By Patrick Hruby & Michael Pina
Editor's note: Heading into Friday night's playoff game against the Indiana Pacers, the perpetually hapless Washington Wizards are three wins away from the NBA Eastern Conference finals. To better understand this surprising development, we asked a long-suffering Wizards fan and Washington, D.C. resident (our own Patrick Hruby) and a neutral league observer (Sports on Earth basketball contributor Michael Pina) to discuss:
Patrick Hruby: I've watched a lot of bad basketball. We should probably start there. I've seen Kwame Brown fumble, Jan Vesley stumble and JaVale McGee do whatever it is he does. I've seen Gilbert Arenas shot down in a blaze of non-glory. I've heard Ted Leonsis proudly declare "a new big three" including Andray Blatche and Jordan Crawford, which only went to show that the tech tycoon owner of the Washington Wizards could, in fact, count on one hand.
Also, there was the time the Wizards finished a three-on-one fast break by running into each other.
It's great to see Washington finally be decent. Better than decent, maybe. Downright good. Good enough that the GIF of the above fast-break fail has disappeared from the Internet. Good enough to reach the -- gulp -- Eastern Conference Finals, at least according to TNT's Charles Barkley, a prediction that sounds increasingly weird each time he repeats it, enough to make me wonder if it's all a big practical joke, and I'm living in some sort of Truman Show bubble where what looks like a national broadcast is actually a bespoke edition created just to screw with me.
I guess what I'm really trying to say is that these are strange times to be a Wizards fan.
I've lived in Washington for 20 years, and followed this team through a nickname change and Rod Strickland barfing up hot dogs and non-teal teal uniforms and the unspeakable horror of Michael Jordan Washington Bullets throwback jerseys. So I'm traumatized. Not used to success. I have no idea what to make of it, never mind how to handle it. Sure, I've enjoyed the playoffs so far, largely because the Wizards are, you know, actually part of them. I've enjoyed John Wall's maturation, Bradley Beal's emergence, Trevor Ariza suddenly acquiring the Deadeye Shooter signature skill from NBA 2K14, Nene almost decapitating Jimmy Butler, Marcin Gortat auditioning for a starring role in 301: The Forgotten Spartan. I've enjoyed watching a bench that doesn't feature Eric Maynor. I've found myself wondering if Ernie Grunfeld is a better-than-mediocre general manager, and if Randy Wittman is a better coach than his NBA-worst career winning percentage indicates, and if "Wizards" is better than "Bullets." (On second thought, no to the last one).
And then I remember where this franchise has been, and I worry where it might be going. Because Nene is aging and always hurt, and Ariza and Gortat are in contract years, and Wall and Beal are inconsistent, and the bench ... well, the bench features one-legged Al Harrington, who played more minutes than No. 3 overall draft pick Otto Porter. The less said, the better. I see a team that might be ascending, unless it's plateauing, or maybe even peaking after slogging to a good-but-not-great record in a historically awful Eastern Conference. Are the Wizards a future contender? Or are they, at best, a treadmill team in the best tradition of the Josh Smith/Joe Johnson-era Atlanta Hawks? Will management screw things up and make another deal like the one that sent a pick that could have been Steph Curry for rentals of Mike Miller and Randy Foye? Is Vesley somehow walking back through that door?
I want to believe that there's finally light at the end of the tunnel. I fear it's a oncoming train. And oh, the Wizards still have to play the Pacers. Again: gulp.
Michael Pina: There's a lot to like about this Wizards team. And there's also quite a bit to be cautious about. Let's start with the happy: Wall and Beal, two of their three best players (Nene being the third), are incredibly young, effortlessly make those around them better and possess complimentary, elite level skill-sets.
We can't see what the NBA will look like a few years from now, but having at least one superstar will still be the common denominator found in all championship contenders, and Wall and Beal are primed to reach superstardom right around the same time.
In these playoffs, Washington is outscoring opponents by 9.7 per 100 possessions when Wall and Beal share the floor. It's of course a tiny sample, but is still an amazing one, especially given the intensely suffocating defense played by their two opponents. Never before has this organization had two players so young, promising and productive. They're the Wizards' foundation, and the primary reason fans of the team deserve to stroll around D.C. with a smile on their face.
So, if Wall and Beal are an ascending sure thing, where's the baggage?
In a nutshell: Ernie Grunfeld. There's a good chance he's here for the long haul, which, considering his awful track record, is depressing. You mentioned all the question marks surrounding this team in the offseason (Ariza and Gortat's free agency, a bench in need of youthful rejuvenation, etc.) and it's just so difficult to imagine a world where Grunfeld doesn't screw at least all of those things up.
Gortat is 30 years old and important, but giving him $45 million to $50 million over the next four years is shortsighted. Same goes for the 28-year-old Ariza, who either posted a career-best True Shooting percentage this season because of Wall's play-making ability, his upcoming unrestricted free agency, or an undefinable mix of both. But striking out on Otto Porter makes re-signing Ariza a near necessity.
When you put Washington's possible Eastern Conference Finals appearance in the proper context, they've arrived ahead of schedule. That's not a bad thing, but by locking into what they are now instead of keeping cap flexibility over the years ahead and building around Beal and Wall in a less restrictive way, Grunfeld and his impatient owner could ruin what promises to be a very good thing.
Still, if your worst case scenario is becoming this decade's Atlanta Hawks, is that the worst thing in the world?
Patrick Hruby: Good point. I'd rather be this decade's Hawks than last decade's Wizards. So, yes, the treadmill is an improvement from being flat on your back in a hospital bed with all four limbs in traction.
You're right about Grunfeld. As a fan, I'm nervous about him as the franchise's ongoing architect. Not that he's totally terrible: he unloaded Arenas' crippling second contract, swapped Brown for Caron Butler, found the mildly useful Drew Gooden at a gym in Bethesda, Md. (no joke!) and drafted Beal instead of Harrison Barnes. However, Grunfeld always seems to be cleaning up messes of his own making, and paying a high price in the process, via wasted draft picks and sticker-price deals for veterans. Particularly under the new salary cap, the NBA seems more and more like a value-oriented, assert-hoarding-and-managing league, while Grunfeld's roster construction philosophy appears rooted in the wheeling-and-dealing past.
As pending free agents, Gortat and Ariza are tough calls. On one hand: both play well well off Wall (Gortat in the pick-and-roll; Ariza spotting up and on the break), both are capable defenders, both mesh with Nene (again, when he's healthy) and both add to a Wizards locker room that has -- and I hate to use such mushy, untestable terms -- a genuine sense of chemistry and professionalism. On the other hand, you rightly point out that both may be at or just past their career peaks, age-wise, and locking them in for long-term, major-money deals could leave the Wizards stuck with little room for improvement, especially when the team already shipped their first-round pick in the loaded upcoming draft to Phoenix in exchange for Gortat.
Moreover, I'm not sure whom the Wizards would pursue if they instead chase free agents. Greg Monroe, maybe? That's been the rumor around Washington since last summer. Is he a actually a max-worthy player? Does he fit the team's developing defensive identity? Who else is out there? Stick with Gortat and Ariza, and I can see the Wizards getting a bit better before slowly getting worse; don't resign them, and I can see them getting much worse in a hurry. Like, back in the draft lottery worse. People say the Wizards are a young team, but that's not really true. Most of their regulars are veterans, guys like Andre Miller, win-now band-aids as opposed to building blocks.
Look, Wall and Beal are the real keys. If they become perennial All-Stars, surrounding them with role-players becomes much easier. Washington would have to replace Grunfeld with Billy King and the ghost of Ted Stepien to truly mess things up. The Wizards' backcourt shows a lot of potential, perhaps a poor man's Isiah Thomas/Joe Dumars potential. But they're not there yet -- and as a Wizards fan, I take nothing for granted. They could get hurt. (In fact, both have. Repeatedly). Their development could stagnate. (Hardly an unknown phenomenon in Washington). One or both could be traded for Mitch Richmond and an XXL-sized Ike Austin jersey. You just never know. I'd like to think that Porter will become a young, relatively cheap asset -- making a big 2½, if not the three of Leonsis' dreams -- but he's so young, so skinny and has played so little it's impossible to even evaluate what he might be capable of in the future.
Speaking of the future, I have two concerns, one immediate and one long-term. In the here and now, what do the Wizards need to do to beat the Pacers? Besides sinking Paul George's fishing boat? Maybe I have too much faith in Barkley, but so far in the playoffs, Washington simply looks like the better team. Do the numbers and film breakdowns bear that out? And looking down the road, is Washington's sudden surge less the result of the Wizards finally putting things together than of the Eastern Conference being historically and purposefully lousy? When teams like Boston, Orlando, Philadelphia and Atlanta stop tanking and start trying to win, will they leave a middling Wizards squad in their dust?
I'm telling you, trauma makes it hard to enjoy anything. I'm pretty much the opposite of the Los Angeles Lakers fans who just assume their team will be back in the Finals next season, because Kobe and a draft pick and we're the Lakers, duh.
Michael Pina: As a Wizards fan, your caution is understandable and more than warranted. But as an outsider looking in, if you told me Wall and Beal were my backcourt for the next five years, then said you were tossing the franchise's car keys to a fresh thinker who totally understands the increasing importance of cap management and analytical on-court value (someone like Boston Celtics assistant general manager Mike Zarren), I'd be shocked if the Wizards didn't evolve into a perpetual powerhouse. But again, I completely understand the mistrust that comes with a decade of nonstop deprivation.
Before I answer your questions, though, I'd first like to briefly talk about head coach Randy Wittman, who in all likelihood will have his contract extended. I never in a million years thought we'd live in a world where Wittman could prevail over Tom Thibodeau, but here we are. The Wizards have played some very smart defensive basketball over the past few weeks, and despite their half-court offense tending to fall into a faulty carousel of Wall/Beal and Nene/Gortat high pick-and-roll action, Wittman's thrown in some neat stuff to help get his guys some real good looks.
For starters, he's instructed them to push the ball in transition, leading to wide open threes for Ariza and Beal. This is called "playing to your strengths," and it seems obvious, but sometimes the best thing a coach can do is get out of his player's way -- Washington had the most efficient transition offense in the NBA this year, per Synergy.
He's also not half bad at drawing up a play. On the last play of the first half in Game 2, the Wizards ran a 1-3 pick-and-roll with Wall and Ariza that brought Indiana to its knees. Lance Stephenson was petrified of leaving Ariza (the screener), allowing Wall space and time to charge free into the paint before missing a dunk. That was sweet. I'm not sure if Wittman's the right long-term option to take this team to a championship, but he's shown up in these playoffs. So that's nice.
Tangent over; moving onto this series: The Pacers don't get back in transition, have zero three-point shooters and generally make scoring the ball look and feel like a two-hour dentist appointment. Their half-court defense remains good, and George could very well remove Beal from the series if he puts his mind to it. But overall, the Wizards are just too good. They bang down low, have a better bench (that's right, Miller, Webster, Trevor Booker and Gooden are more qualified to be here than whatever's floating around on the Pacers sideline) and can play with pace.
Washington probably should have won Game 2, and it's tough to picture them not advancing by Game 6, if not sooner. For fear of getting too far ahead of myself, after that, Washington's frontline will be a nightmare for the Heat. But we'll shelve that analysis until it's necessary.
Assessing Washington's place in the Eastern Conference's hierarchy is so difficult because, like you said, a lot of these teams aren't trying to win right now. (That's sort of how they got Ariza and Gortat in the first place.) But it's not like tanking is a 100 percent foolproof plan. Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Orlando, Boston ... chances are all those teams won't rise at the same time. Then you have an intelligently-run Toronto Raptors, a total dark horse with Detroit, and all the chaos that free agency will bring.
If the Wizards are trotting out the same starting five four years from now, chances are they won't be one of the conference's last two teams standing. But who knows what can happen? If Beal becomes a three-point shooting Dwyane Wade and Wall asserts himself as the best two-way point guard in the world (a real possibility as Chris Paul's career begins to decline) the Wizards may be talented enough to sustain this sudden emergence.
For the record, I don't believe the starting five will look the same for much longer -- the NBA is too fluid -- and a couple smart, under-the-radar signings over the next couple off seasons could push Washington into becoming a legitimate contender. Then there's the whole Kevin Durant thing. While it's highly unlikely he returns home to Washington, you just never know what will happen, especially if the Thunder can't get out of the West these next few years.
Patrick Hruby: Ah. There it is. The secret hope of every Wizards fan, and fodder for dozens of message board threads: If the team can just be respectable -- let alone good -- by the end of the 2015-16 season, we might able to land KD. Wouldn't he like to play in a bigger market, in front of friends and family, with a pass-first point guard (coughsorryRussellWestbrookcough) like Wall?
Two months ago, I scoffed at Durant-to-D.C. speculation. But now? I'm not completely writing it off. Like everything else that's happening with this franchise, there's a sense of heck, why not? (Hardcore Washington fans aren't just rooting for the Wizards to win this postseason; we're rooting for Oklahoma City to lose, hopefully in as dysfunctional a manner as possible. And this sort of fits, because we know: (a) losing; (b) dysfunction; (c) lottery-like odds.)
I have mixed feelings about Wittman. His career results don't indicate that he's the sort of coach who can manage sustained -- or even season-long -- NBA success. When smart basketball analysts discuss innovative and clever game-planners, he's never included in the conversation. That said, his players seem to like him. Respect him. Trust him. Wall and others have gone to bat for Wittman with Leonsis; they buy into his defense-first philosophy; they give good effort with remarkably little backbiting and grumbling. As someone who once watched stadium security escort Tyrone Nesby off the Verizon Center floor after an argument with then-Wizards coach Leonard Hamilton -- and really, think hard about every part of that sentence -- I know that all of that counts, too.
In fact, I think those things might count more than being an analytic sharp or a whiteboard maestro, at least in this stage of the Wizards' development. (Do I sound like Golden State owner Joe Lacob justifying his canning of Mark Jackson? I hope not). Heck, maybe Wittman is a better coach than his record indicates, and all he has needed to show it is better talent. (See Rivers, Doc, the Boston years). Maybe he can even grow and improve -- if players can add wrinkles and be better in year four than year two, like Wall, then why can't coaches?
On the other hand, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Wizards make an off-season run at someone like Stan Van Gundy. I wouldn't be totally opposed to that, either.
Anyway, let's stay in the present. No more discussing Durant, a possible matchup with the Heat, the future of the Eastern Conference, Beal as a "three point-shooting Dwyane Wade." (No. Just no. Though I'd be more than happy with a mashup of Dumars and Ray Allen. That's probably too much to ask). The Pacers are what matters. I think you're right about Game 2. Roy Hibbert found the defibrillator paddles, Wall had a subpar game, Nene was hurt, the Indiana crowd was amped instead of shell-shocked, Washington missed a bunch of free throws and inexplicably stopped pushing the pace … and still, the Wizards could have won. Which tells me they're the better team. Still feels odd to write that.
Two decades in D.C. have taught me to expect the worst and hope for something a little less awful. Perhaps it's time to go Full Yoda, unlearning what I've learned. Perhaps it's time to believe. Once upon a time in sports, the New England Patriots were laughingstocks. The Los Angeles Clippers were the NBA's Ice Station Zebra -- or, more accurately, Wizards/Bullets West. Things can change, sometimes in a hurry, and often you can't see it until after the fact.
By the way, I have a new favorite Wizards video clip. This one. And yes, I know that Wall missed the dunk. That's not the point.