The Wizards are officially this season’s version of last season’s Pacers. They’ve lost 12 of 16, it’s been five weeks since they’ve beaten an above-.500 team, and they still have two months left to play.
For the past month or two, I’ve been avoiding writing about the Wizards, but now I just need some space to vent. Let’s start with the past seven days.
This week was rock bottom.
It’s like someone designed a perfect nightmare to twist the knife as deep as possible into Wizards fans. It was like walking down a hall of mirrors. Oh, here’s the real Eastern Conference contender your team’s been pretending to be (38-point loss to the Cavs on national TV). Here’s the coach you should have tried to hire this summer (Stan Van Gundy, taking an overmatched Pistons team and winning by 17). Here’s what the real best backcourt in the league looks like (Steph Curry dominating John Wall). And finally, last night, here’s the coach you refused to fire until it was too late, giving way to the interim coach you’ll probably refuse to fire until it’s too late (Flip Saunders and the Wolves winning by 20).
This week is an extreme example, obviously. Things will look better once Bradley Beal comes back healthy, and the shooting won’t be this bad all year. The real nightmare here is a team that’s just good enough to make you care and just clueless enough to make you miserable. This week did a nice job bringing the second half of that sentence into focus.
The most telling moments came Tuesday.
Earlier in the day, Deadspin’s Albert Burneko ran a great piece outlining all the problems with Randy Wittman’s offense and philosophy (“If Wittman is Ahab, reality is his white whale”). And so it felt like all the frustrated murmurs of the past two years had built to something like consensus by Tuesday afternoon: The Wizards have to fire Randy Wittman.
Later that night, Curry was getting whatever he wanted in the third quarter, and by the end, the crowd was audibly ooh-ing and ahh-ing after every bucket. This is what the most fun player in the league looks like.
Then I remembered: The Wizards could have drafted Curry. They didn’t, because management deluded themselves into thinking they could win a title with a team that had made the second round of the playoffs four years before. So instead of drafting Curry at no. 5, they traded that top-five pick for Mike Miller and Randy Foye, the team never made it past the first round, and both those guys were gone within 18 months.
Then I thought: Has anything really changed?
Then I saw this picture and it was like, Fabricio Oberto!
Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images
The problem is bigger than one bad coach. Anyone who’s putting all of this on Wittman needs to watch more Wizards games. Watch Wall hitting a wide-open Garrett Temple for 3s that are misses the second the ball leaves his hand. Watch Martell Webster, Kevin Seraphin, and now Ramon Sessions. The roster just isn’t very good.
It’s not even meant as a broader criticism to say it’s time for a change in this specific scenario. Ernie Grunfeld was the GM that Washington needed 12 years ago.
The Wizards were coming off one of the darker periods in franchise history. Failed rebuilds turned into a Michael Jordan comeback, and then that failed, too. This was the franchise that couldn’t even make it work with the greatest player of all time. The end of the Jordan era was miserable, and when he left, everyone was thrilled. Then Grunfeld came aboard, signed Gilbert Arenas and traded a top-five pick for Antawn Jamison, and that kind of short-term jolt made basketball in D.C. fun again. When it was time to pay Larry Hughes, Grunfeld decided against it, and instead found a way to turn Kwame Brown into Caron Butler. It’s probably the best trade this team’s ever made. Grunfeld had some incredible moments for D.C.
Even moves that most basketball people mocked — trading for veterans like Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza, adding Marcin Gortat — worked better than anyone acknowledges. And it’s probably unfair to focus on the misses, like trading for Kirk Hinrich, or drafting Jan Vesely with nobody to help him develop. Misses happen to every GM.
But while we’re being fair, let’s also be honest: The only reason this team has any long-term hope is because past rebuilding projects failed so miserably that it landed Wall and Beal. If you look at the past five years, nearly every move Grunfeld’s made has been a short-term fix to a problem that’s just going to get worse a few years down the line.
This is why I loved the Wizards’ offseason. For once, they didn’t act like the Wizards. They didn’t panic and max out their salary cap with Ariza. Thanks in large part to Sam Cassell and Wall, they lucked into Paul Pierce instead. But it’s almost March now, and in case it’s not clear, all the other quick-fix moves eventually have a price.
They couldn’t sign Ariza because Grunfeld had already overpaid Webster. They had to trade for Gortat because they built a team around two big men, and then Okafor got hurt. They traded for Nene because betting big on JaVale McGee — shocker — didn’t work out. They had to sign Kris Humphries last summer because they couldn’t rely on Drew Gooden all year. They needed Gooden last year because they’ve never used a second-round pick on a decent big man. You can play this game with almost the entire roster, all the way to pinning the entire season on whether Rasual Butler can ever start making 3s again.
Some of those moves were great, but the larger pattern will keep this team from ever winning anything that matters. At some point, it’s OK to try something new.
Wittman is the same story. He was exactly what the Wizards needed three years ago, but he’s made less and less sense ever since. While other teams have spent big on coaches like Steve Kerr and Stan Van Gundy, Wittman is proof that you get what you pay for.
I don’t even have a problem with his allergy to 3s. But if he wants to play big, playing Seraphin and Humphries over Gortat is incomprehensible. An offense designed around dribble handoffs to free up 18-foot jumpers makes no sense. Neither does feeding it into post players who suck at post-ups. Run a pick-and-roll with Gortat and Wall; run high screens for Wall to drive and kick to Beal for 3-pointers; go small with Pierce at the 4 and Otto Porter at the 3. I’m not a basketball coach, and I know Grunfeld’s roster is rough, but a team with Wall at point guard should never look this bad on offense.
It shouldn’t matter that Wall apparently swears by him. Using Wittman to coach Wall is like using a bus driver to drive a Formula One car. And he’s been even worse with Beal.
Curry and Klay Thompson adored Mark Jackson, but neither seems to have many regrets this season. The Wizards are like the other side of that Warriors coin. Singling out Wittman may not be fair, but it’s not wrong. He’s a perfect symbol for everything that’s doomed this team since they were the Bullets.
People keep asking, “What’s wrong with the Wizards?” The answer is that all the shortsighted, lazy, and cheap tendencies that have defined this team for decades are now being exposed all at once. It’s happening with Grunfeld’s roster, and it’s compounded by Wittman’s coaching. The Wizards have been a step behind and playing catch-up ever since Arenas got hurt, and this year it’s all catching up to them.
Speaking of people being shortsighted … It’s not like a bad losing streak in February means the future is somehow doomed. The salary cap is going up in 18 months, which means the worst contracts won’t look so bad and teams all over the league are more willing to take on money. Moves can be made this summer. Coaches can be hired, shooters can be added around Wall and Beal. This team’s nowhere near as far off as it seems this week. But only if the Wizards acknowledge everything that got them to this week.
There are two ways this can go now.
On the one hand: The Wizards draw a Rose–less Bulls team in the first round, beat Chicago, and everybody comes back. In that case, all of these problems continue right on into next year. The Wizards struggle in a tougher conference, everyone’s miserable, and it festers long enough to cost them any shot at (ahem) 2016 free agents and a potential title nucleus. Honestly, this is the most likely scenario. Even if the Wizards lose in the first round, everyone probably comes back. It took Ted Leonsis years to make a change with the Washington Capitals coaching and management, and they wasted the prime of Alex Ovechkin along the way. There’s not a lot of evidence to suggest that won’t happen with Wall.
The other possibility: They could let the rest of the season play out with or without Wittman, and then hire someone like Blazers assistant (and former Wizards legend) David Vanterpool to coach. Maybe they look at this list and pick someone new to run the front office. They could remake the roster with shooters, make a real run next year, and enter the summer of 2016 with monstrous amounts of cap space. Suddenly the future begins to look a lot brighter.
That’s the only silver lining to watching last year’s Pacers play in D.C. this season. This stupid team that I love is getting a loud reality check right before the one year when it’s actually important not to be stupid. It’s at least possible that all of this misery will be worth it in the end. Instead of being shortsighted, lazy, and cheap … there’s always the chance the Wizards could be smart.
This piece has been updated to correct how many years before the 2009 draft the Wizards had made the second round of the playoffs.