Maturity Marks Major Culture Shift from Wayward to Wins for Washington Wizards

Joe FlynnContributor IMarch 16, 2014

Washington Wizards forward Drew Gooden celebrates a basket during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Brooklyn Nets on Saturday, March 15, 2014, in Washington. The Wizards defeated the Nets 101-94. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)
Evan Vucci/Associated Press

At first blush, Saturday night's game between the Washington Wizards and the Brooklyn Nets was a clash between two franchises with markedly different philosophies.

Thanks to the largess of their Russian billionaire owner, the Nets have built the most expensive squad in NBA history—an unprecedented collection of All-Stars, veterans and huge contracts.

The Wizards, on the other hand, are a team built the old-fashioned way. They bottomed out for a few years, stockpiled high draft picks and are now experiencing a resurgence under young, home-grown stars like John Wall (the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 draft) and Bradley Beal (the No. 3 overall pick in the 2012 draft).

But looks can be deceiving. In reality, the Wizards are a team stocked with veterans. And those wily old codgers played a huge part in Washington's come-from-behind, 101-94 win. 

The Wizards needed every bit of their experience and savvy in this game, as they went into the fourth quarter down seven to a Brooklyn team that simply does not give up late leads. But they closed with a scintillating 29-15 quarter to put the Nets on ice.

In the process, they accomplished a rare feat, according to ESPN Stats:

Some of the heroes of Washington's comeback were not the usual suspects—Al Harrington and Drew Gooden were prominently involved—but they had one thing in common: They were not cowed by the moment at hand. That calm, collected attitude comes with experience, and it is the difference between this year's Wizards and past squads.


The New (Old) Wizards

What a difference two years makes.

The 2011-12 Wizards had undeniable raw talent, but were one of the most immature teams in NBA history. That murderer's row of low-basketball-IQ players has become legendary: Nick Young, JaVale McGee, Jordan Crawford, Andray Blatche. Then there was No. 6 overall pick Jan Vesely, who was perhaps just not that skilled to begin with. It was not a suitable environment to develop a talented young point guard like Wall.

Those players are all gone now. The Wizards struck gold with Beal in the 2012 draft, and then filled out the rest of the roster with mostly retread vets.

Wall and Beal may be the team's top two scorers, but the next four players on Washington's scoring list—Trevor Ariza, Nene, Marcin Gortat and Martell Webster—are all vets who began their respective careers elsewhere. Ariza joined the team in 2012-13 and Gortat was acquired during the 2013-14 preseason.

With players like Ariza and Gortat on board, it should come as no surprise that Wall has blossomed into the point guard the Wizards always hoped he'd become. He led all scorers on Saturday with 33 points on an ultra-efficient 10-of-15 from the field. 

Just how far has Wall come this season? Per ESPN Stats:

Even an opponent like Nets forward Paul Pierce, a surefire Hall of Famer and NBA champion, couldn't help but praise the development of both Wall and the Wizards, per CSN Washington's J. Michael and The Record's Andy Vasquez:

With power forward Nene out for the time being, the Wizards have gone even older, relying more heavily on Harrington and the recently-acquired Gooden, while also dealing for Andre Miller at the trade deadline.

Washington signed the 32-year-old Gooden to a 10-day contract on Feb. 25 and re-signed him for another 10 days on March 8.

If Saturday was any indication, Gooden can unpack his luggage, because he'll be staying in D.C. through the end of the season. He was the best player on the court in the fourth quarter, scoring 11 of his 21 points in the final frame.

As if that wasn't enough, Gooden provided perhaps the best quote of the season after the game, per the Wizards' official Twitter account:

Indeed you are, Mr. Gooden. 


Potential Playoff Matchups

Saturday's win vaulted the Wizards one game ahead of Brooklyn for the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference. Washington is only two games ahead of the Chicago Bulls for the fourth seed (and home-court advantage) in this tightly-packed group.

As it currently stands, the Wizards would play Chicago in the first round. However, Saturday's game could turn into a potential playoff preview, should both Washington and Brooklyn vault Chicago in the standings.

Honestly, either matchup would suit the Wizards just fine. They swept their three-game season series with Brooklyn after tonight's win and are 2-0 against Chicago, with the final contest coming on April 5.

Perhaps the Nets should be a little more concerned, as they have losing records against both Washington and Chicago. In one of the year's more shocking twists, they are 3-0 against the current second seed Miami Heat; a fact not lost on the Associated Press' Brian Mahoney:

The Washington Wizards have placed themselves in an enviable playoff position; they may not get home-court, but they will likely play a team they can beat in the first round.

That's what happens when a franchise matures; if it plays its cards right, it can start climbing the playoff ladder. The Washington Wizards may or may not reach the second round this season, but they seem to be on the right path.


* All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference