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A Fate Worse Than Death: That Old Wizards Magic

Another season of unwatchable basketball begins in Washington.

Kevin Seraphin

Here at A Fate Worse Than Death headquarters, we try to make a difference. Yes, we chronicle the experience of watching unwatchable basketball games, but it’s not just about identifying the deepest, manure-ridden corners of the NBA pigpen and rolling around in them. It’s also about empathy — sharing the pain that some of the league’s fan bases endure over the course of an 82-game season. And I’m happy to report that, beyond simply commiserating with supporters of the Toronto Raptors and Detroit Pistons and Sacramento Kings, we may be something of a lucky charm for the saddest team of all: the Washington Wizards.

Last season, after setting a franchise record for futility with an 0-8 start and earning a Washington Post column from Mike Wise titled “An embarrassment by design,” the Wizards were selected for the inaugural edition of Grantland’s Fate Worse Than Death series. What happened? They blew out the Toronto Raptors to claim their first win of the season. This year, entering Wednesday’s game at the Verizon Center against the 6-8 Portland Trail Blazers, the Wizards were 0-12. Their upcoming schedule suggested that if they didn’t beat the Blazers at home, they’d come close to breaking the 2009-10 New Jersey Nets’ record for the worst start ever, at 0-18. After the team’s 12th loss, Wise came out with another column, this one headlined “The Washington Wizards are depressingly bad.” And again, what happened? The Fate Worse Than Death committee queued up the Wizards just in time to see them spare themselves an ignominious run at history by toppling the Trail Blazers, 84-82. Next year, Washington fans, we promise to watch a terrible Wizards game before they make it to 0-12.

Losing 12 straight games is a feat unto itself, and it’s worth looking at how the Wizards fell to such depths. For starters, John Wall hasn’t played yet this season. He’s sitting out with an ominous-sounding “stress injury” in his left knee, and the team hopes he’ll return sometime in December. Nene, Washington’s next-best player, has been hobbled with plantar fasciitis and played his first game of the season last week. The rest of the roster has tried its darnedest in several close games, but mostly what they have accomplished is a groundbreaking study in different modes of losing. The finest examples are a pair of overtime games last week. On Saturday, the Wizards lost to the Charlotte Bobcats in double-overtime, a game in which Washington missed potential game-winning 3-pointers and free throws in regulation and both extra periods. The previous game, an overtime loss to Atlanta right before Thanksgiving Day, ended with Kevin Seraphin’s potential game-winner being eclipsed by Kyle Korver’s actual game-winner, which was briefly eclipsed by Martell Webster’s apparent game-winning tip, until referees determined that time had expired before Webster got his shot off.

The Hawks loss, in particular, seemed to extinguish anything hopeful about the Wizards’ season. During the following game, Wizards play-by-play announcer Steve Buckhantz was still trying to figure out how things could have gone differently. He said that one of the Hawks owners had asked a statistician to determine the odds that Al Horford, a career 75 percent free throw shooter, would miss nine out of 10 shots at the line, as he did against Washington. The answer was 1 in 33,000. This mattered, Buckhantz explained, because Horford went 0-for-2 on two separate occasions late in overtime, first with the Wizards leading 98-94 and then again with Washington up, 98-96. The Wizards, of course, had failed to secure the rebound on Horford’s missed free throws, and Atlanta was able to get extra possessions and score both times. If Horford had just connected on the back end of one of those pairs of foul shots, Buckhantz reasoned, then the Wizards would probably have been able to inbound the ball with the lead and less than a minute to play. “It’s very likely,” he said, “that the Wizards would have pulled that game out!”

I don’t know about that, Steve, but I do know that when you’re hoping that the other team makes its free throws because it will give the Wizards a better chance to win, something has gone very, very wrong. Heading into Wednesday’s game with Portland, the Wizards — if only for Steve Buckhantz’s sanity — needed a win. Bad.

So how did Washington finally earn their first win? We’ll get there. But first, I’d like to discuss Papa John’s. The pizza chain is a Wizards sponsor — and an appropriate one, at that. Much like a Papa John’s pie, Wizards basketball is easier to stomach at 3:47 a.m., when you are half-asleep, blackout drunk, and maybe also high out of your mind. Or when dipped in synthetic garlic sauce. Each Wizards broadcast begins with the “Papa John’s Opening Tip,” and participating Papa John’s restaurants in the D.C. area are proud to offer discounted $7.99 large cheese pies to Wizards fans anytime the team scores 100 points. The Wizards average 89.5 points per game. They’re already almost a fifth of the way through the season. Depending on when John Wall returns and how much the Wizards improve with him on the court, it doesn’t seem all that far-fetched to predict Papa John’s might make it through the year without selling a single cheap pizza to any Wizards fans.

Soon after the Papa John’s Opening Tip, Portland’s starters raced out to a 15-4 lead while making six of their first seven shots. Somewhere during that stretch, Emeka Okafor, the Wizards’ highest-paid player at $13.5 million this season, shot a line-drive jumper from the baseline that sailed clear over the rim. Using some advanced trigonometry, I’m pretty sure we could determine that the trajectory of Okafor’s shot contains the 215-digit code for the name of the devil in certain kabbalistic texts.

Before the game, Wizards coach Randy Wittman told reporters that he’d like his team “to play with movement and passing rather than dribbling.” It sounds like something the coach of a high school junior varsity team might say, but in this case it applies fairly accurately to a professional basketball team. Late in the first quarter, soon after Nene checked into the game, the Brazilian center was clearly exasperated by his team’s poor spacing and ball movement. With Martell Webster looking for an entry pass to Nene from the wing to the right block, Portland rookie Meyers Leonard fronted Nene to prevent Webster’s pass. Nene wisely sealed Leonard on his outside hip and started frantically pointing to the high post. All he needed was a teammate to flash to the foul line, catch a pass from Webster, and dump the ball down to him for an easy dunk or layup. Webster seemed to understand. He looked toward the high post and waited for some movement, but the other three Washington players just stood watching. So, with the shot clock winding down and no way to make the easy play for a layup, Webster chucked — and missed — a jump shot. As Nene ran back on defense, his palms turned up and his dreadlocks shaking back and forth with his head, little thought bubbles appeared over his head on my computer screen. They read, in Portuguese, “Por quê, Deus? Por quê?

The Wizards were able to hang with Portland in the first half, however, because although the Trail Blazers have an NBA starting five, they do not have a full NBA roster or rotation. Their bench goes zero deep. So when Damian Lillard or LaMarcus Aldridge or Nicolas Batum need a breather, they are spelled by Ronnie Price, Jared Jeffries, or Sasha Pavlovic. They could conceivably be replaced by other players on the Blazers bench, like Luke Babbitt, Joel Freeland, and Nolan Smith, except that doesn’t happen, because those players are still not quite certain that this isn’t a dream and that they won’t wake up tomorrow in the German Bundesliga. Anytime Portland coach Terry Stotts went to his bench, it was like conceding a five- or seven-point swing to the Wizards. This was especially true when Lillard or Aldridge, the orchestrator and hub, respectively, of Portland’s offense, checked out of the game.1


1.

This rarely happened, for what it’s worth. Lillard played 43 minutes and Aldridge 41. Still, five-to-seven minutes spent watching Ronnie Price and the Aldridge-by-committee of Jared Jeffries and Meyers Leonard can be enough to make a man weep.

In fairness to the bench, however, the Blazers starters weren’t much better Wednesday night. This is definitely a team worthy of its ticket to the annual Fate Worse Than Death picnic. Yes, Portland has an All-Star in Aldridge, and yes, they have Lillard, who just 15 games into his pro career has impressed NBA experts and players alike with his scoring and demeanor. But this is a jump-shooting team that doesn’t really attack the basket. When they run high screens for Lillard, he often looks to pull up for a jumper or pass to the screener. That screener is often Aldridge, who is often popping rather than rolling, and looking for his own jumper. When Portland goes to Aldridge in the post, he often turns and faces and attempts a jumper over his defender. When the Blazers set baseline screens for Batum, he usually receives the ball outside the 3-point line for a catch-and-shoot opportunity or a drive and pull-up jumper. These players have impressive speed and length, and the looks they get off these plays aren’t necessarily bad. But against the Wizards, Aldridge, Lillard, Batum, and Wesley Matthews combined to shoot 22-for-65 from the field. Washington might have blown the game wide-open in the second half if not for the holy ghost of onetime Blazers draft pick Moses Malone, which possessed J.J. Hickson during a 15-point, 19-rebound (nine of them offensive) performance.

The Wizards played well throughout much of the second half, building a lead in the third quarter and eventually stretching it to 15 points with just under nine minutes left to play. Kevin Seraphin, the third-year big man who has been one of the few consistently productive Wizards, rattled home a couple right-handed baby hooks and knocked down some pick-and-pop jumpers from the top of the key. But Seraphin doesn’t move particularly well and he kind of plays like the poor man’s Brandon Bass, who kind of plays like the poor man’s Carlos Boozer, who’s several dozen poor men removed from Karl Malone. Still, Wizards fans are excited about him, and rightly so, I guess, because he has a soft touch and one real post move. Then there’s Jordan Crawford, the reserve guard who seems to believe that every good play he makes on a basketball court earns him the right to make one awful play. The good news for Washington fans on Wednesday was that Crawford made many more good plays than bad, including a textbook pull-up jumper from the foul line on a fast break, a drive-and-dish to Seraphin for an easy stuff, and the gutsy 3-pointer that put Washington up 82-80 after they’d blown that 15-point fourth-quarter lead. The bad news is that Crawford will remember his good deeds and eventually cash in his chips to dribble away possessions; shoot drifting, one-handed 18-footers; and otherwise showcase his steez.

To be honest, I can’t explain exactly how Washington earned its first win of the season in this game. Somewhere in the third quarter of these games, you just go numb. The announcers’ voices turn into sportscaster boilerplate mush and the players run up and down, up and down. One team scores a bunch of points, and then the other team scores a bunch, and we’re back where we started 20 minutes ago, when halftime ended. In the endgame, Nene was called for a charging foul, Aldridge passed up a wide-open shot in the lane to pass to Hickson, who was blocked, and Lillard rebounded a Portland airball, then traveled. It’s hard to keep the jumble of turnovers and broken plays and lengthy timeouts straight in my head, but somewhere in the last minute, Okafor was fouled and scored the game-winning free throws. More than anything else, I recall the feeling of dread when the game was tied at 82 with 1:20 to play, and overtime seemed inevitable.

So the Wizards hung on and won in regulation, and Martell Webster got to walk off the court with his arms raised and index fingers pointing to the rafters. We’re no. 1, baby! Rather, We won one, baby! But something curious has happened to this franchise. They purged last year’s awful team of supposed bad seeds like Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee, Nick Young, and Rashard Lewis. They replaced those players with solid “professionals” like Nene, Okafor, and Trevor Ariza — pissing away $30 million and salary-cap flexibility in the process — and what did the Wizards end up with? A team that is probably no better than last year’s dismal crew, but that is less likely to attempt free throw–line dunks in the closing seconds of a 25-point loss and will probably avoid attaching its name to events like Lapdance Tuesdays. This is a group you will never want to watch, but at least Wizards owner Ted Leonsis can spread “Daily Affirmation”–style positive vibes on his blog about the team without looking like a fool.

So now that the Wizards’ streak is over and any history-making embarrassments have been avoided, we can forget about this team. (If Washington remains awful and starts pushing up against the Bobcats’ .106 winning percentage from last year or the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers’ 9-73 record, we can revisit.) But for now, no more Wizards highlights on Inside the NBA while Charles Barkley calls them the Washington Generals and riffs on Meadowlark Lemon and the bucket-of-confetti skit with Kenny Smith whistling the Harlem Globetrotters’ theme song in the background. The Wizards can join the ranks of other unwatchable NBA teams and just be ignored. And the next time Randy Wittman “scratches” the inside of his nose during the third quarter of a no-stakes regular-season game, we won’t be there to witness it.