The Washington Wizards feel cozy when in chaos.
While the headlines focus on everything but basketball and the din of scrutiny grows louder by the day, for some inconceivable reason, the Wizards look stable. They look like they care on the court. They play hard and play together. And in one of their toughest stretches of the early schedule, they have beaten three Western Conference teams that should be in the playoffs by the time this regular season drags to its end.
The Wizards are playing their best basketball of the young season at a time when the tumult has ratcheted up to 10. All of this happened in just the past few weeks: John Wall was accused of partying too much. Verbal altercations disrupted a Nov. 15 practice, then leaked to the public. A report indicated Washington was open to listening to all trade scenarios, even involving all-stars Wall and Bradley Beal. A former in-game host went on a Twitter rant against team President Ernie Grunfeld the morning after he was celebrated by the Wizards, and the former video coordinator “confirmed” an account that Beal wants out of Washington.
Even for 11-year center Jason Smith, who knows what it’s like to be over-covered after a year with the New York Knicks (2014-15), the first 20 games of this Wizards season have produced an unusual amount of attention.
“We got a lot of news coverage, that’s for sure,” he said. “Whether it’s good or bad, we’ve got a lot of coverage.”
And Monday, while under the microscope again, Washington rallied from a 17-point deficit in the first quarter and survived a 54-point night from MVP James Harden to defeat the Houston Rockets in overtime, 135-131.
The game was entertaining, and the atmosphere created by the announced crowd of 16,872 was electric — and yet it was ignored by those who only watch the Wizards while sipping tea. An ESPN Radio producer shared a tweet to his 50,000 followers about the teams going to overtime and playing “five more minutes,” interpreting that as a countdown to the end of another bumpy night in Washington.
But for those who did watch on NBA TV, they witnessed the Wizards get their third win in four games since making a shift in the starting lineup. Markieff Morris, the newly minted sixth man, was asked whether he felt like things were starting to turn around, and he couldn’t keep a wry smile from spreading across his face as he worked up to his zinger.
“Just got to wait and see, man,” Morris told reporters. “Beginning of the year, you know how y’all guys get: ‘Blow the whole thing up!’ We just going to wait and see.”
That’s good advice for the peanut gallery, which is waiting to see what the next narrative to emerge from the Wizards' locker room will be.
Dwight Howard, who spent much of the weekend as a trending topic following an unsubstantiated social media post, missed his fourth straight game while dealing with “gluteal soreness,” a pain that stems from a previous piriformis muscle injury. He did not take part in the team’s morning shoot-around Monday, instead receiving treatment away from the court. Before the game, everything seemed normal. Howard’s pregame meal of chicken strips, brown rice and broccoli awaited him. His workout gear was bundled on his seat, and black Nike flip flops were placed near his stall. The only hint that this wasn’t just another night: As Howard changed clothes for a private workout, several of the team’s public relations staffers lingered nearby, which doesn’t normally happen. Howard did not speak with reporters.
“You know, you just really don’t try to feed into it,” Morris said of how teammates are responding to Howard’s latest spin in the news cycle. “Of course, everybody sees it, but we don’t really make no decisions or make any judgments until you get to the bottom of it and, regardless, you know, he’s a teammate, and we just stick with him."
And, it appears, national TV decision-makers are sticking with the Wizards, too.
Dennis Scott spent the day in his hometown as part of the NBA TV “Players Only” crew. At shoot-around, the onetime three-point gunner joined the throng of reporters, a number that seems to swell with every meme created about the Wizards, and revealed how his network’s executives had discussed removing Monday’s game from its broadcast schedule.
At the start of the season, both teams were losing, which doesn’t bode well for a national audience. But NBA TV elected to visit Washington regardless. It helped that the Rockets found their footing during a five-game winning streak and that the Wizards — well, it helped that their season appeared to be an overturned semi on the side of the road that had burst into flames.
“So much going on here in the nation’s capital right now with this team,” Scott said. “I think the powers-that-be wanted to switch it back."
Hours before the game, Scott was asked how the broadcast would handle all the news swirling around the Wizards. Scott shrugged because it was still the afternoon — way too early to script a nighttime soap. But to Scott’s credit, when he conducted the postgame interview with Beal as the sideline reporter, he did not shy away from a touchy subject.
Two hours before tip-off, NBA writer Chris Sheridan tweeted that he had been told that Beal “made it known in no uncertain teams that he wants out of Washington pronto.” Beal’s agent, Mark Bartelstein, shot down the report, telling The Washington Post: “That is absolutely not true. The only sources that would know Brad’s thinkings are Brad and myself. And Brad’s focus is 100 percent on helping the Wizards play consistent, winning basketball.”
After the Wizards' balanced win, Scott allowed Beal to chime in.
“This franchise has been going through a lot this season,” Scott said, setting up a question to Beal, who would call the report “nonsense.”
These distractions could fill a calendar for most teams. The Wizards just call it November. And when it seems like everything’s ablaze, the Wizards pull up a chair and warm their hands to the fire.