David Malitz is The Washington Post’s pop-culture editor and owns way too many Gilbert Arenas jerseys.
In the NBA, more than half the teams make the postseason, so a trip to the second round of the playoffs shouldn’t be cause for great celebration. But with the Washington Wizards, it’s a journey into the unknown. The team went 32 years between second-round victories before taking the opening game of its showdown with the Indiana Pacers on Monday. With a trip to the conference finals and a potential matchup with LeBron James and the Miami Heat on the line, the Wizards bandwagon is filling up. If you want to sound more informed than the typical fair-weather fan, here are a few myths to discard.
1. With John Wall and Bradley Beal, the Wizards are a young team built for long-term success.
Every NBA franchise is envious of the Wizards’ dynamic starting back court: point guard Wall, 23, and shooting guard Beal, 20. Over the next decade, those two seem destined to rack up All-Star Game appearances while fans debate whether the House of Guards duo or Golden State’s Splash Brothers — Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson — are the league’s best guard tandem.
But take a look at the rest of the contributors to this season’s playoff run, and it’s nothing but veterans. The NBA’s median age this season is 26.5. That’s exactly how old reserve forward Trevor Booker is, and every other Wizard who has seen meaningful playing time this postseason is older than that. Nene is 31. Marcin Gortat is 30. Trevor Ariza turns 29 next month. Martell Webster is an eighth-year pro at age 27. Drew Gooden is 32. Backup point guard Andre Miller, 38, is the fifth-oldest player in the league.
And it’s not like these veterans are blocking a bunch of talented young players. The Wizards were hoping that former Georgetown standout Otto Porter , the third overall pick in the 2013 draft, would be a building block. But few players in league history have ever had standout careers after experiencing a rookie season as poor as his. (All you need to know is that the first Google autofill for his name is “Otto Porter Bust.”) The Wizards have no first-round draft pick this year;the team traded it last offseason for Gortat. It was the right move, but only because the team’s 2011 draft class of Jan Vesely, Chris Singleton and Shelvin Mack failed to give the Wizards even one reliable NBA player. Center Kevin Seraphin, 24, is pretty good at Instagram but not very good at basketball.
2. The December 2009 gun incident ruined star guard Gilbert Arenas.
The lowest moment in Wizards history — and that’s really saying something — was the January 2010 suspension of Arenas after he and then-teammate Javaris Crittenton brought guns into the locker room. When Arenas made light of the situation by infamously shooting “finger guns” during a pregame huddle, Commissioner David Stern suspended him indefinitely, stating that Arenas was not “currently fit to take the court in an NBA game.” (The suspension ended up lasting the rest of the season.)
The truth is that Arenas had not been truly fit to take the court for a few years before that. What ruined Arenas was Gerald Wallace, then of the Charlotte Bobcats, who crashed into Arenas’s left knee on April 4, 2007. At that moment, Arenas was still Agent Zero, one of the league’s most thrilling and marketable stars. Just a couple of months earlier, Scoop Jackson wrote an article about Arenas for ESPN, calling him “the hottest star in sports.” Arenas’s 25th birthday party in January 2007 was a million-dollar bash at mega-club Love featuring performances by T.I., Lil Wayne and the Game. He was hitting buzzer-beaters and coining catchphrases (“Hibachi!”) faster than fans could keep up.
But two knee surgeries later, Arenas played just 13 games in the 2007-08 season. (This didn’t stop the Wizards from signing him to a phenomenally ill-considered six-year, $111 million contract.) More knee complications limited him to just two games the following season. His explosion never came close to returning, rendering him an inefficient, turnover-prone, shoot-first point guard.
3. Michael Jordan’s biggest mistake while running the Wizards was drafting Kwame Brown.
In retrospect, it’s easy to look at the 2001 draft; see four-time all-star and two-time NBA champion Pau Gasol, taken a couple picks after Brown; and say that Jordan, then in charge of personnel for the Wizards, made a massive blunder.
At the time, it was less clear. There was very little consensus at the top of the draft. Other options were high schoolers Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry, who both went to the Chicago Bulls after being picked second and fourth, respectively. Chandler never reached his potential; Curry is known first for being a colossal bust and second for simply being colossal.
With the first pick you want a potential franchise player, and Brown had that upside. Jordan’s folly was not in choosing him but in deciding that daily, vicious emotional abuse from the greatest player of all time was the best development strategy for a rookie teenager. The most oft-repeated anecdote from Brown’s first season — when he was 19 and Jordan, in the first year of a two-season comeback, was almost 40 — is how MJ would chew out Brown during practice, calling him a “flaming f-----.” (That makes at least two NBA owners who are known to have said horribly offensive things.)
Brown showed promise during his third year, once Jordan had retired for good, averaging 11 points and seven rebounds per game, but he never became an all-star, let alone a franchise player. Maybe it was because of his small hands and poor fundamentals, but Jordan’s management style certainly set the tone.
4. D.C. is a basketball town.
This is a favorite talking point of columnists such as Mike Wise and Michael Wilbon. It may have been true in the heyday of the Bullets-Knicks rivalry in the 1970s and the glory days of the ACC and the Big East. But now, D.C. is unquestionably a Redskins town. After that, it’s a bandwagon town. Even with a boost this season, the Wizards’ local TV ratings rank near the very bottom in the league.
During the past few depressing seasons, Verizon Center regularly felt like a mausoleum — with one exception. Things always got louder in the fourth quarter. Was this because the seemingly sedated fans suddenly became invested in the game’s final minutes? No. It was because of a regular fourth-quarter promotion in the arena: If a player on the opposing team misses both free throws, everyone’s ticket stub is good for a free chicken sandwich from Chick-fil-A. Fan pandemonium, but only in the name of free food.
5. “Wizards” is a terrible name.
“Bullets” isn’t coming back. Deal with it and move on. And be thankful that we are not in the midst of a playoff run by the Washington Sea Dogs. That was one of the five finalists in a 1996 contest to rename the Bullets. (A mini-myth: Late owner Abe Pollin was spurred to change the name after the assassination of his friend Yitzhak Rabin. In fact, Pollin was exploring a change before the death of the Israeli prime minister.) Rejected names also included Dragons, Express and Stallions. Perhaps “Dragons” could have led to some cool pregame “Game of Thrones” montages, but it’s safe to say we ended up with the best kind of name — somewhat boring, easily shortened and not horribly racist.