Meantime, the preseason expectation that this team could match or even exceed their finish each of the last two seasons – when they made it to the second round of the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time since making the NBA Finals in 1978 and ’79 – seemed not only possible, but realistic.
Even the possibility of convincing Kevin Durant, the hometown hero who will be a free agent in a little over six months and whom the Wizards have targeted for years, to come to D.C. seemed like it had a chance of working out for them.
Then the next six weeks happened.
Wednesday night’s loss to the Spurs, a 114-95 defeat in front of a sellout crowd at AT&T Center, dropped the Wizards to 10-14, mired in 12th place in the Eastern Conference. Yes, injuries have played a part. John Wall recently admitted he spent virtually the entire month of November playing through a sprained ankle, and his numbers in December back that up, Meantime, four players – Beal, Alan Anderson, Nene and Drew Gooden III – missed Wednesday’s game because of injuries, and Otto Porter Jr. left in the third quarter because of a thigh bruise and didn’t return.
“Right now we have, what, five, six guys injured?” Marcin Gortat asked after the game. “I mean, we have a hospital. It is what it is.”
A season that was expected to have so much promise for the Wizards – both for the present and the future – has been unable to get off the ground, and it’s hard to see how it will anytime soon.
The disconcerting sentiment coming from the Wizards’ locker room after Wednesday’s loss was the unanimous agreement from Coach Randy Wittman and his players that, injury issues aisde, this team has problems with commitment, energy and effort.
“We just haven’t been consistent, in terms of night-in and night-out,” Wittman said. “Night-in and night-out, your shooting can change. You can make shots, miss shots. But defensively, and effort-wise, putting the commitment into it, has to be every night.”
“Not only consistency, but commitment, and I would say passion for the game,” Gortat said. “It doesn’t look like we always have that.”
“We beat good teams, and then we come back the next night and don’t have that same energy and intensity,” Wall said. “Like I said at the beginning of the season: To take that next step and be an elite team, you’ve got to be able to do that. We’re not great at that, and we don’t do that right now.”
How is any of this possible? Over their past 20 games – a quarter of an NBA season – the Wizards are on pace for just 28 wins. That’s high-lottery-pick territory, simply unacceptable for a team that had the promise the Wizards did entering this season.
Sure, they’ve had plenty of injuries, and yes, they’re only three-and-a-half games out of a playoff spot and five games out of third place in the conference, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Wizards should be doing better than they are now.
What’s possibly even more alarming than the comments about a lack of energy and effort – things everyone involved acknowledged should be there on a daily basis – were comments from both Wall and Jared Dudley that the Wizards are unable follow the game plan.
“I think at times we don’t stick to the game plan, and it hurts, because when you’re down, you have to play better and execute things,” Wall said. “That’s one thing we don’t do: We don’t execute well with our game plans offensively and defensively, and that’s what puts us in binds.”
Yes, struggling to execute both offensively and defensively is indeed a problem.
Dudley, a consummate pro in his ninth year in the league, took it a step further when talking about his team’s horrific three-point defense this season.
“I think it’s a combination of guys mentally not being prepared, also guys not giving the effort they need to be able to give on a given night, and it’s also a little bit of fool’s gold,” Dudley said. “I think it’s a combination of all three.”
No one will argue the fool’s gold part. Having Tyreke Evans go off against you, as he did by making 5 of 6 three-point attempts Friday in New Orleans, is a case of bad luck. And sometimes, opponents are going to just get hot no matter what Washington would have done, such as the home loss to Indiana on Nov. 24.
But while you can explain away a lot of the early-season woes, the bottom line is the days for doing so should be over. The Wizards have advanced to the second round of the playoffs in back-to-back seasons, and while the middle of the Eastern Conference is better, there’s no reason they can’t do it again.
If that’s going to happen, though, this team is going to have to wake up and realize that basic problems like inconsistent effort and a failure to grasp basic defensive principles are unacceptable. Then again, after starting last season 19-6 – tied for the best start in franchise history – the Wizards have since gone 37-44 in their last 81 regular season games.
So which team are they: the one that blitzed through the first six weeks of last season and likely would have reached the Eastern Conference finals had John Wall not gotten hurt? Or are they the team that has been under .500 for nearly the equivalent of a full regular season?
Every plan this team had – from challenging the Cavaliers in the East to pursuing Durant next summer – relied on them being that hot team from a year ago. At some point, though, the numbers speak for themselves. And the numbers over the team’s past 81 regular-season games are just not pretty.
That’s not much of a marketing plan for luring a star free agent. It’s also not a recipe for building sustainable success with a franchise that is supposed to be on the rise. Instead, for the 2015-16 Wizards, it’s just the painful reality of their situation. And, until results begin to change, there’s no reason to think otherwise.