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The Dysfunctional Functionality of the Washington Wizards

Does a basketball team need to like each other to win in the playoffs? Depending on whom you ask, the Wizards can’t stand each other, tolerate each other, or love each other. The thing is, against the Raptors, maybe it doesn’t matter.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After a regular season during which some fans and media members openly wondered whether the Wizards were somehow better off without their franchise player, John Wall found himself getting up extra shots at practice in advance of Game 3 against the Raptors at Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C. Wall was wearing a red Wizards sweatshirt with the hood up and the sleeves cut off, and he had custom black Adidas sneakers on his feet with the words “five deep” stamped just above the sole.

“Me? I’m just always cool,” Wall said about the pressure Washington faced. The Wizards did not acquit themselves well in Toronto against the Raptors, with his team dropping the first two games of the series. They were in a difficult spot—only 6.5 percent of teams that lost their first two games in NBA history have advanced. “Just stay cool. Just stay cool.”

If Wall was trying to make some sort of statement about unity with his shoes, head coach Scott Brooks had a different message in mind. Given how everything went in Canada, Brooks was pressed about whether he might make changes to his starting five once the series resumed stateside. Brooks looked at the reporter who asked the question for a moment and then quipped, “All five guys?”

Brooks ultimately decided not to make any changes to his starters because, as he put it, “I’m confident in the group. They had a lot of good moments together.” That was a bold choice, and it worked. Wall and Bradley Beal each had 28 points and the Wizards cruised to their first win of the series in Game 3 on Friday evening. It was a big performance for Beal, who couldn’t get his shot to fall in Toronto (he made just 27.3 percent from distance and the Wizards were outscored by 30.8 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor in the first two games, per NBA.com). There was even a meeting after they left Canada between Brooks, Beal, and Wall during which Beal said that Brooks “apologized” to him for not finding enough good shots for his shooting guard. (Brooks later told a different story: “I don’t know if apologize would be correct.”)

The Wizards were in good spirits after Game 3. Beal and Wall did the postgame press conference together, with each man lauding the other’s effort while they sat side by side. They talked about how fun it was to win in front of the home crowd, and they laughed about Marcin Gortat unexpectedly shaving off his mohawk. Brooks joined in, joking that his center finally got “an age-appropriate haircut.” On that evening, everything went right for the Wizards.

Somehow, it went well on Sunday, too—even though it looked like it wouldn’t for much of the night. The Raptors led for much of Game 4 and were up 11 points at halftime. Beal fouled out with about five minutes to go on a suspect call that he rightly thought was “fucking bullshit.” The Raptors played terrific defense and the Wizards made just 67.7 percent from the line. Didn’t matter. None of it. The Wizards scored 40 points in the third quarter and somehow found a way to pull it out. They beat the Raptors 106-98. Beal and Wall combined for 58 points. Wall also added 14 assists and helped put the game away in the end.

A series that looked like it was over when it came to Washington is now tied 2-2, heading back to Toronto for Game 5 on Wednesday. The Raptors had a stranglehold on the proceedings, but the Wizards wiggled free in D.C. and somehow breathed new life into a season that seemed like it was on life support several times this year.

“A lot of things happened,” Brooks said after Sunday’s win. “It all happened from great effort. It all happened from team spirit. We didn’t want to go down 3-1 going back to Toronto.”

What a wild season for the Wizards. And somehow, it’s not over yet.

It’s sometimes hard to tell what the Wizards or their fan base expected from this team this year. Before the season began, depending on which bookmakers you prefer, they had the seventh-best odds to win the NBA championship with an over/under win total set at 48.5. (By comparison, FiveThirtyEight was slightly less bullish and projected them for 46 wins and the 11th-best shot to win it all.) No reasonable person really thought they’d challenge for a championship this year, but they theoretically had enough pieces to make a deep playoff run. After all, they were only one win away from the Eastern Conference finals last season.

That’s precisely why the narrative that emerged after the Wizards returned to town down two games against the Raptors was so strange. More than once, various reporters asked Brooks, Beal, Wall, and the other Wizards—and I’m paraphrasing here—how much they were looking forward to once again fighting back from a series deficit. It was an allusion to last season’s Eastern Conference semifinals, when the Wizards dropped the first two games to the Celtics before eventually forcing Game 7. Except the Wizards lost that series. The underdog comeback tale that so many people kept asking them if they could duplicate didn’t actually end in a comeback at all. It ended in defeat and disappointment. Embracing the nobody-believes-in-us vibes for motivation makes sense in a vacuum, but when you link it to a series that ended with getting dismissed from the playoffs it makes far less sense.

Bringing it back up as a parallel for this season felt bizarre—until I considered the space the Wizards occupy in the D.C. sports scene.

The more locals I spoke to about the Wizards over the past couple of days, the more I saw a collective shoulder shrug regarding everything from their on-court performance to their off-court arguments.

One D.C. media member who covers the team told me people don’t get too worked up about the Wiz either way, because they’re pretty far down the pecking order behind the professional football team and the Nationals. Listening to a sports radio station shortly after arriving in town, I heard the hosts sound excited to see if the Wizards could regroup against the Raptors—then almost immediately changed the conversation to the NFL draft.

Even some of the fans who attended the games seemed only passively engaged. While the Wizards were running away from the Raptors in Game 3, one guy seated within earshot of me started an “M-V-P” chant when Wall stepped to the line. Fans in cities all over do that for their favorite players even when they know it’s silly. This guy gave up after two or three tries. The chant started up again a little later in the fourth quarter with maybe tens of people joining in that time before it quickly petered out again. It was possibly the saddest effort I’ve ever heard. On the flip side, and in fairness, the atmosphere for Game 4 was fantastic. The crowd went wild for the improbable comeback. It’s almost like the fans aren’t sure what to make of the Wizards from moment to moment because the Wizards have been so hard to figure out this year.

The reasons behind this ambivalent relationship between fan base and team could be rooted in the ever-shifting identity of the squad. When they signed Ty Lawson for the playoffs—a 30-year-old point guard who had spent the year in China playing for Shandong—I didn’t understand it, and I was even more surprised when Brooks threw him heavy minutes in Game 2. (So was Lawson. “It was a little bit of a shock,” Lawson said about hearing Brooks bark his name and playing 31 minutes that night. “When I first got in, it was like eight minutes to go. I was like, ‘Oh, who?’”) But in context, it makes perfect sense. What other team but the Wizards would put together this cast of characters and willingly raise the curtain on another oddball Potomac production?

Of course they signed Lawson. Of course some of the Wizards subtweeted Wall while he was recovering from an injury. Of course people speculated that maybe they were better off with Tomas Satoransky running the point. Of course the Wizards and their fans were charged up about a chance to dig out of another hole. Of course they beat the Raptors to tie the series when it looked like they were finished. Of course the periodic internal drama (which we will get to) was brushed aside as though it was no big deal. Of course it all passes for just another normal Wizards season that doesn’t seem particularly strange to anyone except outsiders like me who haven’t lived it. And of course, inexplicably, the whole affair is still going.

It has been a while since the Wizards were legitimately good—they haven’t won 50 or more games in almost four decades—and it feels almost as long since they were at least legitimately entertaining. The Wizards were 14th in offensive rating this season, 15th in defensive rating, and 16th in net rating. That is so perfectly Washington—middle-of-the-pack rankings for a middle-of-the-pack team. Just good enough not to be bad; just bad enough not to be really good.

For a second there, when Wall announced in January that he’d have surgery on his left knee that would keep him out for two months (he took care to do so only after signing a fat, five-year contract to return to Adidas), it looked like the Wizards might have stumbled onto something interesting. No one thought Czech point guard Tomas Satoransky was better than Wall, but with him in the starting lineup the spotlight suddenly shined on everyone. The Wizards won five in a row without Wall and eight of their first 10. But they eventually flamed out and went 15-12 with Wall on the shelf.

The back end of the season was particularly ugly for Washington. The Wizards were 7-13 in March and April and limped into the playoffs with 43 wins as the eighth and final seed. Lucky for them that they were being “chased” in the standings by Stan Van Gundy’s dysfunctional Detroit Pistons—a team that had pulled up lame in the postseason race even before Washington started to stumble—otherwise the Wizards might already be golfing or sunning themselves on vacation somewhere. But they aren’t, and they might not be for a while.

Whatever preconceived notions we have about this team and what it should be reasonably capable of achieving should have been disabused by now. Every time we expect they’ll finally crumble under the weight of a roster that isn’t properly constructed or because of internal team issues that threaten to topple them, they somehow manage to remain standing.

“You have to give Washington credit,” Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said over the weekend. “They came out and did what they were supposed to do. I said it before, they are not your typical eighth seed. I do not know what they were predicted in the beginning of the year but they were not eight in our conference, so we have to have that level of respect for who they are.”

Casey pointed out that the Wizards have two All-Stars, just like the Raptors. He said once the Wizards returned to Washington, they “came out in a desperate” mode and “punched us,” and credited them for playing with “intensity” and “mental toughness” when it mattered most. It was all true.

“And all this talk about how they are not together,” Casey continued, the volume in his voice raising, “bullcrap!”

I mean … that might have been a bit much.

We need to talk about the screenshot. As Wizards-related topics go, it was a principal point of conversation when they returned to Washington for games 3 and 4. It’s part of the reason it’s so remarkable that the Wizards’ season is still in progress—because as recently as last week it looked to almost everyone like they were finished.

The screenshot is from Game 2, when things were not going well, but it could have easily been captured at any point over the past few seasons. There’s a reason the Wiz players are asked incessantly by the media about their relationships—not just this year, and not just in this series, but pretty much since this group has been together. The snapshot said everything you need to know about their interactions, even while they insisted there’s nothing to be said at all.

“I was just talking about our defensive coverage,” Wall replied when asked if he’d seen the photo. “That’s all it was—talking about something we wanted to do defensively. People that’s not in that huddle or on the outside are going to think that we arguing, having the biggest blowup. That’s their decision. Like I always tell people, they’re going to have their own perception of what’s going on. As long as we know what’s going on on this team, that’s our brother, that’s our family right there; we the guys that have to stick together when the times are hard or tough. We do that.”

Do they? Because I lost track of how many times the local media either hinted at their curious chemistry or questioned them about it outright. That might be because the Wiz players would have us believe that they sit around the campfire singing songs together, only to periodically shove each other into the flames. It was only two years ago that Wall openly admitted that he and Beal “have a tendency to dislike each other on the court”—which wasn’t nearly as inflammatory in retrospect as this year’s multiparty public spat.

After the Wizards beat the Raptors at home by three without Wall on the first day of February, Gortat took the biggest shot of his career when he launched a tweet calling it a “great ‘team’ victory.” The next day, Wall replied with a tweet of his own, then deleted it. (Actually, he claimed someone deleted it for him.)

Screenshot of a tweet from John Wall reading, “LolRT @MGortat: Unbelievable win tonight ! Great “team” victory!”

While all that unfolded, Beal told the media that “everybody eats. That’s our motto. That’s fun basketball. Everybody gets to touch it; everybody gets shots. It makes life easy. It just keeps the locker room close; it keeps our camaraderie going.”

Wall quickly went on SportsCenter and said the way Gortat and Beal went about things “wasn’t professional and classy,” added that he’s a team player because “I average almost 10 assists a game,” said he’s “very prideful in finding my teammates” and getting them “the most spoon-fed baskets ever,” and wrapped it all up by calling the criticism “funny to me” and “a joke.” Oh, and he said if his teammates didn’t approach him “face-to-face as a man” then he’d “lose a lot of respect” for them—at which point Gortat responded via the media by saying, “So, now we got to ask each other questions, who’s attacking who?” It was marvelous stuff.

But what seemed like a bad soap opera on the verge of getting canceled was seen as just another day at work by the participants. Beal tried to walk everything back and called the reaction to his comments “comical.” He also claimed he was quoting the movie Paid in Full when he said “everybody eats,” and trumpeted Wall as “the head of our franchise, a five-time All-Star.”

That happens a lot with the Wizards. One moment they’re taking shots at each other through the press or unwittingly posing for an unflattering team picture, the next they’re patting each other on the back and sitting shoulder-to-shoulder after pulling off another unexpected win in the playoffs to keep their season alive. While they were in Washington over the weekend, Beal gushed more than once about Wall finding everyone open looks—he said he couldn’t get a regular catch-and-shoot opportunity when Wall was injured, but once Wall returned “I got like five or six” right away—while Wall gave March (the nickname they all use for Gortat) lots of love for blocking shots, rebounding, setting screens, and being “the key to our team.”

At this point, we probably shouldn’t be surprised that this is how the Wizards operate. While Beal was in Los Angeles for All-Star Weekend, not long after the “everybody eats” affair, he said the inter-squad dustups weren’t a big deal in the end. “If we didn’t like each other,” Beal told me, “nobody would be on the team. Somebody would be traded or gone or something like that. That didn’t happen. That wasn’t the case.”

The way Beal described it in L.A., the Wizards wanted to “make it work on the floor for the benefit of the team.” He made it sound like they were coworkers with a job to do rather than friends or family who were trying to patch up holes in a deeper relationship, which would be more serious and complicated to fix. It was a professional approach. Everyone has worked with people they don’t necessarily want to hang out with outside the office, which doesn’t mean they can’t succeed together on the job.

The whole thing might seem dysfunctional to the outside observer, but at least for now, the perception matters less than the reality that their season remains in progress. They’re still alive. And to their mind, that’s all that matters. *Roll Safe meme* After all, you can’t get caught on camera arguing with your teammates in the middle of a game if there aren’t any games left to play.