There was a sort of moment of revelation for me last Saturday night, when I saw that there was a Bulls-Wizards game on NBA TV, and instinctively reached for my remote to DVR it. There’s nothing more unwatchable in the NBA than a game between a team that’s good-but-not-great and a team that’s totally awful — there’s no drama, no stakes, and 95 percent of the time, no interest — and for most of the first half of the NBA season, that’s exactly what a Chicago-Washington Saturday nighter would’ve been. But something had changed about these Wizards over the few weeks prior: They’d gone from depressing to watchable to oddly exciting. They might not have even been terrible anymore.
Going into Monday night’s game against the Kings, the Wizards had won five straight at the Verizon Center. I’d venture to say it’s the first time this season that the Wizards had won five straight of anything, considering that before they started their home streak, they were just 4-28 on the year. Going back further, Washington hadn’t won even one-third of their games for a season since 2008, their last full season with Eddie Jordan at the helm. Since then, they’d become the laughing stock of the league, and kind of an anti-Thunder, a team that proved that sustained tanking was far from a foolproof way to rebuild a franchise. There was the Gilbert Arenas contract, the Gilbert Arenas locker room fiasco, the Mike Miller and Randy Foye trade, the BALTCHE incident, and a whole lot of Nick Young and JaVale McGee. It’s been a minute since the Wizards were anything but a dark cloud hanging over the NBA.
Over the last few weeks, though, there’s been life, legitimate life out of DC. Not only did they win five straight at home, but they beat a handful of pretty good teams — the Thunder, Hawks and the previously mentioned Bulls on that Saturday-nighter — and absolutely ran a couple lousy ones off the court, destroying the Magic 120-91, and drubbing the Timberwolves 114-101 in a game that wasn’t even as close as the final score indicated. Even on their five-game West Coast road trip in between home stints, they went a respectable 2-3, beating two solid teams in the Nuggets and Blazers, and not losing any game by more than seven points. The improvement from the team that started 4-28 was evident, to say the least.
Of course, there was an inciting incident for all this, both in terms of the team playing better and the team being more watchable: The return of point guard (and for lack of another feasible option, face of the franchise) John Wall. Out for the season up until that point, Wall was a forgotten man among the league’s exciting young players, having come off a disappointing sophomore season and playing for a team that seemed to be beyond redemption. But Wall proved a surprisingly steady contributor and leader coming off the bench upon his return, scoring in double digits in every game but one and racking a couple double-doubles. Wall’s return coincided with a couple other Wizards who’d been out for stretches — A.J. Price, Trevor Ariza, Nene — and suddenly, the team had something dangerously close to a full roster, with Wall at the helm.
I’ve seen so little of John Wall since his rookie season — the team was rarely less than miserable last year, and Wall rarely impressed when I watched — that I forgot how electric he can be when he’s on. You can see parts of other League Pass favorites in his game: the acceleration of Russell Westbrook, the quickness and body control of Derrick Rose, even some flashes of the around-the-basket creativity of Kyrie Irving. But it’s so much rawer, so much less graceful than any of those guys. In a way, though, that can be even more exciting, since with Wall the moments of inspiration are more fleeting, but even more stunning. And during moments when he seems to have turned even the slightest of corners — against the Kings the other night, he hit two straight top-of-the-key jumpers and I started thinking Oh God, if he starts hitting that… — you feel like you’re watching the future.
As a teammate, not only does Wall improve everyone else on the Wizards with his playmaking, he also helps them out from a League Pass standpoint by allowing them to be, well, not so fucking depressing. When Wall is out of the lineup, you look over their guys and think “Damn, is this really all they have?” But with him there to make plays and be exciting and be The Guy, suddenly you can appreciate his supporting cast for being a solid supporting cast. Now, you watch the team and it’s like “Hey, Bradley Beal, stroke’s coming along nicely! Martell Webster, I had no idea you were still in the league! Emeka Okafor, I haven’t seen you in years man, what’s up? Still got that Rookie of the Year trophy?” You remember that some of these NBA players are actual NBA players, and not just filler to kill time in between lottery drawings.
Nowhere is this truer than with Nene, the big man who signed a $67 million deal with the Nuggets just two offseasons ago, and within three months of signing, became a complete afterthought in this league thanks to his trade to the Wizards. Still, watching the Wiz the last few weeks, you remember why Washington dealt for him in the first place, to give Wall his first true plus-offensive big man teammate. Believe it or not, the pair have actually been pretty damn potent when healthy simultaneously, powering the Wizards to six straight wins at the end of last season, and keying their strong run recently. There was a play a couple nights ago when Wall fed Nene in the post, curled around him through the back door and Nene, holding the ball extended out in his gigantic palm, whipped a dime over his back shoulder to an open Wall under the basket. You think Andray Blatche or Trevor Booker makes that play?
And speaking of Wizards big men, Washington holds the ultimate League Pass X-Factor dangling at the end of their bench: Jan Vesely. In his season-and-a-half since being taken with the No. 6 pick in 2011, Vesely has done little to justify his lottery pick status — or indeed, even his bonafides as a worthwhile NBA rotation player — and has been the subject of much mockery, most from Bill Simmons cohort and noted Washington Professional Basketball Team fan Joe House, for having accrued more fouls than points for the majority of the 2012-13 season. Vesely has contributed to the Wizards in few meaningful ways over his first 88 games, and now that the Wizards once more have a full rotation of healthy competent big men, he’s picked up DNP-CDs in the last two Washington games. But oh my God, was this guy born for League Pass.
In terms of guys you watch out for when watching a random Wizards game, Vesely ranks only under Wall and maybe (but probably not) Nene. Because most of the (dwindling) time he’s out there on the court, he’s lanky and awkward, all arms and legs and floppy, floppy hair. You’re wondering how this guy is an NBA player and not some Cold War-era genetic experiment gone hilarious, when all of a sudden BANG! He sails above the hoop for a resounding putback dunk or alley-oop finish. The Wall-to-Vesely oop connection, which belied some real chemistry in the rare moments they’ve shared this season, is as thrilling a sight as you’ll see on the court in 2013, and Randy Wittman should be mandated to play him for 10 minutes a game at a minimum just to make such moments possible. (Sorry, Kevin Serpahin, nobody’s flipping over to Wizards-Raptors on a Tuesday to see your solid-but-uninspiring low post moves.)
At the end of the day, perhaps the most telling thing for the ’12-13 Wizards is this: Tonight, the Wizards play my team of choice, the Philadelphia 76ers. In years past, I’ve either dreaded games against the Wizards because I knew they would be unwatchable or anticipated them eagerly for being easy wins. Now, it’s reversed — I’m dreading the game because I’m not sure how much better, if at all, the Sixers are than the Wizards, but I’m excited for the game because I think it’ll be a whole lot of fun to watch. League Pass denizens of the world, it’s time to give the Washington Professional Basketball Team another chance.