In the world of the Washington Wizards, media days are like Christmas.
Whenever digital recorders and cameras are rolling, something clicks in the players and they avoid the drone of cliches to provide delectable treats of content. They might claim to have the best backcourt in the NBA, as Bradley Beal once stated, or, with a straight face, boast how LeBron James’s Eastern Conference-title winning team didn’t want any part of the Wizards in the 2017 playoffs, as John Wall once believed. Even during last year’s media day, Wall, in his usual rapid-fire delivery, casually offered how the Wizards would “definitely get 50-plus wins."
They did not. Instead, the Wizards crawled into the playoffs with a 43-39 record. As an eighth seed, they swiftly exited the postseason and entered a summer in which the team changed its starting center and realigned its style of play to hoist more three-pointers. But during the team’s latest media day, there has been another change, a subtle yet substantive revision.
The Wizards silenced their swagger. Well, a little.
On Monday, players mostly refused the bait for sound bites. Instead of bestowing superlatives upon themselves, Wall acknowledged the talent on the team but warned “that doesn’t mean anything until you go out there and prove it on the court.”
Beal sounded like a coach-in-training while sharing his platitudes for the 2018-19 season; he calls it “the three A’s” of approach, accountability and adversity.
Coach Scott Brooks had an even more direct guide for success.
“Just focus on us and playing. Stop talking,” Brooks said unprompted as he was responding to a question about competing in the East now that James has moved to the Los Angeles Lakers.
“There’s enough talk. Players and teams that talk are the ones that usually don’t have success,” Brooks continued. “The players that just let their play speak for themselves are the teams that are successful, so we just want to just focus. We want to focus on being a good basketball team. A team that plays hard and plays for one another. A team that our fans can respect and come out every night to enjoy watching us play.”
On paper, the Wizards should have that kind of team. The upgrade to Dwight Howard opens up possibilities for Wall, who’s entering his ninth NBA season and has never had quite an established and athletic big man who could catch and thunderously finish his lob passes as Howard should. Also, with an improved bench along with Beal, an all-star coming off his best season, and a healthy Otto Porter Jr., whose light will glow so green that Brooks is challenging him to take 10 three-pointers a game, Washington should have the depth to make a move in the LeBron-less East.
But, over the offseason, the Wizards just might have learned to compete before chirping.
“A lot of time last year we came out and said we were the best team in the East, we were this, we were that,” Kelly Oubre Jr. said. “At the end of the season, it didn’t show none of the stuff that we said. So, that’s the lesson that we should learn is that we got to go out there and hoop. It’s not about talking. It’s about less talk, more action this year, man. Let’s go out there, get these wins. Say nothing about it and continue to be that dog team that we are, and go out there and play gritty Wizards basketball. Coach is right 100 percent. We have to say less and do more."
Wall, in particular, chafed at being placed in the center of a trash-talking controversy last season before a November game against the Lakers. After the boisterous father of Lakers point guard Lonzo Ball made a comment, the Wizards center at the time, Marcin Gortat, joked on social media how Wall would torture Ball. Then, Wall shot 7 for 22 while the Lakers started the Wizards' trend of losing to bad teams.
To Wall, all talk shouldn’t be viewed as hazardous. He feels that players should express belief in their team. The problem only starts when the chest thumping gets personal.
“If you don’t go out and perform, then everything backfires,” Wall said. “But if you say you want to be in the Eastern Conference finals or you should be a top-four team that’s not really backfiring because that’s your ultimate goal as a team. But when you start to point things out on an individual, about one game or one person, that’s when you put the pressure on yourself. So now you’re not playing basketball for the team, you’re playing for yourself when you’re out there.”
Beal still holds his team in high regard, and he will never admit inferiority. Even so, he backs Brooks’s edict for the upcoming season.
“You can’t just talk about it, you have to put it into action,” Beal said. “But I’m always firm in believing in what you say and what you stand on. I’ll never go back and say I regret saying it or I made a mistake saying it. No, because I believe in my teammates. I believe in us. I believe in who we are. Sometimes we don’t play like it. Sometimes we don’t have the season we have or the success that we have down the line. But that doesn’t change my opinion on our team.
“I feel like whatever team I’m on, I’m just confident in my team. It’s the same situation this year,” Beal said. “Coach is absolutely right, everybody is right. I’ve even talked to Coach about it, like we’re done talking about it. There is nothing more to talk about it. There’s nothing more to continue to sit here and harp on and say that we’re better than such and such or the best backcourt; I’m done talking about all of that. It’s old, it’s water under the bridge. The main objective is whomever wins the championship. That’s all that is important.”
Still, these are the Wizards and talking is what they do.
Though Markieff Morris noted how improved “professionalism” should stop the trend of losing to bad teams, he couldn’t help himself when asked about the team’s chances in the East.
“I think we’re the No. 1 team,” Morris said. “Raptors going through a little bit when they changed DeMar DeRozan but other than that, Boston has never been better than us. Record shows, but internally we don’t think they were better than us last year. You know, we just got to play up to our ability and we’re better than anybody in the East.”