Racking my brain over here trying to recall the last time a team’s fortunes changed so dramatically without winning the lottery (Bulls and Clippers) or getting a gift trade from a former employee (Celtics and Lakers) to catapult them into immediate title contention.
Yep, still thinking on it.
Last night, the Wizards put the final meaningful piece of their future in place, but not before having to sweat Bullets (FEEL my puns!) over all the breathless reports of everyone from Houston to Cleveland to Oklahoma City to Olympiakos BC trying to leapfrog them into the #2 slot to snatch Bradley Beal away from them. Imagine the sigh of relief in Wiz headquarters when Michael Gilchrist went to Charlotte in a move virtually nobody had anticipated.
So anyway, let’s back it up to February. Lest people have forgotten, the Wiz were step for step with Charlotte for worst record back then, and the only distinction to be made between the two teams was that at least the Bobcats appeared to be trying but bless their hearts, trying only goes so far when your three best players are DJ Augustin, Corey Maggette and a player to be named later.
Washington couldn’t use the same excuse. They had plenty of “talent” on that roster, but they also had the veritable chemistry molotov. Even after ridding themselves of Gilbert Arenas, this team still featured Andray Blatche, Javale McGee, Nick Young and Jordan Crawford. They also sported a 3-19 record heading into a Feb. 4 matchup with the Clippers, which is a game I happened to have watched from start to finish, if only out of some morbid fascination with just how bad this team really was.
This game was a clinic, an absolute fucking tutorial in shitty basketball. No passing, no defensive rotation, no sense of teamwork. Nothing. Bunch of dudes out there working up a sweat like you’d see at your neighborhood gym, a supremely talented park league team. The score was 87-53 after 3 quarters and Clipper analyst Michael Smith was wondering aloud how many more games the Wizards could possibly win at this rate.
This abomination was the product the hideously clumsy job their front office had done of constructing a roster around prize #1 draft pick John Wall. Instead of clearing the dead weight out of town the way Portland did for Greg Oden or the Clippers did for Blake Griffin, (ironically, both teams purged themselves of Zach Randolph during said house cleanings) the ‘Zards thought it wise to keep Andray Blatche and the rest of the roughnecks around, presumably to teach Wall about life and how to be a professional and shit.
Eventually, albeit almost two years late, the Whizz decided enough was enough. They gave Flip Saunders his walking papers, told Andray Blatche to take his sweet time with whatever injury he was nursing and set about cleaning up the mess. With Randy Wittman in charge and a mandate to play the young guys in place, they actually won 7 of 9 to close the season and John Wall really started to show something as a distributor after looking Sophomore slumpy for most of the season. I know this might be tough to swallow, but it turns out that you’re better off playing the young guys who will bust their asses every night than the same crappy group of “veterans” who can hardly hide their disdain for teamwork. These are professionals, mind you. Sometimes effort is all the separate the winners from the losers.
That was only the first step. The next one involved shipping out the riff raff and I dunno, maybe surrounding John Wall and the other whippersnappers with some steady, veteran players? Minutes before the trade deadline they were able to ship both McGee and Young out for Nene, a proven low-post player with reputation as a solid citizen. A case could be made for Nene being overpaid at 13 million a year, but this team needed some stability wherever they could find it, and getting a top 10 center is as good a place to start as any.
From there it gets a little easier. Instead of letting Rashard Lewis hang around and collect 24 million dollars for making a three-pointer or two, they decided to use his massive contract to acquire two more steady, professional contributors in Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor to round out their starting five and give the Wizards a shot at some actual cohesion and chemistry. These aren’t sexy moves by any means, just moves that will win you games.
Which brings me back to last night and the final piece of the puzzle. By getting their hands a shooting guard who has drawn comparisons to Ray Allen and Eric Gordon, the Wizards have now struck the proper balance of scorers and role players, guys who want to shoot and guys who will be just fine doing everything else.
That’s how you win in the NBA. Not overnight, but step by step. Draft young players with potential. Surround them with capable pros who can help them adapt to the lifestyle and win consistently at the highest level. Take your lumps during the course of said learning process. Pass go and collect 200 dollars. What the Wizards are doing is brilliant, if simple and time-honored. They were bad enough for long enough to accumulate some high draft picks. They used them to get John Wall, Jan Vesely, Chris Singleton and now Bradley Beal. They cleared out the malcontents and now they have added the building blocks any real team needs to win. A defensive-minded forward and can score little and fill the wing on the fast break. A power forward who can score with his back to the basket and doesn’t need double-team help to guard people. A center who rebounds his ass off and can do the dirty work. Ariza, Okafor and Nene might as well be from central casting.
And all of that isn’t even the best part.
So the veteran trio shows up to give the team balance and stability and in two years, when Okafor and Ariza are coming off the books, the Wizards will be making decisions on who among the young players are worth keeping and who aren’t.
You can get into semantical arguments about what they are spending on the supporting cast or who they might have saved the money for in free agency but you’d be missing the point. For this team to turn it’s fortunes around, they had to do something now to make them viable. Mess around for too long and John Wall will be clawing at the walls to leave in search of a team that might actually win some games. Will they win the title anytime soon? Doubtful to say the least but hey, this is the fucking wizards we’re talking about, so a little realism is in order. With exactly one playoff series win in the last 30 years and just seven winning seasons in the same span, you’ve got to take it as it comes.
Right now, today, this team should be good enough for a playoff spot, and depending on the development of Wall, Beal and Vesely, they just might do some damage sooner than later. As of this instant, they can field a line-up of Wall, Jordan Crawford, Trevor Ariza, Nene and Emeka Okafor with Beal, Trevor Booker, Singleton, Vesely, Kevin Seraphin and Shelvin Mack. Plenty of youth and athleticism backed with some veteran grit.
This is is how you go from winner to loser the right way, and I really can’t say enough about the job Ernie Grunfeld has done here. An old-school guy, building the old-school way.
Not bad for 6 months of work. Now comes the fun part.