Why the Washington Wizards Will Surprise the East in 2013
“We were bad—by plan—and now we plan to be GOOD.”—Ted Leonsis, April 2012.
Washington is a place where a false dawn seems to rise as soon as the sun sets, so to promise hope prior to each season quickly becomes tiresome as the years roll by.
Although it’s nice to know that the Washington Wizards plan to be good next year, it would also have been nice to have been told earlier that they planned to be bad this year.
You know, so that the eight-game losing streak didn’t hurt so much at the start of the season. As well as having to suffer the early sight of John Wall careening out of control in the vague direction of the basket, hoping to draw the foul rather than actually having to make the layup.
However, this didn’t continue for the entire season, and there were a number of real positives that can be taken as an indicator that there will be some surprises next time around.
When Randy Wittman took over from Flip Saunders, it wasn’t met with huge excitement. If anything, it foreshadowed Ted Leonsis’ quote that the Wizards were planning to be bad this year and would get on with finding a real coach, you know, whenever.
However, the team came out and played harder almost from the moment he took the reins, with a convincing 92-75 victory. Admittedly it was against the Bobcats, but the signs were there that players were willing to work again.
This was exemplified by Wittman himself when he shut down Andray Blatche, proving in one act that he wasn’t going to suffer the lack of discipline that we had seen under Saunders. To further confirm this, he then sent Nick Young and JaVale McGee out of Washington in exchange for more reliable pieces, followed by the expected amnesty of Blatche by the season’s end.
Without the locker room cancer that Blatche, McGee and Young spread, the Wizards got on with the business of being a basketball team again. It wasn’t always pretty, but it was easy to see that they actually felt it when they lost.
Watching them suffer a blowout loss and then saunter off court without a care in the world had become maddening, so seeing them frustrated and dejected under Wittman was a positive step.
The acquisition of Nene gave the team a backbone, with them going 7-4 during the games in which he played. When Michael Lee noted this for The Washington Post, he also went a step further, pointing out that three of those losses had been in the final minute, having led by double digits in the second half.
Although the obvious undercurrent to that statistic is that they needed to play harder on defense and further reduce turnovers, the belief that Nene seemed to bring with him wasn’t lost on his teammates. Michael Lee spoke to Trevor Booker, who summed it up nicely:
Everybody knew they could trust Nene. They knew what he was going to bring to the table. With us trusting him, it made our jobs easier.
The Wizards ended their season with a six-game winning streak, in stark contrast to the manner in which they began. With the luxury of a full offseason this year, who’s to say that they can’t continue that streak into the new year?
The Wizards are often referred to as a young team, but this is often used as an excuse when it should be a highlight. Their problem has been with the guidance, or lack of it, from the veterans.
Blatche, McGee and Young weren’t rookies, and they should have been setting an example for newly-drafted players. Instead they preferred to coast through the NBA like it was high school and they could rely on their athleticism to get them by.
The salary of Rashard Lewis sat like an anvil on the chest of the franchise, limiting all movement. If Lewis had been posting triple-doubles every night, then it wouldn’t have mattered, but all he seemed to be teaching the younger guys was that if you’re injured, you still get paid.
Getting clear of the four names above was integral to the development of others, but the cost implications were never going to sit well with Ted Leonsis.
Using brilliantly warped logic, Jim America wrote for Bullets Forever that the combined cost of ditching Blatche and Lewis would be to Leonsis “like paying $750 to euthanize your two cats that constantly poop and vomit in your mouth as you sleep.”
Now, despite the veterinary metaphors, Leonsis sort of followed that advice. Amnestying Blatche forced him to cut his losses and accept that there was no other choice, given that the interest from other teams would be minimal. Still, he was determined to get something for Lewis.
While Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza aren’t superstars, those options were never on the table when dealing for Lewis. What they do provide is a focus on defense that has been lacking from the Wizards roster, as well as continuing the change in the locker room culture.
Along with the reliability that Cartier Martin showed towards the end of last season, it marks a balance between young players and veterans that will have a positive effect on the team.
Instead of coming to Washington for one last paycheck like so many Redskins before them, the veterans want to get the best out of a team that has the potential to be so much better than its results would suggest.
Martin himself alluded to the same thing when he spoke to Michael Lee:
I think they’ve made some great moves. We’re headed in the right direction and I think they’ve brought in some good pieces to help that. I’ll come in, defend, rebound, shoot open shots and be a team player. Be a team player and a good person in the locker room. That’s where it starts.
It seems that the Wizards’ front office is starting to realize that, too.
With John Wall’s jump shot needing work and Jan Vesely’s everything-but-his-dunk needing work, the Wizards lacked offensive capability this year, and they struggled to open the floor for Wall to play his natural game.
Enter Bradley Beal.
Although he isn’t burdened with being the savior of the franchise, a lot is expected from Beal. Thankfully, his skill set is the perfect foil for Wall and his pace means that they should both be outrunning the majority of the players they face.
Beal is a pure shooter, which removes the pressure on Wall to do it all alone and charge to the basket. He finds open space without the ball, and possesses unselfish traits when in possession, using the court to draw defenders away and then finding the open man.
Beal has already demonstrated his usefulness to the Wizards in the Summer League, making the All-Summer League Team, one of only two rookies to do so. Although he played a little within himself—the response from Sam Cassell was to tell him to be more aggressive—he showed that he has the tools to make an impact in the NBA, averaging 17.6 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.8 assists.
Speaking to reporters in Las Vegas, Beal was confident that his attributes would mesh well with those of Wall:
I think it can work pretty real well with John. John likes to attack hard on the screen. Being a two guard. That’s a real fit for me. I think it’ll be great. We just want to win. That’s our mentality. We want to make each other better every day. That’s what he wants. That’s what I want. I think our chemistry is already building. I really can’t wait to play alongside him. (via Michael Lee, The Washington Post)
Beal will make mistakes and have bad games, as every rookie does. However, the situation he has walked in on is infinitely better than that which Wall “Dougie’d” his way into in 2010. He has the pieces around him to develop quickly and raise the game of others as a result.
Given the way this article started, it makes sense to leave the final words to Ted Leonsis, spoken during his conversation with Washington Post columnist Mike Wise:
What our belief is, we’re hoping John Wall and Beal become real stars that we keep and kind of build around them. Can Wall and Beal and Crawford one day be Isiah [Thomas],[Joe] Dumars and [Vinnie] the Microwave [Johnson]?