Thomas Boswell
Thomas Boswell
Columnist

With knuckleheads gone, Wizards can knuckle down to Randy Wittman’s brand of ball

Video: The Washington Post’s Dan Steinberg, LaVar Arrington, Jason Reid and Jonathan Forsythe argue whether the Wizards’ Bradley Beal is the team’s best player.

The Washington Wizards’ horrid locker room of rich NBA losers has finally been swept clean of its refuse. Smart, accountable but athletically limited veterans have been brought in to transform a poisonous culture of Not My Fault. A tough, honest coach now calls everything as he sees it and lets the playing time fall where it may, apportioned by performance, not reputation.

This is how you start the long trek back from a third of a century of being mediocre-to-God-awful, toward something vague, but better. This is how you follow a 4-28 start with a seven-week stretch of dignified 14-10 play, just as the world was ready to write you off as another Wiz joke.

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But there are rough nights along the way, such as Wednesday, when the team’s best athlete, usually in sync with the new program, backslides into self-centeredness and scares everybody to death. “All aboard” means you too, John Wall, even on nights when you play yourself onto the bench.

“We did about all we could,” Coach Randy Wittman said after his Wizards cut a 16-point deficit to just one and had the last shot to win before losing, 96-95, to the crummy Pistons. “But it didn’t come down to that.

“We got what we deserved. We didn’t deserve to win that game. We were more caught up in ourselves than we were in playing as a team. Thinking about playing time, [getting] shots. It makes me worry about me. It’s my job to coach.”

Thus, Wittman put the loss on his failure to motivate and, without naming him, on Wall, who had seven turnovers, just six points and slouched on the bench with 10-cent body language as the coach decided the face of the franchise had earned as much time on the pine (24 minutes) as in the game.

For years, the Wizard majority voted the straight knucklehead ticket. Now, there’s been radical redistricting. When the Wizards traded their third-leading scorer, sulking Jordan Crawford, just to get rid of him last week, it marked the end of an era. Will things get better? Not necessarily.

But now when Wittman speaks, respected vets such as Nene, Martell Webster, Trevor Ariza, Emeka Okafor and others, amplify his remarks. Anybody who doesn’t want to try to play the game the way most of the NBA’s best players do will be in a tiny minority. This project started when Wittman took over 13 months ago. It’s been slow going.

“Finally! See this gray hair?” said Nene, grabbing his long braided locks. “We are showing people what we can do when we play together.”

“We’re learning not to let emotions affect us as a unit,” said Webster, a coach on the floor. “If the night’s not going for you, [remember] the night is not all about you. It’s a team game.”

Surely, Wall, who makes all his teammates better as soon as he steps on the floor, wants to lead in this process, not be the laggard. Yet he was the only man who didn’t take direct responsibility for the loss to the Pistons, saying his turnovers were “good passes. Some got dropped. Some got missed.”

The Wizards have been in many battles for their basketball soul over the last 33 barren years. This is another one. When you haven’t had a really good team — one that has not even reached .550 — in a third of a century, it’s hard to believe that chanting “teamwork” will dispel the curse.

When the last 24 years have been even worse (.359) with 15 seasons of 51 to 63 losses, it can seem like all good intentions are doomed.

And when such a franchise is also in the midst of the worst five-season collapse (106-262, .288) in its history, when the general manager who built the most recent version of this mess is in his 10th year and still employed, who cares what befalls them?

But I find myself caring about Wittman and the savvy adults who’ve replaced the more talented likes of Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee and Nick Young. The current batch are true pros, trying to reverse a poisonous culture so that Bradley Beal, 19, and Wall, whether he knows it, may grow up to see better times after the oldsters are gone.

Maybe I’m a sucker for a team that shows up when it seems pointless and its fans are selling tickets online for pennies. Maybe I enjoy seeing a team trade its third-leading scorer for scraps because he’s the Last Box of Rocks that’s left.

Maybe the Wizards’ recent rally is Fool’s Gold. But few teams could make such a staunch stand against indignity after that 4-28 start. So, respect it.

No one should want to jump on this train more than Wall. For the third straight year, he is almost the worst shooter in the NBA, as measured by effective field goal percentage (.405), which includes two-point and three-point shots. The past two years, he has made 7 percent of his three-point attempts. That’s correct: 7 percent. He commits more turnovers per 36 minutes every year: 3.6, 3.8 and now 4.5. Luckily, he finally has the set of experienced teammates, and the blunt coach, that he should crave.

“When we have bad games, we’ve got to learn to accept responsibility. Don’t feel sorry for yourself,” Wittman said long after Wednesday’s loss. “The good players take heat.”

“I tell the truth,” said Wittman, who was born in Indianapolis, raised on basketball as religion and was a star on Bob Knight’s 1981 NCAA champion at Indiana. “I have to coach. That’s the only way I know.”

Maybe the Wizards’ current stand against indignity will lead to nothing, and Verizon Center will remain the world’s biggest sarcophagus on many nights. For those who’ve endured recurrent bouts of Wizards Disease all these years, this may be yet another outbreak of unwarranted optimism.

But in a hoops town, it’s hard to fight the feeling. I thought I’d finally sworn off ’em, but (don’t tell my family) I’m watching the Wizards again. Like the old blues lyric puts it, “The doctor says I may get better. But I’ll never get well.”

For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.

 
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