OAKLAND, Calif. — John Wall and Bradley Beal are both great basketball players. They’ve teamed up to form one of the NBA’s elite backcourts, lifting the Washington Wizards to their best stretch in decades.
Yet, despite that success, Washington has felt like a team that is less than the sum of its parts. And despite so often looking like they are on the cusp of becoming something more, the Wizards annually wind up with the same result: an early playoff exit.
Why? If there were any doubt, the Golden State Warriors and Stephen Curry answered that question emphatically here Wednesday night.
With 51 points in 31 minutes, while shooting 11 for 16 from three-point range, Curry put on the kind of show only he can provide, as a transcendent, once-in-a-generation player. That’s something the Wizards don’t have.
“Some of the shots that he was making, you don’t ever see that,” Wizards Coach Scott Brooks said Wednesday night, shaking his head at Curry’s masterful performance.
“He is a special player, special scorer, special shooter."
There is nothing wrong with not being Stephen Curry. After all, only one person can be the greatest shooter the sport has ever seen. And while some in the DMV would quibble with the notion that Wall and Beal are both great players, they are: Both are among the top 30 players in the league, and both are all-star caliber guards whom the vast majority of NBA teams would be thrilled to have.
But to be a great team in the NBA, one that consistently competes for championships, having great players simply isn’t good enough. It takes a transcendent talent, such as Curry or LeBron James, to lift a team into that rarefied air. Just look at what happened to the Wizards against the Warriors; not only did Curry go for 51 points, but Kevin Durant scored the easiest 30 points anyone ever will.
“We just have to accept the challenge more,” Beal said. “It wasn’t just [Curry]; it was everybody. [Durant] had 30. Klay [Thompson] got his 20. . . . The top three guys had 100 points by themselves.”
With those three players, plus Draymond Green, the Warriors have a preponderance of top-end talent no other team can match, which explains why Durant’s decision to join them has been so scorned. It’s also a reminder of why the movement of elite players around the league is given so much attention; in no other sport can one player have such an outsized impact on the game.
For teams like the Wizards, then, the lack of a truly elite talent means that to reach collective greatness, virtually every other personnel move has to be a hit. They can’t afford to have a chance to trade for James Harden and say no. They can’t have their pursuit of Al Horford, a perfect fit as a third wheel alongside Wall and Beal, come down to a coinflip with the Celtics — only for Horford to eventually choose Boston over Washington.
Ironically, Boston’s top-end players aren’t much different from the Wizards'. But the Celtics not only have more of them, thanks to trading for Kyrie Irving and signing Horford and Gordon Hayward as free agents; they also have a treasure trove of draft assets. That, in turn, gives them the opportunity to amass the sort of rare depth to compensate — or to put together a big enough trade package to land an elite player.
For a team like the Wizards, there’s really no recovering from such missed opportunities — even if the other stuff works out pretty well. And, to Washington’s credit, a lot of the other stuff has, in fact, worked out pretty well.
Kelly Oubre Jr. and Tomas Satoransky are recent draft picks who have emerged into useful depth pieces. The swap of Marcin Gortat for Austin Rivers was a smart allocation of resources, particularly if Dwight Howard can come back healthy from his back/buttocks issue that has kept him off the court. Signing Jeff Green for the minimum rather than paying Mike Scott a premium after a hot shooting season a year ago was also wise. And Ted Leonsis deserves credit for doing what many around the league suspected he would not: going into the luxury tax repeatedly to put a strong product on the floor.
The question, though, is obvious: What will Leonsis get for his money? The answer is likely not what he’s hoping for. The Wizards look to be a clear step behind the Celtics and Toronto Raptors. The Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks have greater top-end talent that should put them above Washington, as well. That already has the Wizards, at best, as an underdog starting on the road in the first round of the playoffs.
Given that Leonsis’s stated goals include 50 wins and an appearance in the Eastern Conference finals, it’s hard to see this season having a happy ending for him or his team.
Instead, the Wizards will remain what they’ve been: good enough to make the playoffs, but not great enough to make it into the true upper-crust of the East, let alone the NBA. In many ways, they are the Eastern Conference’s answer to the Portland Trail Blazers, the team they beat Monday night.
Like Portland, the Wizards have a pair of terrific guards. Like Portland, those guards aren’t quite good enough to make a team elite by themselves. And, like Portland, that situation has led to various debates about moving on from one, or both, stars and starting over.
The Warriors, on the other hand, would never dream of moving on from Curry. That’s the difference between a franchise built on a transcendent player rather than one or two great ones.
“You are watching a generational player,” Brooks said of Curry Wednesday night. “There are not a lot of those guys coming up through the ranks.”
The Wizards are still looking for one.
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