WASHINGTON — As the media session for Washington Wizards forward Otto Porter Jr. wound to a close Tuesday morning, amid trade talks and infighting among his teammates, he was thrown a lifeline by a reporter.
For as bad as things are now, with the Wizards being 5-11 entering Tuesday night’s game against the Los Angeles Clippers, what lessons could be taken away from the team’s recovery from a 2-8 start to end the regular season with 49 wins, and come within one victory of a trip to the Eastern Conference finals?
“I mean, you’re talking about a whole other different team,” Porter said “This is a totally different team from two years ago.”
But that’s just it: the Wizards aren’t a totally different team from two years ago. In fact, they’re largely the same team they’ve been for the past several years, from the top of the organization down to the key players on the roster. Even after Washington improved to 6-11 thanks to a 125-117 comeback win over the LA Clippers Tuesday night, it is that overall organizational inertia that has so many people around the league wondering if this is finally the time something will change here in the nation’s capital.
Year after year, the Wizards seem to find themselves, at one point or another, in the exact same place: with a team seemingly with the talent to challenge for a spot at the top of the Eastern Conference, but for nebulous reasons no one can quite grasp, never is good enough to do so. At one point, the thinking was the coaching was the problem, and in the summer of 2016 Randy Wittman was replaced by Scott Brooks. At other times, the players have been seen as the problem, and Washington has rotated out some of its ancillary pieces — most recently swapping center Marcin Gortat, who returned to Washington Tuesday for the first time since being traded to the Clippers this summer, for Dwight Howard.
The issues here, though, clearly run deeper than X’s and O’s, or talent on the court. The mix just isn’t right – which is why, for just the latest time in this now six-year run with John Wall, Bradley Beal and Porter Jr. as the three pillars of the franchise, the Wizards find themselves looking in the mirror at a dysfunctional bunch that doesn’t like playing together, or for one another.
Take their performance against the Clippers. Despite playing in Atlanta the night before, and the Wizards having rested at home, the Clippers exploded out to a 40-21 lead after one, and looked like the far more energetic team. Even worse, after all of the words the Wizards spilled earlier Tuesday about needing to care more, and play harder, Washington couldn’t have looked more lethargic and anemic.
Yes, the Wizards came back in the second half, getting 30 points and eight assists from Wall and 27 points and seven assists from Beal as they eventually erased a 24-point deficit and won. But the fact Washington put itself in a position to have to make such a miraculous comeback to begin with only underscores the issues this team currently has.
“That’s the problem,” Beal said. “That’s why everything is not fixed. At the end of the day we can’t be naive and say we won after being down 20. We were getting our asses kicked.
“We have to take a step back and realize we still have a lot of things to fix. We won tonight, but we have to keep it going and know that if we get down to Toronto [Friday night], the same result might not happen.”
It was exactly the kind of performance the Wizards said they couldn’t have earlier Tuesday, when they tried to downplay the issues that have surrounded them recently — most notably the reporting of ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski that Wall told Brooks to “F— you” after the coach tried to intervene in an argument between Wall and Jeff Green.
“We moved on from it as a team,” Brooks said. “Not trying to minimize what happened, but in all sports, all teams I’ve been on – I’ve been in the league for almost 30 years or almost 30 years – as a player, as an assistant coach, as a head coach, that has happened. It’s something that you understand that it’s a competitive environment and a lot of times, you have adult conversations that get heated.”
They also tried to brush off the fact the franchise has made its entire roster available in trade talks.
“I don’t think it’s the motivation we need,” Wall said. “The motivation we need is we are 5-11, we’re losing home games, road games, we’re not playing well on both ends of the floor.
“We’re not playing no defense. We’ve got the worst [defensive stats] in the entire league. That should be our motivation.”
John Wall is looking to move forward following last week’s incident with Scott Brooks.
But Washington’s problem isn’t that it lacks things to be motivated about. Instead, it is that the Wizards lack motivation, period. Hence Brooks opting to play Thomas Bryant — who had played all of 31 minutes this season — in place of the injured Howard Tuesday night, and moving Markieff Morris to the bench.
“We just need better effort, and better energy, and better play,” Brooks said. “We are where we are for a reason, and we’ve got to figure out how we can get out of it. The only way you can get out of it is by playing with fierce determination and effort. If you do that, you give yourself a chance to win. You’re not going to guarantee a win, but you can give yourself a chance to win, and he does bring that energy and effort.”
The Wizards then proceeded — at least in the first half — to bring no energy, and even less effort. Running down a tired Clippers team in the second half, while at least a step in the right direction, couldn’t erase that.
Things are likely to get worse before they get better, too. The Wizards have five more games this month – all against teams with winning records, including three on the road.
Meanwhile, for much of Tuesday’s game Capital One Arena couldn’t have had less energy inside it. The empty seats outnumbered the occupied ones, and the ones that held people saw few moments until the fourth quarter worth inspiring fans to get out of them.
Fan engagement here has been spotty in the best of times. What will it look like if this season spirals out of control, with a team the fans here are already frustrated with?
Perhaps that will be the thing to spur Wizards owner Ted Leonsis into forcing his franchise to take some decisive actions in the weeks and months ahead. Leonsis, who wasn’t in the building for Tuesday’s comeback win, is famously conservative when it comes to making big changes within his teams. Wizards president of basketball operations Ernie Grunfeld is the only top executive Leonsis has ever employed on the basketball side; in his 20 years owning the Washington Capitals, he’s changed executives just once. He also resisted calls to trade either of his hockey stars, Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom – patience that he was rewarded for by the Capitals winning the Stanley Cup this past spring.
To think these Wizards could ever come close to that kind of success, though, would be a delusion of grandeur beyond the realm of any sane human.
NBA teams know this, which is why they are waiting to see if the Wizards will actually offer up Beal in trade discussions. Trading Wall, as ESPN’s Zach Lowe pointed out earlier this month, is difficult for several reasons – the most obvious of which is that he’s set to be paid roughly $170 million beginning next season and going through 2023.
Several executives said Tuesday that finding a suitor for Wall would be difficult, at best. One put it more bluntly.
“If they can get anything for Wall and don’t do it, they are idiots,” they said.
Porter has a big contract, but is the kind of supplementary player, as a good shooter and long-limbed defender, teams might want. But the Wizards have tried to use him, and Kelly Oubre Jr., as chips in trades for a third star to pair with Wall and Beal in the past, and always come up empty.
Teams are lined up waiting for the chance to bid for Beal, though. At 25, an excellent shooter who can also create shots, is on a good contract and with two more years remaining on his deal after this one, he’s precisely the kind of player teams are willing to deal significant assets for.
But those attributes are also precisely why the Wizards are loath to move him. And, given their history of being reticent to make any significant moves, the belief among executives talked to before Tuesday’s game was that it’s more likely than not Washington won’t actually pull the trigger on any significant moves.
At some point, though, standing pat simply won’t suffice. And as the Wizards continue to spend their days on a treadmill to nowhere, the league will wait to see if Leonsis decides this – finally – is the time for action.