This was the 2018-19 Wizards: a room full of rising all-stars, fading alphas and brash athletes who had no use for filters. They were a mismatched group, a one-year experiment with six pending free agents cast as the co-stars to a core of Beal, John Wall and Otto Porter Jr. The roster looked talented on paper — but also like a gumbo of dysfunction. So, how could this go wrong?
Here are the early-season scenes from the Wizards’ collapse. Part II comes Monday.
Oct. 18: Wizards lose, 113-112, to Miami on a buzzer-beating putback
The idea behind the Wizards’ offseason trade of Gortat for Rivers was to play smaller and faster. Still, the team needed a starting big man and, when Howard became available, the Wizards pounced. Howard appeared past his Superman days but, at 32, he was still coming off a season in which he averaged 16.6 points and (most importantly for Washington) 12.5 rebounds. Finally, the Wizards thought, they had found the athletic big they needed.
But Howard didn’t play in the season opener. He didn’t even sit on the bench, because he didn’t bring a suit jacket to the game. Howard, who did not participate in training camp or play in a preseason game, was still recovering from what was believed to be a gluteal muscle injury.
In the game’s closing seconds, the Wizards did not have a traditional center on the floor. Dwyane Wade missed the potential game-winning shot and, even though Morris, Porter and Jeff Green were near the rim, Miami big man Kelly Olynyk grabbed the offensive rebound. His putback with 0.2 seconds stole the victory, and a season-long trend of poor rebounding by the Wizards was born.
Oct. 24: Stephen Curry torches the Wizards for 51 points
The Wizards faced an early-season test when they took off for the West Coast after just two games. It was on this trip when Rivers innocently revealed on his “Go Off” podcast that Wall was soon to become a father. Rivers might have gone too far off script; Wall didn’t appreciate his teammate sharing the news. By the time the team arrived in the Bay Area, Wall had cut his cornrows in favor of a fresh fade. Wall shed his 'do, and then the Wizards lost their defense in a 144-122 loss to Golden State.
Curry played as though he had a cheat code, making 15 of 24 shots, including 11 of 16 three-pointers while pulling up from unspeakable distances. Although Curry hit many difficult threes, he faced little resistance when he drove into the lane. The Wizards’ adjustments didn’t work and, for the fourth straight game to start the season, they allowed 113 or more points.
Oct. 26: The Wizards drop to 1-4, and things go from bad to worse
Only five games in, Beal and Wall voiced frustration about how the season was unfolding. After the Wizards lost, 116-112, at Sacramento, Beal vented about the team’s defense.
“We suck right now,” he said. “We’re not guarding no damn body.”
More Beal: “We got to get out of our comfort zone; that’s all it is. It’s talking. After the game, you hear it be loud as s--- in here but, during the game, it’s church mice. So we got to figure out — get out that comfort zone. Sometimes we have our own agendas on the floor, whether it’s complaining about shots, complaining about playing time, complaining about whatever it may be. We’re worried about the wrong s---, and that’s not where our focus needs to be and it’s just going to continue to hurt us.”
When asked for his thoughts on Beal’s comments, Wall didn’t hold back.
“Everybody on their own agenda and we showed glimpses when we do stuff as a team, we show how good we can be and then we go back to trying to do it individually and that’s mostly on the defensive end. Not helping each other out, not team rebounding, and that’s what’s killing us,” Wall said. “We got guys who’s worried about who’s getting shots, where the ball is going on the offensive end. We should never worry about that. . . . If you can’t do it on both ends of the floor, you don’t need to be playing.”
Nov. 15: Practice goes sideways
By this point, Rivers was struggling to find his role. That made him uncomfortable, as he had explained to reporters Oct. 27: “I’ve been trying not to step on people’s toes because I’m the new guy, so I’m just trying to fit in. That’s not who I am. I’m not a fit-in type of guy. I’m a guy who goes out there and attacks people’s throats."
Porter experienced his first injury of the season, a big toe contusion that led him to miss a game. With his team at 1-7, Coach Scott Brooks was asked whether he was considering a lineup change.
“Definitely thinking about it,” he said.
But Nov. 15, the season reached Category 5 crazy when the Wizards spent practice going at one another — and not even the coach and team president were spared.
At different points, the competition grew heated, and Beal and Rivers got into a verbal spat over a no-call during a scrimmage. Also, Wall and Green exchanged words. Brooks tried stepping into the situation, and Wall lobbed an expletive at his coach. Later, when players tried airing their grievances, Beal unleashed on the team atmosphere.
“I’m sick of this s---,” he said, according to several people with knowledge of the practice. He also gestured toward team president Ernie Grunfeld, sitting on the far baseline, and said he has been dealing with it for seven years and that "it starts at the top.”
Private apologies followed; after Wall shared a mea culpa with Brooks, he smiled while hosting his annual turkey giveaway and never let on about the contentious practice. When word got out, the team made Beal, Brooks and Wall available to speak with reporters on the morning of a game Nov. 20.
“That’s something that goes on throughout the NBA. It’s something we’ve put past us. We talked about it, apologized about it, kept it at that,” Wall concluded.
When asked about Beal’s blowup, Wall continued his succinct summations.
“I just try not to focus on that,” he said. “All I can do is focus on trying to be the leader of this team, the basketball player, be the franchise guy I can be. I can’t really focus on what anybody else says or what opinions they have.”
Nov. 18: Howard plays his final game
Although Howard was still experiencing significant pain from his injury, affecting him every time he sat down, he still had a song in his heart. On the night the Wizards faced the Portland Trail Blazers, Howard got up from his padded locker-room chair and crooned “This a-- is on fire!” in the tune of the Alicia Keys song “Girl On Fire.”
Howard played on, but he lasted less than seven minutes before leaving the game. By the end of the month, he would leave for California to have spinal surgery, his second since 2012, that would end his season. In his first year with the Wizards, he appeared in only nine games.