The Wizards have one win since April of last year. They won only 15 games in 2011, won only 23 games on the season, have gone 68-178 over the last three, and have not cracked the elusive 26 win barrier for three seasons. Indeed, if you really want to overthink things, the Wizards haven’t won more than 45 games since 1978-79, the year after winning their only NBA championship. That’s how bad the franchise has been having it.
There are less talented teams out there, though. So something must be wrong. Quite. Why have the Wizards been this bad?
Two years ago, the Wizards sold the No. 32 pick to Houston for $2.5 million, and then re-invested most of it in signing veteran big man Fabricio Oberto, whom they then saw fit to actually play in actual games. Despite recording 121 fouls to only 105 rebounds and 83 points, the Wizards would repeatedly turn to Oberto ahead of JaVale McGee, a core young piece, because Oberto would play the “right way.” He would screen, hand-off, pass, only sometimes throw the ball away, and try his level best to not be too slow in his defensive rotations. Signing Oberto, and playing him ahead of infinitely more talented players, was supposed to set a standard for Wizards basketball, a means to instil discipline and good habits into youngsters by making them sit and watch inferior veterans do it first.
It didn’t work. The Wizards continue to be submarined by a lack of discipline on the court, the folly of youth with little veteran savvy to correct it with. There’s plenty of talent on the roster but there’s no cohesion to it. And without IQ, heart or intensity, talent counts for nothing.
Flip Saunders will likely be the fall guy before the year is out, because someone has to be. But he’s trying, moreso than his players. You can’t teach a team that won’t listen. Washington’s offense is built around a point guard who can’t shoot, a shooting guard who won’t stop shooting, and a big man who shoots whatever he wants before blaming others for it on Twitter. All this is complimented by a defense that just doesn’t understand fundamental defensive positioning, nor that seems to want to try. In stockpiling assets and loading up on potential, all the Wizards have done is create a cast of misfits. Misfits who, for the most part, play as though they are in it only for themselves.
Dearth of on-court discipline notwithstanding, there is a genuine depth of talent to the roster. But even their genuine prospects are suffering. John Wall in particular is off to a terrible start, shooting 35 percent from the field, turning the ball over four times a game and looking thoroughly baffled in the halfcourt. Wall will however at least try to pass, but the same cannot be said for the whole team. As good of shot makers as they are, Andray Blatche, Nick Young and Jordan Crawford seem content with looking only for their own, running isolation after isolation, damaging their reputations, shooting percentages and team performance in the process.
If the team has such an inherent distrust of itself that veteran reserve Mo Evans (who is not guilty of the aforementioned crimes) saw fit to call a players-only meeting barely a week into a season, it isn’t hard to see where it stems from. The Wizards, frankly, do not play like a team.
Frustrated by mediocrity, Washington blew up their expensive, badly-constructed but talented team of veterans, and replaced it with a cheaper, equally badly-constructed yet highly talented team of youngsters. At the behest of owner Ted Leonsis, they adhered to the time-honoured mantra that it’s better to be young and bad than old and average, opting to tank several seasons to build something long term. Yet they’re somehow worse off for it, and there’s no end in sight. A worryingly care-free culture permeates the roster, one so entrenched that not even Mo Evans and Roger Mason can make an inroad into it.
Eight of the 15 Wizards players are rookies or sophomores. The next three with the most experience — Young, Blatche and McGee — play more like the problem than the solution. In terms of true veterans, the Wizards boast only four, and yet they barely play. Ronny Turiaf is out long term with a broken hand, Mo Evans has yet to play due to a knee injury, Roger Mason is a bit-part player, and Rashard Lewis has been simply ineffective this season.
As near as makes no difference, then, the Wizards are dependent upon the vagaries of youth. Even the moves to rectify this imbalance were themselves undermined. Mike Miller was merely a rental, Kirk Hinrich lasted half a season before he was traded for youth and cap space, and Shaun Livingston left as soon as he broke out. The Wizards don’t need both Chris Singleton and Jan Vesely, nor both Jordan Crawford and Nick Young, nor both Trevor Booker and Kevin Seraphin. But they do have them, and this stockpiling of youth may have gone too far.
The Wizards finally won a game this week, beating a Raptors team so overtly obvious in their tanking that they start Rasual Butler. The depth and potential were on display, as was a level of effort the normally lethargic Wizards are not known for, and for which Saunders’s starting lineup changes ought take much of the credit. It was a game and a result that hinted at what might still lie dormant within.
But that’s all they’ve done. A team with this much young talent should feel a lot better about where it’s headed than this. They might just have to get older.