Since we've already explored the 1978 and 1979 Finals to a degree, its better to reflect on what led to Washington finally breaking through in 1978. Because it's not every day a 44-38 team wins a championship.
Yes, you read that correctly. 44-38.
NBA basketball had been a strange experience for DC-area fans up to that time. The Bullets had a couple of defunct ancestors: the Washington Capitols were the first franchise NBA Red Auerbach coached (bet you didn't know that). In the NBA's inaugural season, the Capitols dominated the league to the tune of 49-11 - that's 67-15 in an 82-game schedule. No team exceeded that record until 1967, when the Philadelphia 76ers went 68-13. Despite such an excellent regular season, the Capitols failed to even reach the NBA Finals, let alone win it. They did reach the Finals in 1949, but they ran into a buzzsaw that would win five titles in six seasons - the George Mikan-led Minneapolis Lakers. Auerbach's Capitols were the first victims of that Laker dynasty. Midway through the following season, with Auerbach now coaching in Boston, the Capitols disbanded. They were only 10-25 at the time.
In nearby Baltimore, during those same years, there existed a team known as the Bullets. The Bullets fared better in the Finals than did Washington, having won the 1948 championship. Unfortunately, this inaugural season proved to be the only winning one the original Bullets ever had. Their regular season record got progressively worse, from season to season, until 1955 when the franchise disbanded after 14 games. (While on the subject, Baltimore happens to be in a 62-year title drought themselves).
So the current franchise, the Washington Wizards, is a 1962 expansion franchise - born in Chicago. That's right, Chicago. Born the Chicago Packers (that couldn't have sat well with Bears fans) they were renamed, after the first season, the Chicago Zephyrs (that couldn't have sat well with humanity). Eastward relocations were rare for sports franchises then, but Chicago Zephyred their way to Baltimore - and the Baltimore Bullets were back! Mediocre for several seasons, but back!
Wes Unseld, a pillar of the Bullets' greatest decade ever, pulled one of the rare double feats in all of sport: in 1969, Unseld was named the NBA Rookie of the Year and MVP. But the Bullets, despite their young stars Wes Unseld and Earl Monroe, and their league-best 57-25 record, lost their series versus the wily old Boston Celtics in Bill Russel's final season. But they would build on this foundation, making their first Finals appearance...against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson. The 1971 Bucks were one of the greatest teams of all time, finishing with a 66-16 record, and they swept aside the Bullets, 4-0.
Earl the Pearl was traded after that season for Mike Riordan, Dave Stallworth, and cash. Seriously. Granted, Monroe had been outplayed by Oscar Robertson in the Finals: Robertson averaged 23.5 points, 9.5 assists, and 5 rebounds compared with Monroe's 16.3/4/4. Nevertheless, when one considers Monroe's reputation and abilities, it's hard to believe. The Bullets would eventually upgrade, trading Jack Marin for the original Mailman, Elvin Hayes. With another potent frontcourt teammate to play alongside Wes Unseld, the Bullets hit a new groove, averaging 53 wins from 1973-75. But after winning 60 and outlasting the other 60-win team in 1975 during the Eastern Conference Finals (the Boston Celtics), the Bullets advanced to the Finals...and got swept again, this time by the 48-34 Golden State Warriors.
Two more decent 48-34 seasons followed, with the Bullets finishing 4th and 6th in the league in 1976 and 1977 respectively. When the Bullets finished with a 44-38 record in 1978, what reasonable observer would have predicted a Bullets championship?
If DC basketball is anything at all, it's unpredictable.
One good way to not win championships is to draft poorly, and...well, just read from this list of first-round draft picks from 1980-99 and draw your own conclusions:
1980, Wes Matthews; 1981, Frank Johnson; 1982, no pick; 1983, Jeff Malone, Randy Wittman; 1984 Mel Turpin; 1985 Kenny Green; 1986, John "Hot Plate" Williams, Anthony Jones; 1987, Muggsy Bogues; 1988, Harvey Grant; 1989, Tom Hammonds; 1990, no pick; 1991, LaBradford Smith; 1992, Tom Gugliotta; 1993, Calbert Chaney; 1994, Juwan Howard; 1995, Rasheed Wallace; 1996-98, no pick; 1999 Richard Hamilton.
Some pretty decent players on that list, though overall not a great record. But who could they have had instead of those guys?
1981, Kelly Tripucka, Larry Nance; 1983, Clyde Drexler; 1984, Alvin Robertson, Otis Thorpe, Kevin Willis, John Stockton; 1985, Karl Malone, Joe Dumars, AC Green, Terry Porter; 1986, Dell Curry; 1987, Mark Jackson; 1988, Rod Strickland; 1989, Mookie Blaylock, Tim Hardaway, Shawn Kemp; 1991, Rick Fox;
I can't really quibble with their 92-99 first-round picks - reviewing those drafts, they seem plausible; but the 81-91 picks could have gone a lot better.
In a related story, the Bullets made the playoffs only eight times from 1980 to 2004.
With spectacular rookie John Wall in the fold, what's next for the Washington Wizards franchise? Who knows, but Wall may prove to be the cornerstone of the team that ends the 32-year drought.