Instead, Wednesday served as a harsh reality check. First, the Warriors dropped the Wizards’ season record to 21-26 following a 134-121 loss at Verizon Center, behind a 51-point night by reigning and presumptive league MVP Stephen Curry. Next, they may steal the object of Washington’s offseason affection for themselves.
Wednesday night’s game painted a stark contrast between a struggling team and surging franchise. That divergence raises a question that may be impossible for Washington to answer in a positive fashion: Why in the world would Kevin Durant sign with the Wizards when he could play with the world champions?
Amid a disappointing season, the Wizards sit in 10th place in the East, assured they would head into next weekend’s All-Star Break with a sub-.500 record. There’s no question injuries have played a large role in Washington’s sub-par play, as the Wizards have never had their entire team healthy at any point this season and have spent much of it scrambling to find enough healthy bodies to fill out a rotation.
At some point, though, that has to stop being the only explanation for what’s happening with this team.
Wall has largely been fantastic once again this season, as he was Wednesday, finishing with 41 points and 10 assists as one half of a brilliant point guard battle with Curry (who scored those 51 points on 19-for-28 shooting), and is deservedly heading to his third straight All-Star Game next weekend.
His help, though, has been limited. Bradley Beal came into this season looking to earn a max contract this summer and become a legitimate second star behind Wall. Instead, Beal has once again struggled to stay on the court, which might give pause to Washington before handing him that max deal this summer – one that, with the impending massive jump in the salary cap, will pay $100 million over the next five seasons.
Meanwhile, the small-ball style that allowed the Wizards to blitz the Toronto Raptors in the first round last season, and may have produced an Eastern Conference Finals trip if Wall hadn’t injured his wrist, hasn’t produced the expected results. After playing stout defense the past two seasons – finishing tied for ninth in defensive efficiency in 2014 and fifth in 2015 – Washington is tied for 21st in defensive efficiency after Wednesday’s loss, according to NBA.com’s stats tool.
Wall is obviously perfectly suited to the small-ball system, using his speed to overtake helpless defenders in the open court and in pick-and-rolls, but the Wizards lack many of the supporting pieces necessary to properly play that style. For all of the frustrations Nene can cause with his intermittent stints on the sidelines, he and Marcin Gortat had a formidable partnership in the frontcourt the past couple seasons – a partnership around which the Wizards had built their team.
Moving away from that blueprint to a lineup featuring a stretch-four when the Wizards really only have one, Jared Dudley, has proven problematic. So has the fact that the Wizards have 10 players with either expiring contracts, non-guaranteed deals or team options for next season. Having two-thirds of the roster with the potential to play elsewhere – as well as hot-seat speculation fueled by the team-option in coach Randy Wittman’s contract – doesn’t exactly entice players to dig in when times are tough.
All of this plays into the much-rumored pursuit of Durant. His visit to Washington back in November, to put it politely, was a disaster. The fans booed him, Durant left the game in the first half with an injury and the Thunder blew out the Wizards, winning by 24.
Since then, the Wizards have remained mired on the court while speculation has increased that Durant is intrigued by destinations other than his hometown. Yahoo!’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported this week what has been whispered in league circles for some time now: that the defending champion Warriors — thanks to that massive salary cap jump — are a leading contender to sign Durant. And they can do so while keeping their core of Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson together.
Then, of course, there’s the option for Durant to remain in Oklahoma City for one more year, which still seems the most likely outcome. And given what happened in Oklahoma City Wednesday night – where Durant had 37 points and hit the game-winning three-pointer against the Orlando Magic while Russell Westbrook had a triple-double with 24 points, 19 rebounds and 14 assists – it’s easy to see why that would remain an appealing option. Then there are the Lakers. Then there are other scenarios, like a potential swap with Blake Griffin to go to the Clippers to play alongside Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan, or going to Houston to play with James Harden and Dwight Howard for the Rockets.
At this point, it’s hard to see how the Wizards could hope to compete with any of those options. Yes, they have Wall, more than a worthy running mate and a perfect partner as a pass-first point guard. But this season was supposed to fill in the rest of the picture for the Wizards. It was supposed to prove Washington was about to turn the corner and show why it was a worthy option for Durant – one that could provide him with the platform to chase championships, Durant’s main goal.
All Washington has done instead is reaffirm how far away the Wizards are from the league’s elite – and how unrealistic it appears that their dream of bringing Durant back home will come to fruition.