One of my favorite moments from last season came in May, when Bradley Beal interrupted the Eastern Conference finals to say that, for the record, the Cavs had avoided the Wizards. "Cleveland didn’t want to see us," Beal told Chris Miller of NBC Sports. "They didn’t want to see us in the second round. If they were going to go down, they were going to go down in the conference finals. They didn’t want to go down in the second round.” To be more precise, Beal was implying that Cleveland lost the final four games of the season on purpose, ceded the No. 1 seed to Boston, and ensured that they'd play the Raptors instead having to deal with the Wizards in the second round. I love this quote for a few different reasons.
First of all, the timing. A day after this interview ran, the Cavs beat the Celtics by 46 points, and LeBron looked like he wouldn't lose an East playoff series for another 50 years. Of the 52 weeks of the year the Wizards could have picked to accuse the Cavs of ducking them, this was easily the worst one.
Also, the audacity. A week before this interview ran, the Wizards had lost a Game 7, costing them a chance to see the Cavs in real life. Coming off the Celtics loss, this should've been a time to play it humble, admit the team needs to improve, and talk about how hard they'd work in the offseason. Instead, Beal was like a boxer who lost his title shot and used the post-fight interview to wonder whether the heavyweight champion of the world was afraid of him.
Mostly, it was the honesty that made it perfect. For better and worse, this is the Wizards. They are incapable of not telling you exactly how they feel, exactly when they feel it. They're not in the media playing chess, but they will occasionally pick up a chess piece and throw it at someone across the room. Sometimes this works great (the Celtics funeral game that drove Marcus Smart insane), sometimes not so much (losing to that same Celtics team in the playoffs), but it's all very Wizards.
John Wall agreed with Beal's Cavs theory before the season began, because of course he did. As he told ESPN, "They said if we're going to see [Washington], we don't want it to be until the East finals. We were the team that gave them the most trouble in the East. That's my opinion, some people might not agree with me." In that same piece from Brian Windhorst, the Wizards said they think they can be the best team in the East this season. A month or so before that, Wall called himself the best two-way point guard in the NBA. Last week, he told reporters that it's "wolf season" in Washington D.C. A few nights later Wall said he sees himself as the best shot-blocking point guard in NBA history, announcing himself the winner of an argument no one was having.
This week, after the team nearly declared war when Nikola Jokic nudged Scott Brooks, the Wizards spent the ensuing 48 hours responding to Lavar Ball's guaranteed Lakers victory.MarcinGortat predicted 48 minutes of torture and Wall promised "no mercy" on Lonzo, and then the Wizards blew a 10-point fourth-quarter lead and lost in overtime to an awful Lakers team. It ended on a missed jumper from Wall, who ignored an open Jodie Meeks and had his foot on the line as he missed a long-two that wouldn't have tied the game.
The Wizards have definitely been feeling themselves. Too much? Probably. That Lakers loss might've been healthy. Friday's matchup with the Warriors could be a good reality check, too.
Many smart people around the NBA have trouble taking the Wizards seriously. Basically, critics argue they are way too impressed with themselves without ever having accomplished anything that matters. It's a fair point. Talk less, win more, etc. I get it. But speaking as a completely biased Wizards fan living in D.C., I'd say that everything that makes the Wizards ridiculous also makes them charming.
Imperfect teams ready to take shots at the entire league are how we survive during the Warriors era. Some people call this increased risk profile. Other people call it wolf season.
Beyond the personality of the team itself—beyond wolf season and LaVar Ball and and the long overdue dialogue about the greatest shot-blocking point guards in NBA history—this is a really important season in D.C.
This is the year the Wizards can show the NBA that the past few playoff runs were the beginning of something bigger. Until now, they've been a fun team that makes the second round of the playoffs in a mediocre conference. Each time they've made the second round—in 2014 against an openly miserable Pacers team, 2015 against a Hawks team that was out of gas, and again in 2017 against the Celtics—they've lost to teams they probably should've beaten. They weren't necessarily "better" than each of those teams from an execution standpoint, and there were mitigating circumstances that made all three matchups more complicated. But they had enough talent to win all three of those series, and they didn't.
If they can't turn the corner in 2018, why should anyone believe it will ever happen? On the other hand, if they can make real progress and push their way to the conference finals, the future gets a lot more interesting.
As for how it happens, there are always a number of moving pieces for any team in the NBA that's trying to go from good to great. So here are six of those pieces to watch with the Wizards this season:
1. John Wall needs to be John Wall, not Russell Westbrook. At the moment, Wall is pressing. He went 10 of 28 on opening night, 7 of 22 on ESPN against the Lakers on Wednesday, and he's shooting 37% on the year. Wall is perpetually pissed off at the lack of recognition he gets nationally, and it's fair. He's been better than someone like Kyrie Irving for the past five years, and he's half as famous. But this season he entered the year with some light MVP buzz, and ... he needs to stop trying to win MVP. Wall's game is spectacular when he's turning defenses inside out with his passing and torturing teams in transition. When he starts trying to be Mr. Closer on offense, it usually ends with a bricked 19-footer. This shot will remain a life highlight of mine regardless, but hopefully Wall will distribute more than he shoots and play a little bit more controlled as the year unfolds.
2. John Wall needs to play defense. Shot-blocking is cool, but not spacing out and losing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope on a huge fourth–quarter three is cooler. Wall does literally everything for the Wizards offense so I don't mean to single him out, but he's the franchise player, and that's not just a marketing distinction. He's the heartbeat of the team. When he locks in on defense, everyone follows. For the Wizards to actually scare any good teams this year, Wall doing the little things is a big deal.
3. Kelly Oubre raises the ceiling for the season. Oubre looks better on offense and much better on defense than anyone would've imagined a year ago. His three-point shooting (35% thus far) has been just good enough to make him a threat from the perimeter, and he gives the Wizards an extra defender that allows them to play smaller, more dangerous lineups. If Oubre can keep this going, it changes the equation in the playoffs this year, and it gives them more flexibility with the roster. This is important. Also, Wall is the heartbeat of the Wizards, but I really think Oubre is the soul.
4. Otto Porter can't disappear. Porter signed a $104 million contract this summer, and this caused a ton of local anxiety, but it shouldn't have. He deserves it. I'd rather pay Otto $26 million per year than pay Andrew Wiggins $29 million per year. His defense, knack for playmaking in the margins, and three-point shooting all make him really valuable on a good team. Through the first few Wiz games, he's been the most consistent player on the team. Having said that, if John Wall hadn't hit that game-winner in Game 6 against the Celtics, Otto would have ended the year going 0 for 5, with 0 points in 35 minutes. Those are the games that can't happen if he's going to make $26 million this year. If they want this nucleus to scare good teams, the Wizards need him to be more aggressive than he's ever been, and guys like Wall and Beal have to make an effort to keep him involved and make him a threat.
5. Everyone has to stay healthy, but the Wizards really have to stay healthy. Washington leaned on its starting five more than any team in the NBA last year. The bench was a disaster, so Scott Brooks had no choice. This year's bench is slightly better, but still pretty thin. So, injuries matter. The Markieff Morris sports hernia to start the year has actually been OK—it's given Oubre room to spread his wings and dunk on people—and they could probably handle a month without Wall or Beal without watching the season fall apart. But if a deep playoff run is the goal, they will need everyone in their top 7. That includes 30-year-old Jodie Meeks and his shaky injury history, and especially 33-year-old MarcinGortat. Now excuse me while I go knock on wood for 45 minutes.
6. They have to figure out a plan in crunch time. Speaking of Gortat ... right now the best crunch–time option for the Wizards is a Wall pick-and-roll with MarcinGortat. That's not great. Wall's shooting issues were noted above, and Otto doesn't have quite enough shake to his game to work as a closer. Here's to hoping that as the year progresses, closing quarters, halves, and games becomes Bradley Beal's job. He's good enough to make it work. He was the best player on the floor at times during those Celtics playoff games. He can score at all three levels, and this is the year he should graduate from "fun young player" to legitimate star. It'll take Scott Brooks committing to Beal and Wall allowing it to happen, but this should be the plan. We'll see if they get there.
And "we'll see if they get there" is sort of the story for the season, right?
Everyone knows Gordon Hayward is hurt. The rest of the Celtics are young. The Bucks have Giannis, but they're also counting on Tony Snell and Matthew Dellavedova to help close games around him. Toronto will be in the mix, but Kyle Lowry looks like he's slowing down, and the Raptors have yet to prove they can solve the playoffs. The Heat are a star short, the Sixers are a year or two away, and ... who else? It's wide-open for the Wizards, a team with more talent than anyone outside Cleveland in the East, and a nucleus that's just entering its prime.
For the record, making the conference finals and pushing LeBron isn't just some kind of dumb sportswriter badge of progress. It's a signal to the rest of the league, and superstars all over the NBA, that the Wizards are close. That matters. We just watched Kyrie Irving demand a trade and force his way to Boston this summer, and who knows who will be available next summer. Navigating the cap will be tricky—Ian Mahinmi makes how much?—but salaries have a way of working themselves out when superstar leverage is involved. And that's why details like Jodie Meeks's health and Kelly Oubre's three-point percentage actually matter. The Wizards have the pieces to make a playoff run now, but if they can win enough to recruit one more star over the next year or two, this gets real.
Speaking of real, on Friday night Washington will play the Warriors in Golden State. It'll be rough. KD went to the Bay, not D.C. Wall and Beal will almost certainly get their ass kicked, they'll look outclassed on both ends, and they'll come away from this week looking miles away from one of the best teams in the league. But they may not be as far away as it appears.
Wall is elite. Beal is getting there. If the Wizards can build on what they started last season, next summer will be interesting. In the meantime, this year should be fun.
The Cavs can't keep ducking them forever.