries, Bradley Beal has played in an average of 62 games per season over the past four seasons. Last season he played in 55 games, coming off the bench in 20 of them while rehabbing a leg injury. But this year the guard has missed only four games and is averaging career bests in points per game (21.8), assists per game (3.6), and effective field goal percentage (.549). But if Wizards fans thought Beal was made of glass before the season, a healthy half season should do little to convince us otherwise.
A drop in production from a rotation player is a concern for any team, but the Wizards’ current balancing act hinges on keeping their bench players on the bench. The Wizards starters have played more minutes than any other five-man lineup in the league this season and have the NBA’s third-best net rating among qualifying (200-plus minutes) lineups behind only the Warriors’ and Clippers’ starters. Among lineups that have played 100 or more minutes together, the Washington lineup with Kelly Oubre Jr. swapped for Markieff Morris has the league’s second-highest net rating, behind one of Cleveland’s alternate squads. Over Washington’s active seven-game winning streak, the team’s bench (not including Oubre) has accounted for just 100 of the team’s 789 points. Jason Smith and Trey Burke are far from reliable fill-ins for their starting counterparts, even in limited minutes. This does not bode well if anything in the current machine stops working at maximum efficiency.
Operating at maximum efficiency is what has allowed for the Wizards’ 17-game home win streak, but the team’s eight road wins are tied for the sixth-worst mark in the league and are the worst among teams in the top eight of both conferences. I don’t like this because there are a lot of road games in the playoffs. Other things I don’t like about potential playoff futures include but are not restricted to: playing against LeBron James and a chess match between Scott Brooks and Brad Stevens.
This season has been the most miraculous Ernie Grunfeld escape of all Miraculous Ernie Grunfeld Escapes. The Wizards have had ample opportunity to get rid of Grunfeld, who has now overseen two rebuilds of the team and, after a disappointing 2015–16 season, looked to be heading toward another. Most executives don’t get this many chances, especially if they haven’t exceeded expectations in the past, but if this season continues as expected, Grunfeld will likely stay put and enter a 15th season as the Wizards’ president of basketball operations. The only head executives who have had their jobs longer than Grunfeld are Pat Riley (three titles), Mitch Kupchak (four titles), R.C. Buford (four titles), and Danny Ainge (one title). Grunfeld has never constructed a team that has won two consecutive playoff series or notched 50 regular-season wins in a season.
His record in the draft looks even worse than his record on the court. Wall, Beal, and Otto Porter Jr., can’t-miss top-three picks, fell into Grunfeld’s lap, and their exceptional play this season has overshadowed the disastrous roster that the team is locked into for the next few seasons. It’s hard to watch these flawed decisions pay short-term dividends for Grunfeld, especially after his choice to leave Randy Wittman in the driver’s seat potentially cost the team a fireable number of wins over the past few seasons. Brooks’s presence has done wonders for Porter and Oubre. In an alternate timeline with a better GM, it’s not hard to imagine this Wizards team contending with more developed starters and a serviceable bench.
But that’s what I see when I look at silly things like statistics databases. Let me tell you what I see when I open my trunk of tinfoil hats.
I see an electric point guard having the season of his life and making bold declarations about the future. I see Porter turning into one of the best shooters in the league. (OK, there are some stats for that one.) I see a new Big Three forming. I see the Wizards getting in petty feuds (2008 petty feud here) with other teams and then not losing. I see that there’s unrest in Cleveland and that the Cavs have lost five of their past 10 games coming into a matchup with the Wizards in the District on Monday night.
LeBron always steps up in the playoffs? The Wizards will still probably have to play and beat Stevens and the Celtics before they can even have another postseason shot at the Cavs? Nineteen of Washington’s 32 remaining games are on the road? Fewer than 10 games in the Eastern Conference separate its third and 12th-place teams? I have no idea what you’re talking about.
Projections say that this will not end well; projections say a lot of things. But John Wall says that the Wizards “just figured it out,” and at this point I’ll believe anything he says. Let’s party.