Washington Wizards aren’t fixed, but they might not be a tear-down project
By Mike Wise,
In their first 32 games, the Washington Wizards were 4-28. In the past seven games, they are 5-2. Just in the past two weeks, it’s pretty clear what they’ve been missing so badly this season: another lockout to cancel the first two months of the season.
Okay, John Wall, too.
But think about it. If they had another 50- or 52-game sprint that opened in late December, then Wall and Nene begin the season healthy, and this town is buzzing about a potential playoff team.
Of course Wall thinks about that, right?
“Woulda been nice because we wouldn’t [have] had the injury problem, but we’re not saying we can’t make the playoffs,” Wall said late Tuesday afternoon from Salt Lake City, where the Wizards face the Jazz on Wednesday night. “I know it’s very way out of the way to make the playoffs, thinking you can make it. But we’re not giving up on the season, point-blank, that’s what I’m saying. We go into every game still thinking we got a shot to make it.”
Coach Randy Wittman concurred: “I don’t foresee us giving up on the idea [of the playoffs]. Even when things were really bad, when we started like we did, I never had that moment where I had go back in the office and tell my assistants, ‘Gee, we got to do something to make sure they don’t quit.’ Every night they go out there and fight their [behinds] off.
“Now they finally see light at the end of the tunnel. Where does that lead us this year? I don’t know,” he continued. “But we got to keep building. I told ’em, ‘Let’s see what we can do the last half of the season.’ That’s where we’re at.”
Look, it’s nearly impossible for the Wizards to entertain even one crazy thought about the postseason after that putrid start. But a man screamed “Dagger!!!” at the top of his lungs Monday night, and — miracle of miracles — it wasn’t a rerun of Comcast SportsNet’s Steve Buckhantz calling a game from 2007 or 2005.
Live, Pacific time, Jordan Crawford uncorked a rainbow from the left wing that beat Portland at the buzzer, a three-pointer that sent grown men into each other’s arms, bowling over one another like kids, and Buckhantz with his signature game’s-in-the-bank call.
In the middle of an 82-game grind, in the middle of a West Coast swing that saw them knock off the Nuggets in Denver and stay within a point of the Clippers until the final 90 seconds — in the middle of a two-act season that is weirdly both over and just beginning — the Wizards suddenly matter.
The organization kept pleading with everyone to wait until their two best players were remotely healthy before judging the team and prematurely firing the coach, the architect, and making the owner rethink the definition of “rebuild.”
Declaring things fixed after two weeks of aesthetically appeasing ball is equally premature.
But the difference Wall makes, competitively and psychologically, can’t be disputed. He wants it. He didn’t like the Wizards becoming an industry joke again while he missed the season’s first 32 games because of a knee injury, and he doesn’t like the idea that he isn’t thought of as a great young player anymore among league observers.
Don’t think he didn’t notice ESPN’s recent list of the best 25 players under 25 years old, one that didn’t include Wall or rookie Bradley Beal but managed to fit in Ryan Anderson, Thaddeus Young, Eric Bledsoe and Jrue Holiday.
“From the guys who have been in the league for a while and don’t get talked about to the new guys that really haven’t had anything good said about them lately, a lot of people don’t give us recognition,” Wall said. “I know that’s how it goes. You win, people love you. You don’t, they got somethin’ to say about you. I made that list last year. So be it.
“But you still gotta guard me.”
His presence instantly changed the team’s choreography on the floor. Trevor Ariza and Martell Webster didn’t have to create all the time and could play off the ball, and Ariza could concentrate more on being a defender. Wall remains a reserve whose minutes are limited, but in the second half of the season, A.J. Price could be the backup point guard he was brought here to be. With Wall penetrating, Beal has more wide-open looks to knock down.
And with Nene turning into the go-to force inside, Emeka Okafor could do what he does best: bang, rebound, put back misses between bodies and become a strong help defender. Okafor has averaged double figures in points and rebounds the past 12 games.
I still worry about Crawford, whose Hall of Fame confidence belies his great-scorer-off-the-bench ceiling in the NBA. The league sees him as Vinnie Johnson in Detroit or James Harden with the Thunder, you know, sixth-man-of-the-year potential. He sees himself as Crawford Jordan, Michael’s yet-unheard-of son who is actually much better and clutch than his Dad and really needs the rock more.
“Naw, he’s not Crawford Jordan,” Wall corrected. “He calls himself ‘Sizzle.’ ”
Anyhow, Wall’s return combined with the winning may force quick reappraisals of players believed to be expendable. If Crawford is moved, it has to be for a scorer or as a piece to a prominent acquisition. He’s too valuable as instant offense.
Trevor Booker can play against Blake Griffin and the big galoots and Jan Vesely isn’t half-bad when the game isn’t physical and turns into a run at the park. Both are movable, but not dead weight that should be dealt to another team unless they are part of a package for that third cog alongside Wall and Nene.
I like these Wizards now. They’re not just a bunch of triers without a closer anymore. The ball whips around the perimeter. Lately it feels like they have 10 closers. Not even Crawford jacks up more than one or two ill-advised threes a game. They’ve been averaging 12 more points since Wall came back and their shooting percentage has risen from 41 percent to 48 percent.
The basket looks bigger because Wall makes the game easier. There is a swagger — okay, a sizzle — about them that probably won’t last until April but at least has started to make up for 4-28 and all the familiar same-ol’-Wizards lamentations that came with it.
“It’s a just a good feeling, knowing you can be a team that you wanted to be when people actually get healthy,” Wall said. “Like I said, we’re goin’ out every night thinkin’ we can make the playoffs until we can’t.”
For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.