For several months, it’s been clear that the Wizards were going to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008. And for several months, I’ve been waiting for Washington to get excited.
The situations aren’t exactly analogous, but I’ve been doing this long enough to have seen other D.C. teams make the playoffs after lengthy droughts and serious depths of badness. The Wizards and Redskins in 2005. The Caps in 2008. The Nats in 2012. In each of these cases, the general excitement seemed to crescendo over the last few weeks of the season. The home playoff games, when applicable, were electric. The casual fans, as I recall, were drawn in. It felt like something was happening.
For these Wizards — and I’m only speaking anecdotally — it hasn’t seem to have happened. Maybe it still will. But I haven’t sensed it. Neither has Jason Reid, who mentioned this issue in his Monday column:
The Wizards haven’t generated the type of buzz you would expect during a season in which they’ve become something they haven’t been in a long time: an interesting team….The Wizards have something to offer. All you have to do is look.
If there’s any doubt, I would love to sense that buzz, because casual interest leads to casual page views. And with the Caps at home, Bullets Fever would be good for business.
Anyhow, a few of the most dedicated Wizards Watchers and I were discussing this issue last week, and I thought it deserved a wider airing. Here, then are five different views on why these Wizards haven’t set Washington on fire, especially compared to the 2005 playoff team. Please add your own theories below.
Ben Standig, Comcast SportsNet (Read his work here)
The last five [non-playoff] seasons, yikes. Yet before 2005, the Wizards went to the postseason just once in 16 seasons. Folks were thirsty, my friend. Anyway, rather than discuss other possible factors — hey, it’s hard to love again after your significant other kicks you in the teeth for the third time — I’ll focus on the season’s odd flow.
Because of a solid start amid the Eastern Conference’s overall ugliness, initial excitement over the Wizards likely participating in the playoffs came in December and January. At that point, they were third or fourth in the East. From there came a gradual descent to the current sixth slot. The Wizards haven’t won more than two straight since March 1. Only once all season did they win more than three in a row. Heck, Nene’s recent knee injury came during the season-high six game winning streak.
Overall, the team made positive strides. Inability to sustain momentum — or sign DeSean Jackson — has at present left something of an enthusiasm gap. If John Wall and the Wizards can replicate what Steph Curry and the Warriors did in last season’s postseason, hello bandwagon.
Mike Prada, Bullets Forever and SB Nation (Read his work here)
I definitely think there’s less buzz, for two reasons. One is that a large portion of the fan base distrusts management. It’s the same general manager that survived Gungate when the rest of the organization needed and got a fresh start. It’s the lead assistant of that team, promoted to head coach and still here. It’s a little odd to hear the organization talk so much about making itself over into a professional outfit when the coach and GM are holdovers from the previous era.
In almost every thread about a happy moment on the site, there’s at least one person saying, “Hey, this is great…but it might mean Ernie and Randy are coming back next year and that’s bad.”
The other is that there hasn’t really been that signature moment or stretch. The team started slow against a rough road schedule, got those games back when the schedule softened and has largely stayed at the same level. No long winning or losing streaks. There have been a couple signature wins, but unlike Toronto, Chicago or Brooklyn, there hasn’t been that one stretch that’s rallied the fanbase.
I hope I’m wrong about this, but I don’t think they sell out [first-round] home games unless they play Miami…and then the building will be overrun by Heat fans.
Scott Jackson, ESPN 980 (Listen to his work here)
I do think there is less buzz for this year’s Wizards playoff team compared to the 2005 team. Part of that is in 2005 it was the first playoff appearance in seven years, and only the second since 1988. So hoops fans were starving for some playoff basketball. It was also the first playoffs in D.C. at Verizon Center.
I also hear from a lot of fans that don’t trust the front office no matter what they do.
The East is historically bad, and yet the Wizards have yet to find a lot of momentum. If they had finished as the 3rd seed, I think the excitement level would be much higher.
Mike Wise, The Post (Read his work here)
When the Wizards entered the playoffs in 2005, they were only a year removed from Jerry Stackhouse and 25 wins, and still just two years from the ugly end of the Jordan era.
In 2014, it’s four-and-a-half seasons since Gilbert and Guns. It feels like Randy Wittman has been the coach for 20 years. It feels like John Wall has been trying to be a playoff point guard forever, and it feels like Ernie Grunfeld has been here for more than 10 years. Wait — Ernie has been here for more than 10 years!
It feels like it’s about time, rather than, “Hey, this is a change of pace.”
Also, I think there is a diehard core of season ticket holders that just doesn’t feel emotionally invested in this team yet. They are, pun intended, gun shy of getting their hearts broken again. They have seen too many inconsistent performances and nights without Nene to know this is not a team that’s going to end up in the Eastern Conference finals anytime soon with this personnel.
I think the Gilbert factor cannot be discounted. While John is an incredible player, Gilbert had an aura between about 2005-2007 that literally enraptured fans, media, everyone. He was a showman off the floor and a stone-cold competitor on it. John connects with fans and is even more concerned about his legacy as a player. But he hasn’t become that persona nationally yet that Gilbert became.
Lastly, the Eastern Conference was a little more wide open in 2005. No one saw Detroit or Miami or Indiana as destined to win the whole thing. Those teams were slight favorites to win the East, if that. Now, it’s the NBA’s Star Power Team vs. the Pacers. No one sees another team coming out than one of those two. So while everyone thought the Heat would win in the second round in 2005 by five games or less, the Chicago series changed how the Wizards perceived themselves and how their fans perceived them.
Kyle Weidie, Truth About It (Read his work here)
Your 2014 playoff-bound Wizards keep an eclectic company of bummers contributing to the perceived malaise of fans this time around.
Yes, there’s the adage about transience in a federal city, the increasingly enhanced home game-watching experience, and more and more fans focusing their efforts on individual talent instead of team loyalty. But in Washington there still remains a deep distrust from years as Les Boulez that four straight playoffs appearances from ’05 to ’08 did little to sway.
The Wiz only got to the second round once during that run, and injuries rendered the last two appearances mere tokens that would only work in a claw crane prize machine sitting somewhere along a dilapidated Fun Street. The dysfunction that came with the end of the Abe Pollin era, the Big 3’s run that never was, and the Gilbert Arenas grab-bag treating the Verizon Center as his own personal shark tank further polluted the water.
New ownership has stumbled through the unenviable task of rebuilding with the same company president who drowned them in debt and disenchanted stock holders. And ultimately, the stigma surrounding the name ‘Wizards’ and what it’s meant for so many years hangs over just the sixth over-.500 campaign since 1987, a year which marked the end of 19 playoff appearances in the team’s first 24 seasons as the Bullets and the beginning of a long, dark period that only Cézanne’s palette knife could appreciate.
People realize that John Wall is an All-Star and that there’s tons of artistry in Bradley Beal, but that’s not enough to make them believe. The simple joys of a first-round playoff win, and the national attention that comes with it, would be a good start.