The Wizards spent Sunday afternoon in front of a projector. On the screen, head coach Scott Brooks juxtaposed video of their 2017 postseason selves—a team that was one Kelly Olynyk explosion away from reaching the Eastern Conference finals for the first time in 38 years—with video from their recent, unacceptably bad performances. “The team we were watching on film wasn’t us,” Wizards star Bradley Beal told reporters after Sunday’s practice.
Things can change in an instant. On the last day of this February, the Wizards had amassed a 36-25 record, tied for the seventh-best win percentage in the league and good for fourth place out East. Since then, they’ve lost 13 of their past 19 games. Their minus-3.2 net rating over that span ranks 23rd in the league, ahead of seven teams (Kings, Magic, Hawks, Knicks, Bulls, Grizzlies, and Suns) with an average net rating of minus-9.1. In other words: The only way a team could play worse than the Wizards have over the past six weeks is if it were conspicuously attempting to lose games in one of the greatest tank wars in NBA history.
Last season was arguably the franchise’s best since 1979; the Game 7 loss to the rival Celtics in the second round stung, but the Wizards appeared to have positive momentum going into this season. But that’s the curious thing about this era of Washington basketball: Its personnel invariably finds ways to stall progress. A 46-win season in 2014-15 was succeeded by an injury-riddled 41-win season that kept the team out of the 2016 playoff picture entirely; a 49-win season last season has given way to a 2017-18 season less defined by wins or losses and more by the public fraying of trust and cohesion within the team.
The Wizards have had three high-profile players-only meetings in the past five years, which would lead the league in a universe where LeBron never signed up for social media accounts. In a way, the ritualized airings of grievances have come to define the culture of the modern-day Wizards. Their first players-only meeting was held in 2013, only a few weeks into a 2013-14 season in which Washington stumbled to a 2-7 start. John Wall was coming into his own as a budding star, but the then-fourth-year player didn’t have control of the locker room. After a particularly brutal loss against the Spurs, Nene decried the Wizards’ foundation. “Our young guys must take their heads out their butts and play the right way,” he said. “Because I’m getting tired of this.” A few days later, the Wizards players held their meeting, wherein Trevor Ariza and Al Harrington specifically asked Wall to step up to keep the team together. The team got back to .500 two weeks later.
This is the culture that Wall cut his teeth in and the culture that has embedded itself within the team as he and Bradley Beal emerged as leaders.
The Wizards’ most recent players-only meeting, held at the end of January, was—and I’m paraphrasing Beal here—pointless. “A couple guys took it the negative way and it hurt our team,” John Wall (a central figure in all three of those player meetings) told reporters then. “Instead of taking it in a positive way like we did in the past and using it to build our team up, it kind of set us back a little bit.”
Even in times of prosperity, the Wizards manage to undercut their own success. The “Everybody Eats” mini-saga of this season should have been a revelation about the Wizards’ newfound supporting cast. Instead, it became a referendum on Wall and his impact on the team, spurred on by a strange, passive-aggressive exchange across several media platforms between Wall and Marcin Gortat. Antagonistic relationships in the NBA can work: The palpable tension between Shaq and Kobe served as the perfect backdrop to their run as one of the best tandems in league history. But they at least were able to enjoy the fruits of their belabored animosity. Even the high point of the Wizards’ season thus far, the 10-3 run they went on immediately after Wall went on the shelf, ultimately points to team dysfunction.
The Wizards have become a lab-grown Frankenstein born from years of poor crisis management. Attitude is reflected from the leadership at the top, which might explain the tension running up and down the roster. Despite growing more and more compatible as a backcourt duo, the Wall-Beal pairing brings a different energy than that of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, or Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. In 2016, Wall admitted to reporters that the two “have a tendency to dislike each other on the court.” It was more a comment on the nature of two alphas coexisting, but there is a directness in the way Wall handles his concerns to the public that promotes the kind of thinly veiled antagonism that we’ve seen from the Wizards over the years.
The loss to the Hawks on Friday signaled an arrival at rock bottom. The Wizards, who are one of the best passing teams in the league (with and without Wall), struggled to find open looks all night, creating a severe imbalance in shot distribution. Brooks called the team “selfish” after the game, and it was more than simply about their poor 1.5-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio or Beal’s 24 shots. Heads swiveled and eyes darted to nearby teammates whenever the Wizards were burned for not making the extra rotation on defense—the Wizards essentially lost the game on consecutive defensive trips where no help was being offered. Over the four-game skid, Brooks has looked like a version of Liam Neeson that didn’t have the particular set of skills required to save his family:
The final 2 minutes of Cavs-Wizards as told by Scott Brooks reactions. pic.twitter.com/6WObrnCm0Z— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) April 6, 2018
The public comments made by Wizards players over the years suggest the team has never had a proper release valve for negative energy. But if Washington’s past continues to be prologue, the crucible of the playoffs might be exactly what the team needs to patch things up in the interim. The Wizards have not lost a first-round series in the Wall-Beal era, yet they’ve been the higher seed in only one of their six postseason series over the past four years. It’s as though having a single team to game plan for in a best-of-seven series gives the Wizards an effigy to redirect all of the stray frustrations the team has internally into something productive.
The postseason Wizards have consistently been more locked in on defense and more creative with their lineups than what they’d display in the regular season, and despite its free fall down the standings, Washington still boasts a high ceiling. The emergence of Tomas Satoransky gives the team a low-maintenance ball handler and floor spacer who can play off of Wall or Beal, or both, depending on how Brooks staggers their minutes. Satoransky has become the X factor du jour this season (succeeding Kelly Oubre Jr. and Otto Porter Jr.), and at 6-foot-7, he unlocks a multitude of possible five-out lineups that could be a nightmare against anyone. The five-man unit of Beal, Satoransky, Oubre, Porter, and Markieff Morris is one of the most efficient in the NBA (among combinations that have been used in at least 20 games this season). Imagine Wall in one of those lineups instead of Oubre or Morris. Brooks has only played each of those two possible lineups for a minute each all season, but these are the kind of curveballs the Wizards are capable of throwing at teams.
Washington may have maintained a consistent overtone throughout the past four seasons, but this late-season collapse signals a significant change, one way or another. The players-only meeting was a fail-safe solution until it wasn’t; Wall leading the Wizards his way by virtue of being the most gifted player on the team was enough until they saw the possibilities in his absence. It’s too late for the Wizards to navigate around their issues; they’re in the thick of it, and they’ll bring all that baggage along with them in the first round of the playoffs, for better or worse.