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The Wizards Are the NBA’s Must-See Soap Opera

Let’s be honest: Washington is not going to win a championship with this team. So while it may be painful for the Wiz faithful, why not enjoy the infighting and chemistry issues while we can?

Elias Stein

Otto Porter Jr. and Ernie Grunfeld formed a tight two-man huddle near the foul line. This was on Saturday, and the Wizards were in Los Angeles to play the Clippers the following day. There was evidently quite a lot to discuss at UCLA’s John Wooden Center. The team’s president of basketball operations and his max-money wing talked for a long while. They smiled. There was much nodding. Toward the end, they patted each other on the back a few times, first Ernie to Otto and then Otto to Ernie, and then Ernie mixed in a lower-back/upper-ass pat to conclude the summit. It was a nice scene.

The rest of the California road trip featured less back-patting and more back … maybe not stabbing. But also not not stabbing. It’s the Wizards after all. You have to grade these things on a curve. These Wizards—with John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Porter together as the stars—are on their sixth season as the most maddening show in the NBA. The franchise reached the Eastern Conference semifinals just two seasons ago, but any hope that the script would feature a happy ending went up in flames shortly thereafter. The 2017-18 campaign came off like a bad soap opera with a host of miscast characters openly fighting in full view of the cameras, only to have it all end when they were shoved off the playoff stage in the first round. Even Showtime would have canceled them by now, but Grunfeld and the Wizards keep pushing variations of the same plot into production.

Last Wednesday, Washington yielded 51 points to Steph Curry in three quarters and fell to the Warriors in Oakland.

Tensions were pretty high after that—and it only got worse following a loss to the Kings in Sacramento last Friday. The Wizards handled it all with typical aplomb: They blew off steam by putting each other on blast. According to The Athletic, John Wall singled out unnamed teammates for worrying about “who’s getting shots” and said if those players “can’t do it on both ends of the floor, you don’t need to be playing.” Bradley Beal said that sometimes Wizards players “have our own agendas” and complain about shots, playing time, and “whatever it may be.” He thought the Wizards were “worried about the wrong shit.” Markieff Morris noted that “everybody’s grown here,” advised his teammates to “look in the mirror,” and cautioned that “if you don’t know who you are, I think it’s gonna be hard for you to take criticism.” It was widely understood that they were all referring to Porter, who left the visitors locker room in Sacramento without talking to the media.

The story line hung over the team when they arrived in L.A. the next day, but Wall and Beal didn’t speak to reporters after practice, and Morris was reportedly sick and missed the session entirely. I tried to grab Grunfeld after he was done chatting with Porter, but a handler said he was unavailable and the Wizards whisked him out through a side door and onto the team shuttle. New Wizard Austin Rivers took a second to talk to the small contingent of journos because he was back in Los Angeles for the first time since the Clippers traded him, but he claimed he was unaware of the incendiary remarks made by his teammates in the aftermath of the Kings loss. Initially, Rivers said, “I don’t really have a comment on it”—then proceeded to give more than a minute straight of uninterrupted thoughts, saying that players were “frustrated” but he’s “not trying to step on people’s toes because I’m the new guy.” He also said “I don’t want to start nothing”—then explained “I’m not a fit-in type of guy. I’m a guy who goes out there and attacks people’s throats.” But that’s OK, he said, because throat-attacking is exactly what Wall, Beal, and Scott Brooks counseled him to do. It was glorious. Rivers is already a perfect Wizard.

To his credit, Porter stayed behind after practice at UCLA to address the situation. While he sat on a folding chair and changed his sneakers, he told the assembled media that he also had not heard the comments made in Sacramento—which were then outlined to him in great detail by the handful of helpful reporters standing around him in a semicircle. Porter didn’t seem too worked up about it. He said the Wizards “gotta play together” and “can’t have our heads down.”

“We got to encourage each other,” Porter said. “We’re not going to get it from the media. We’re not going to get it from the opposite fans, the opposite team. We’ve got to stick together.”

[Narrator: They did not encourage each other. They did not stick together.]

This is how bad it got for the Wizards over the weekend: The Clippers thumped them by 32 on Sunday, and the game was so out of hand that the fans at Staples Center occupied themselves in the fourth quarter by doing the wave. The visitors locker room was pretty hushed afterward. Wall sat in front of his stall, draped in a towel, and said while the Wizards have a lot to figure out there’s “no need to panic.” Brooks adopted a similar position, reminding reporters that the Wizards had been through “tough stretches in the past” and would likely face “tough stretches in the future.” It was mostly coach speak, until Brooks admitted that the Wizards have a tendency to “put our head down” when the defense cracks and their opponents go on runs.

I’m not big into body language, but it was hard not to notice the hanging heads that both Brooks and Porter referenced unsolicited. There weren’t a lot of chummy, fraternal exchanges between the Wizards on Sunday. The in-game, on-court encouragement typical of NBA teams appeared lacking. When they came out of the locker room after the half, Wall didn’t even bother joining the warm-up lay-up line. He just sat on the bench alone—four empty seats to his left, four empty seats to his right. There was also a moment in the game where Porter hit the deck pretty hard and lay there waiting for someone to come over and help him up. Eventually, Danilo Gallinari offered a hand when none of Porter’s teammates would. Rivers did a slow half-jog in Porter’s direction, but the rest of the Wizards didn’t even bother with that much. (LeBron would not have approved.) The symbolism was striking.

The one thing you can count on with the Wizards is that they can rarely count on each other. The Jimmy Butler saga has gotten a lot of attention, but not even Minnesota can match the Wiz in the dysfunction department. The Timberwolves are new to all this. They merely adopted the darkness; the Wizards were born in it, molded by it. (Bane actually stole that shit from Brooks.) They spent all last season fielding questions about chemistry, and barely two weeks into the season they’re already back at it. They’re ahead of schedule even by their standards.

“That could always be the narrative,” Brooks pushed back on Saturday. “It always seems to be blown out of proportion. I don’t see it.”

Except Brooks isn’t merely an observer to the Wizards weird ways, he’s also a participant. During the playoffs last year, he called a meeting with Wall and Beal after the Raptors went up 2-0 in their first-round series. Beal later told reporters that Brooks “apologized” to him for not finding the shooting guard enough good looks—which prompted Brooks to give his own on-record testimony: “I don’t know if apologize would be correct.”

But the best part about Brooks claiming any issues were “blown out of proportion” is that he then outlined various times the Wizards have gotten into it with each other: “Definitely there’s been times where we’ve had some heated discussions—from me to a player, from a player to a player, from an assistant coach and a player, assistant coach and a head coach.”

For someone who said “I don’t see it,” he sure has seen a lot. With Ty Lue off the board now, Brooks remains the favorite to be the next coach to go (even though there was a report that he’s somehow not on the hot seat).

Maybe Brooks is just numb to it all by now. The Wizards are 1-5, but he said if a “couple of things went our way, it could be flipped.” As for being so openly frustrated that the players called each other out in the media, Brooks explained it away as nothing more than “being in a competitive environment.” In fact, he said, “I kind of like that.”

I like it too. Probably for different reasons, though.

This was initially imagined as a column about continuity. The idea was that maybe roster stability is bad—at least as it pertains to the Wizards and other teams that haven’t shaken up their core in a while and don’t appear poised to make a significant playoff push anytime soon. Maybe, if you’re consistently mired in the NBA’s dreaded middle class without the prospect of real upward mobility, you ought to switch things up. It’s not a radical position. The Raptors have been good and relevant for years, but they also frequently failed to pick up the pace in the playoffs when it mattered most. Rather than run in place any longer, Raptors president Masai Ujiri traded a franchise icon and fired the coach of the year in the hopes of thrusting his team to the front of the pack. At the very least, Ujiri seemed to understand that his team needed to alter its strategy if it ever hoped to win a long and difficult race.

By contrast, the Wizards have plodded along without much course correction. In Grunfeld’s 15 seasons of running the organization, Washington has mostly seemed fine with the status quo. Sure, the Wizards recently offloaded Marcin Gortat for Rivers and brought in Dwight Howard, but the Wall/Beal/Porter core has remained unaltered. So have the results. The Wizards won four more games than they lost last season, snuck into the playoffs as the eighth seed, and were summarily dispatched in a first-round mercy killing courtesy of the Raptors. From a basketball perspective, it was an unremarkable season—which was perfectly on brand. The franchise hasn’t broken the 50-win threshold in four decades. The oddsmakers and predictive models didn’t expect that to change this season—and that was before the Wizards stumbled to five losses in their first six games.

Washington has remained unfazed and the team have gone right on doing what they do—not staggering Wall and Beal’s minutes or tinkering too much. Brooks is doing the same thing with the Wizards’ best players as he did with the Thunder’s when he was coach in Oklahoma City, except Beal and Wall are nowhere near as good as Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. As of Monday, Washington was 23rd in offensive rating and 26th in defensive rating. They also have an unsightly minus-10.3 point differential; only the winless Cavs, the rebuilding Suns, and the Magic (who are the Magic) were worse. Why Grunfeld hasn’t broken up this bunch yet—and that he’s still in charge after a decade-and-a-half of forgettable basketball—remains a mystery. (In fairness, Ian Mahinmi is probably thrilled about that.)

So the initial idea for this piece was to make the case for change—until I changed my mind. Until I remembered what the Wizards are all about. Maybe it was a mistake for the Wizards to keep the core together this long, but it’s been a gift for the rest of us.

Forget the stats and the win-loss totals and all the other metrics. The only number that matters with the Wizards is how many days have passed since the last incident. The endless infighting and open bickering might be bad for the on-court product, but it’s also proven to be excellent entertainment for everyone who’s not a Wizards fan. They should embrace their role in the greater league narrative. They aren’t the Warriors—or Celtics or Raptors or Rockets. Or Bucks, Sixers, Lakers, Jazz, Pelicans … you get the idea. They didn’t come into the season as contenders. But they are the league leaders in drama. They’ll never win the title with this crew, but they’re the NBA champs when it comes to story lines related to questionable chemistry.

“I’m glad it’s not Game 60,” Brooks said when asked about his team already acting out, “and then we’re still frustrated with how we’re playing.”

There’s still plenty of time for that. You’ll recall that the Wizards spent most of last year taking swipes at each other, including the “everybody eats” fiasco that prompted Wall to appear on SportsCenter and describe Beal and Gortat as not “professional and classy.” Then there was the (in)famous postseason photo.

At All-Star weekend last year, Beal told me that if the Wizards didn’t like each other “nobody would be on the team. Somebody would be traded or gone or something like that.” Instead, save Gortat, they’re all back, and they picked up right where they left off. In addition to the backbiting in Sacramento, they’ve already made all sorts of off-beat, off-court news. Beal revealed that he gained 20 pounds of sympathy weight last season by eating pizza and ice cream with his pregnant wife. Rivers launched a podcast called “Go Off,” complete with a Twitter promotion that implored prospective listeners to get to know him, whether they “love him or hate him,” implying there are definitely people in both camps. Howard, who has yet to play a game because of an injured butt muscle, has nonetheless fit right in by subsequently inspiring countless pain-in-the-ass jokes. And then there’s Wall. When asked in early October about maybe partying a touch too much and potentially being out of shape when he reported to training camp, he responded in the most Wizards way possible:

It might be my favorite thing in show business, and when they eventually get around to cancelling the production I’ll be bummed. The Wizards are my Ally, and I’m just Jackson Maine desperate for another look.

It’s still only October. Who knows what weird, wonderful story lines the Wizards have in store for the rest of the season? (We haven’t even gotten the full Dwight treatment yet.) They are delightfully dysfunctional, and I hope they never change. After practice the other day, Porter said the Wizards have “got to be our own backbone” and implored them to build each other up rather than tearing things down. To him, they don’t have any other choice. They’re stuck with each other.

“Nobody is cheering for us,” he explained.

[Raises hand high.]

On the contrary. Give Grunfeld a lifetime contract. Extend Brooks. Keep Wall and Beal and Porter (and Rivers and Howard) together forever. The Wizards are perfect just the way they are.

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