I had a moment during the black out at the Super Bowl, a terrible, unexpected moment of clarity and understanding that shook me to my core. Through the beer and brandy mixture in my stomach, over the yelling and arguing that comes with a 34-minute break during the Super Bowl I found myself thinking; not about the impending 49er’s comeback or the fact that I would have to take the most-obvious sick day possible tomorrow, but about the end of the NFL season. I was spoiled during the 2012 NFL season. Not only did my Redskins actually compete and win the division (still in disbelief), they played a home playoff game (and lost in the most heart-crushing fashion possible)?! I was plugged in, cynical as ever, but still trying to believe. It was around the time I saw RG3′s knee go in ten different directions that my heart sank deep, deep within my rectum.
The NFL season ended, somehow Ray Lewis did what every aging vet hopes to do, going out on his terms. But even as the confetti was still falling in New Orleans I was hit with a hard truth. I’m going to have to really get back into Wizards Basketball. You read that right, I’ve made a concerted effort to watch, not less, but more of one of the least watchable teams in basketball! And you know what? This team isn’t half as bad as you might think.
Here are 5 things I’ve learned since returning to the hardwood:
1) These guys really defend. Say what you will about them on offense, and there’s plenty you can say, these guys defend their asses off.
2) The jury is still out on John Wall; his ceiling as a player and his value as a former #1 overall pick.
3) Nene can ball, Beal will blossom.
4) Ariza and Okafor can contribute, but it’s their expiring contracts in 2014 that make them important pieces in the rebuild.
5) The Eastern Conference is going through changes from top-to-bottom. If the Wiz are careful it’s not crazy to think they could make a run at a playoff spot, next year.
With less than 30 games remaining in the season there are still too many variables up in the air to fully assess what direction the Wizards are headed. John Wall, having just recently returned from a knee injury, needs to show improvement this last half of the season. Yes, we took him #1 overall, he struggles with his jump shot and is turnover-prone. But figuring him and his game out as soon as possible should be #1 goal for the organization. If Wall can begin to use his strengths (explosive speed, active hands on D, superior athleticism) while hiding his weaknesses better (poor range on his jumper, one-gear mentality, poor decision making) he could start playing like a top-tier point guard.
Where there’s nothing but uncertainty and misguided hope in Wall, Bradley Beal gives the Wizards a real building block at shooting guard. The 19-year old rookie, #3 overall selection out of Florida has come on these last two months (winning Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month in both December and January). He’s still learning how to use angles on the court, but when his game is on, watch out. His, then, career-high 28 points in an upset win over the Thunder (dropping in the winning bucket with 0.3 seconds remaining) gave Wizards fans a glimpse at the type of player he can become. Now the real question becomes: Can the Wizards player development staff actually develop some home grown talent?
A season ago the Wizards shed a lot of young, albeit frustrating talent (Blatche and McGee are now both causing other fanbases to scratch their heads) and opted to re-start with more savy veterans surrounding Wall and Beal. Emeka Okafor, Nene, and Trevor Ariza are those savy vets, and they’ve all contributed for the team this season. Nene, the oft-injured PF/C from Brazil, has shown he can demand double-teams and rebound well in the post. Even with his high $13 million price tag, he should hold down the center spot here in Washington, assuming he can stay healthy, for years to come. Both Okafor and Ariza have gone through injuries the last few seasons but have contributed in big ways these past few weeks. Their contracts expire at the end of the 2014 season. Those expiring deals will give the Wizard’s front office some must-needed flexibility when it’s time to possibly re-sign John Wall long term.
Since the All-Star beak and John Wall’s return before that, the Wizards have shown flashes of the team they could be in the near future. With long athletic guys on the wings, big sturdy defender/rebounders in the paint, paired with enough shooting around them to space the floor the Wiz have gone 7-3 in their last ten games and have actually started to develop some home-court advantage at the Phone Booth. This last month of watching the Wiz has easily been the most enjoyable for me, as a fan, since Gilbert was draning gamer winners. But in the grand scheme of things how good can it really get?
Watching this team bottom out, ship out all of their talent and rebuild has become commonplace in the DC area. Even now it’s almost a foregone conclusion that John Wall, when his contract is up in another year, will opt to leave for a more attractive market. The Washington DC basketball franchise has long been without an identity. With only one NBA Title, two finals appearances (none since 1979), and only a handful of playoff appearances in the last twenty years a Wizards/Bullets fan will often ask themselves “What’s the point?”
And that’s where I find myself today.
I watch the games, learn the players, judge the coach and front office, but atthe end of the day (and this goes for any small-to-mid-market franchise in the NBA) we’re not winning championships any time soon. So what the hell are we doing?
Part 2 Coming Soon