- In a league full of teams that are constantly angling to get ahead, the Wizards are consistently a step behind. So what's the problem in D.C.? Where should we begin.
The Wizards are the most dysfunctional team in the NBA. There are less talented teams, there are several franchises with fewer victories, and there other fanbases that have endured their own embarrassments on and off the court through the first month of the season. What sets the Wizards apart, though, is the complete lack of vision moving forward. Fans of the Wolves and Cavs can at least take solace knowing that the first few weeks of this season were probably as low as things will get. The Wizards can still go lower than where they are now—5-11 entering Tuesday night's matchup with the Clippers—and there's a chance that this month, or this year, is only the beginning. For now: John Wall is in a hot tub responding to fans and Stephen A. Smith. Bradley Beal says he's not paying attention to trade rumors because "basketball is my muse." Scott Brooks has no answers, but he won't be fired. Ernie Grunfeld is apparently GM for life, like the NBA's lone Supreme Court justice. And in lieu of hope or clarity in D.C., there is only mounting apathy.
On Monday morning ESPN reported that the Wizards were open to hearing trade offers for everyone on the roster, including John Wall and Bradley Beal. By Monday night, we learned Wall was recently fined for unloading a barrage of expletives at Scott Brooks during a practice. In the middle of that same practice there were altercations involving Jeff Green, Austin Rivers and Bradley Beal, who reportedly yelled at team executives, "I've been dealing with this s--- for seven years." Wizards fans can identify.
To that end, if anyone is wondering how the Wizards got here, I have been both a fan and a writer watching all of this unfold for several seasons. I have some thoughts.
The original sin of the current era was keeping Randy Wittman. Back in 2014, the Wizards finished the season as a No. 5 seed in the East. On the surface that looked like progress. But that story was misleading. While Washington finished fifth in the conference with 44 wins, the fifth-place team in the West won 54 games. The Wizards only beat four winning teams after the All-Star break. The defense was solid, but the offense finished No. 19 in the NBA. Even the playoff seeding itself was a mirage; the Wizards finished fifth because the Nets tanked their final game in an attempt to draw the Raptors in the first round of the playoffs. Ultimately, that season ended with an upset over the Bulls and a second round loss against a top-seeded Pacers team that had been in the midst of a months-long implosion.
(Note: This is the by-product of a sick brain so ignore this paragraph if you are more well-adjusted than me. But in case anyone wants to relive the particulars of the 2014 Eastern Conference playoffs, they began with the Wizards shocking the NBA: 17 of 18 ESPN writers had picked Chicago to win in the first round, but Wall, Beal and a vintage Nene dominated, and a wheezing Bulls nucleus had no answers. That series felt like the arrival of something big. When Washington then opened the second round with a road win over the top-seeded Pacers in Game 1, anything seemed possible. And then the Wizards proceeded to squander a close Game 2, before getting blown off the court at home in Game 3. In Game 4, Washington had a 17-point halftime lead and proceeded to lose the second half by 20 points. And that was the series. Indiana had been struggling, but the Pacers weren't going to just roll over. The Wizards lost because they didn't know how to beat a smart team. The talent was there, but they couldn't execute in close games, and they did none of the little things that separate good teams from average ones. That problem has persisted.)
Bringing Wittman back made sense on its face. His contract expired at the end of that season, and while the second round Pacers loss was a letdown, the Wizards had jumped from 29 wins in 2013 to the second round of the playoffs a year later. Good things were happening. The city was energized and the rest of the league had taken notice. “Beal is a tremendous player," Kevin Durant would say later that summer. “One of those players that’s going to be a thrill to watch for the next 10-15 years. And he’s a player for my hometown team, so I love him. I also like Wall; he’s one of my great friends." Everyone around the NBA could see there was room for this team to grow. And it was reasonable—especially if you hadn’t watched the regular season—to assume that keeping Wittman was the safe, smart play.
The problem with retaining Wittman was that there is actually an important distinction between safe and smart. So while the Wizards rewarded Wittman's fifth-place finish with a new contract, the Warriors fired Mark Jackson after two straight playoff runs in the West. Golden State paid Steve Kerr $25 million over five years to come coach Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. Stan Van Gundy signed on to coach and manage the Pistons. Quin Snyder joined the Jazz.
Washington ran it back with Wittman and got essentially the same results as the year before. The Wizards won 46 games, made it to the second round of the playoffs, and lost a winnable series against a smarter-but-less-talented Hawks team. The next year, after carefully carving out cap space years in advance and with the whole league wondering whether the Wiz might steal Kevin Durant in free agency, the wheels came off. Injuries came at the worst time. The offense regressed. Wittman lost the locker room halfway through the year. The Wizards missed the playoffs. Wittman was fired in April and the Wizards wound up paying significantly more money to Scott Brooks (5 years, $35 million) than they would have paid to almost any new coach in 2014. But by that point, it was too late.
Kevin Durant didn't even take a meeting with Washington. Al Horford signed with the Celtics. Dwight Howard cashed out with Atlanta before the Wizards could offer him, while rumored Washington targets Luol Deng and Joakim Noah went to the Lakers and Knicks. In the brief window before they had to extend all their lottery picks, the Wizards had no choice but to take all the money they'd saved for Durant and use it to overpay role players who might help optimize Wall's prime. Ian Mahinmi signed for four years, $64 million. Andrew Nicholson signed for four years, $26 million. Jason Smith completed the offseason at three years, $16 million. (Read this paragraph three times and it may permanently close the pleasure receptors in your brain.)
There had been mistakes before 2014 and there have been plenty of missed opportunities beyond the summer of 2016, but the Wittman example is a useful reference point for anyone wondering how this team could suddenly find itself at rock bottom. Some version of the Wittman logic in 2014—"this probably isn't the best move, but it's not the worst move, either"—repeats itself annually in Washington. Half-measures are the hallmark of this team's front office, ownership, and even its players. John Wall has never been bad, but he hasn't really improved in five years. Bradley Beal has always been good, but he's never been quite as good as he should be. Both of them were run off the floor by Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum Sunday night, and Blazers losses are always poignant because that flawed-but-wonderful Portland team is what the Wizards could be if their two best players actually cared about leading or getting better.
Every few days this season I've gotten text messages from friends asking what's wrong with this team. How did this get this bad? How can they get better? What needs to change? The hard part is explaining that no one scapegoat is satisfactory and no single change would be enough. All of this is connected.
Wall has been disappointing for all the reasons I mentioned over the summer. Last year he signed the richest contract in franchise history, called himself the best two-way guard in the league, showed up to camp out of shape, called out his teammates, and it only got worse from there. This season has been a continuation of last year's story. Wall's effort comes and goes. His work on offense is impatient and chronically inefficient, and his defense can turn any opposing point guard into an All-Star for a single night. His partying habits have been the subject of some debate in recent weeks, but I've never been to Rosebar. I do know that a few years ago an NBA executive wondered about Wall's social life and how he would age. He told me that players who like to party excessively tend to see a steep decline through the second half of their career. One part of that sentence certainly seems to apply to Washington's franchise player. (We're not even going to talk about the contract, but yes, this Wizards HoopsHype page is becoming its own urban legend.)
The problem with blaming Wall's leadership is that he was never really given a chance to learn how to do things any differently. Certainly he should be held accountable for some of the disappointment in D.C., but the Wizards never had anyone around the team who could teach him how to be a franchise player. There's been no coach, no veteran teammate (save for one year with Paul Pierce), and no management with enough credibility to hold Wall accountable for mistakes while also providing viable alternatives. This a bigger organizational blindspot that dates back to the Arenas years, and now it appears to have poisoned another superstar career. While a team like the Celtics can trade for Kyrie Irving and trust that their culture will minimize his worst habits and optimize his most valuable skills, the Wizards have essentially done the opposite with Wall.
Another problem is Grunfeld, but you knew that, because at this point, everyone does. Grunfeld has been in charge of the Wizards longer than any GM outside of Pat Riley, RC Buford, Danny Ainge, and Donnie Nelson. All of those similarly-tenured peers have titles on their résumé; Washington's best finish through 15 seasons with Grunfeld is fourth place in the East. The team has finished above .500 seven times in those 15 years, and they've won more than 45 games just twice. All of this is why Grunfeld has become a punchline among rival teams and executives. But like Wall, the story is slightly more complicated than it appears. For all the jokes about his longevity, it's notable Grunfeld hasn't enjoyed much job security. That's a crucial distinction from someone like Danny Ainge, who has free reign to take aggressive risks or stand pat as he sees fit.
The loyalty from owner Ted Leonsis seems to be conditional; past mistakes and ongoing shortcomings can be forgiven, but only as long as Grunfeld can help the franchise save face with a playoff run each spring. So one season Grunfeld is trading a first-round pick for Markieff Morris, and the next, there goes a first for Bojan Bogdanovic. This summer, he gambled on Dwight Howard and Austin Rivers. In 2016, there were the aforementioned Mahinmi and Nicholson deals. Some of those moves worked better than others, but each one has been an attempt to make the best of a bad situation. And while Grunfeld is responsible for creating these messes in the first place, he's also been incentivized to seek out short-term fixes at the expense of any long-term vision. In the end, this dynamic leaves the Wizards with the worst of both worlds. By keeping Grunfeld they have ensured that there are no new ideas on the management side, but by refusing to grant him long-term security (or even publicly announce his extensions) the team has left Grunfeld without any room to be patient or bold. It's a recipe for perennial mediocrity.
There are other factors to consider if anyone is interested in diagnosing problems. Take Bradley Beal. He's been good enough to make everyone question whether Wall is the best player in Washington, but as Wall's game devolves, Beal has generally struggled when asked to shoulder more responsibility and close games by himself. Or Otto Porter. He should be an elite role player along the lines of Joe Ingles, but he's paid twice as much, and that complicates his relationship with fans and even fellow teammates. Markieff Morris has games where he solves every Wizards problem and looks like one of the best bargains in the NBA as a stretch four who can close games at smallball five. Those Morris games are usually followed by four or five more games in which he settles for contested pull-up jumpers, doesn't guard anybody, talks too much trash, and embodies the worst instincts of the entire team. Scott Brooks is not a bad coach and he's done his best, but he hasn't had enough authority or creativity to address any of these issues over the past two seasons.
Ultimately, the problem is everyone. The entire team is disappointing and broken in some fundamental ways. There isn't much room to change anything, and even if there were, there's really no reason to think that Grunfeld is the right person to change any of this. If we want to talk specifics: a very significant trade kicker will make Wall's supermax contract incredibly difficult to move until July. Even then, the Wizards probably can't expect much return from whichever team decides to gamble on his next few seasons. That leaves Beal and Porter. They are the only two players on the roster who might be able to bring back real value, and while the team would theoretically be smart to keep them, it's unlikely that a team built around Beal and Porter would be good enough to have any meaningful success.
That last point is what will determine the future in Washington. What does success mean in D.C.? Losing in the second round has always been celebrated as a breakthrough in Washington, and now we're here. The coaching and management is currently half as competent as the best teams in the NBA, the players have plateaued individually, and chemistry has never looked worse. Not everyone can be the Warriors, but consider the organizational standards that define teams like the Celtics, Raptors, Jazz, and Rockets. In a league full of teams that are constantly angling to get ahead, the Wizards are consistently a step behind. They have sold second–round picks, traded first–round picks, flubbed free agency, hired the wrong coaches, excused the shortcomings of their stars, and they now find themselves with very little recourse but to press reset on an entire era.
If the goal is to eventually win a championship or at least contend in some meaningful way, this team will have to get more aggressive and more creative than the franchise has been in 25 or 30 years. On the other hand, if the goal is to make the playoffs for one more year and salvage this season with some nominal redemption, there is good news: the Wizards are only 2.5 games out of the eighth seed.