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The Wizards Still Look Like the Team They Always Are

Austin Rivers calling out the rest of the conference? Dwight Howard with an untimely injury? Washington may look better on paper, but it’s hard to give it the benefit of the doubt.

Austin Rivers and Dwight Howard Getty Images/Ringer illustration

No one is sure exactly how the two newest members of the Washington Wizards, Dwight Howard and Austin Rivers, will fit with the team this season. But based on news this week, both are already in tune with the team’s identity. Tuesday, Rivers said that he thinks the Wizards are “heavily slept on” (in-your-face confidence: check), and Howard revealed that the back injury keeping the 32-year-old out of preseason play is actually tightness of the piriformis muscle—his butt (ill-timed injures: check).

Rivers pointed out the similarities between the Pacers’ underrated 2017 offseason and the Wizards this year to CBSSports’ James Herbert. “Nobody seems to talk about the Pacers,” Rivers said, “because everybody’s so fucking gassed up on the Celtics and the Sixers. And rightfully so: they’re both talented teams. But Indiana is just as good as both those teams. And I think we’re in the same situation.” Entering the regular season, Washington does look better on paper than it has in years. But it’s not enough to shake their reputation for undoing.

As of now, there isn’t a timetable for Howard’s return, leaving Ian Mahinmi in the starter’s role with just eight days until the Wizards tip off their regular season. Washington signed Howard despite his past locker room issues because it desperately needed an upgrade at center. Marcin Gortat is far past his prime, and his game has always been too limited for a team that wants to compete for championships. After dealing Gortat to the Clippers in June, the Wizards were left with Mahinmi and Jason Smith, who combined played fewer than 25 minutes per game last season. A week later, the team picked up former Laker Thomas Bryant (and his 7-foot-6 wingspan) from waivers as another alternative at the position. Then Washington, already looking at a massive luxury tax bill, managed to sign a former All-Star center.

Being an unbearable teammate doesn’t render away Howard’s talent, and taking him on is the kind of risk Washington needs to take to break out of its cycle of underwhelming seasons. He’s a prototypical X factor. Yet as of Wednesday, Howard has not yet run a single play with his new team—not in the preseason, not in a scrimmage, not even a friendly game of pickup. Bryant also left Tuesday’s preseason game with a hyperextended knee and a sprained left ankle, knocking off another potential fill-in. At least Mahimini feels closer to the team than ever, The Washington Post reported (probably because he’s catching Gortat’s old torrent of passes under the basket), and Smith said Washington is “probably the best team on paper we’ve had in a long time.”

He’s not wrong, and neither is Rivers when he says the team is being slept on. There’s no other way for NBA fans to react to disappointing season after disappointing season but to nod off, dream about the Kawhi Leonard Raptors or the Young King Sixers, then be jolted awake when some kind of intrateam controversy happens. But this roster does have some of the depth that was missing then. Disgust at years of nepotism has everyone thinking that Rivers isn’t a competent backcourt reserve, but he is, which is exactly what John Wall and Bradley Beal need. Last season, Wall’s injury meant the Wizards had to give Tomas Satoransky minutes, during which he unexpectedly proved capable of facilitating the offense for periods of time.

The strongest roster in quite some time won’t necessarily keep Washington’s annual problems away. What killed the Wizards before are the most predictable downfalls this season, too: confidence (Rivers’s friendly fire against the Eastern Conference teams is fine; Washington’s history of beefing in the locker room isn’t) and ill-timed injuries. Washington no longer gets the benefit of the doubt on either.