The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The end is near for the Wizards, who balance faint hope with hard reality

Jeff Green and the Wizards are left to play out the string near the end of a disappointing season. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
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LOS ANGELES — The last extended road trip of the Washington Wizards’ season began Tuesday night, but it already felt like the end.

The Wizards entered the matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers in 11th place in the NBA’s Eastern Conference and technically have not yet been eliminated from a playoff berth. Hope, while distant with a six-game deficit to make up and only eight games to play, still could exist. However, reality has set in from the top and has trickled down the organization into the Wizards’ locker room.

This past weekend, before the team took off for Los Angeles, majority owner Ted Leonsis ceded to fate, telling NBC Sports Washington: “It doesn’t look like we’ll make the playoffs now. … We’ll have to figure out what to do in the offseason.”

So what happens when the boss pretty much waves the white flag on the season? The workforce begins to strike the delicate balance between tunnel vision and the truth.

“I mean, it’s reality," Coach Scott Brooks said, responding to Leonsis’s words. “It’s going to take a lot of good fortune to change, but it doesn’t change anything on my end or the guys. We’re going to keep fighting. We’re going to try our best to close out games. Every game is coming down to the last minute or two. We still want to go out there and compete. We want to win. Our guys haven’t given me any indication they want to do it otherwise. They want to go out there and play well and play hard and come away with some wins.”

This win-now mentality has been repeated since January, when the team learned it would play the rest of the season without injured all-star point guard John Wall. It has been ingrained into the minds of everyone within the organization — most directly when Leonsis declared there will be no tanking and Bradley Beal echoed the sentiment — and this approach seems difficult for some to let go. Especially for the many players on the Wizards’ roster with playoff experience.

Last season, Jeff Green played in the NBA Finals with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Jordan McRae won a ring in 2016 with the Cavaliers. And although center Ian Mahinmi has appeared in just two games since Feb. 4, he still has a ring from his days with the Dallas Mavericks and knows how different this time of year could be.

“It’s tough. An underachieving season," Mahinmi said after exhaling. “Now it’s about finishing the season and trying to give your best. It’s definitely not a good time.”

The Wizards have been at least 10 games under .500 since Feb. 13. They have not spent one day this season within the top eight spots in the East. They have performed as one of the worst defensive teams from October until now.

Still, it took a four-game losing streak in late March and remaining stuck in fourth place in the Southeast Division for reality to set in. The eventual fade to the 2018-19 season will not match the winning projections from September.

“It’s super tough now. I mean, mathematically it’s still there, but we all know it’s not probably going to happen,” said Tomas Satoransky, who has replaced Wall in the starting lineup. “It’s a new situation for me, playing eight more games to the season where there’s no bigger goal.”

Months before the Wizards went off track, Leonsis set the mandate.

"We need to raise the expectations. We have to make the playoffs. I’d like us to win 50 games. I’d like us to go to the Eastern Conference finals,” Leonsis said in September.

Leonsis, who was still basking in his Washington Capitals’ Stanley Cup championship, punctuated his bold words by saying the Wizards had “no excuses."

The Wizards opened a new practice facility in September to keep up with other teams, owned the fourth-highest payroll in the league and built a roster around three maximum-contract players in Wall, Beal and Otto Porter Jr. By signing free agent Dwight Howard to a two-year deal with a player option in the second year, Washington expected the aging big man to be the best athletic, rebounding center it has had in years.

Every player coming into training camp was believed to be healthy and — following the team’s first-round exit in the 2018 playoffs — hungry. This is why Leonsis shared his “no excuses” mandate.

Over time, plenty of excuses popped up. Although Howard entered his 15th training camp on the sidelines because of an injury that later required spinal surgery, and Wall appeared in a career-low 32 games, the Wizards never performed like a team ready to make the next leap. Now, changes are coming. At least on the court.

Beal, who plays a league-leading 37.6 minutes per game, may find a comfortable seat on the sideline more often. Before Tuesday night’s game, Brooks said he was considering limiting Beal’s time on the court.

“Yeah, I’m trying to go through that right now. There’s a chance he might miss a game. But he’s on pace for all 82 games," Brooks said. "It’s something that we will sit down as a staff along with Brad and make those decisions as the season unfolds, but he’s been playing great and playing with a lot of energy and his body feels great.”

The Wizards also have the future to think about, with nine players possibly entering free agency this summer. The final stretch of the season could mean that players start thinking about July as they try to finish strong and pad their statistics. However, Satoransky said he will find it easy to concentrate on the games and not his future contract.

“You can control what you can control, and I know I’ve [done] that,” Satoransky said. "It’s obviously a new situation for me, but here in this league you have to play always hard. I don’t care about that because I do it all the time. When I step on the court, I’m doing my best. So, I just think we have to play hard still.”

For Brooks, the main thing is still what happens on the court. Asked for his personal feelings on missing the playoffs, which would be rare in his coaching career, Brooks was quick to offer a correction.

“We haven’t missed it yet, have we?” he asked.

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