Though catchy, the motto never took because losses in November carried into December and January and February. By April 2, with the team eliminated from the playoffs, majority owner Ted Leonsis fired team president Ernie Grunfeld.
Here’s what happened behind the scenes that defined the Wizards’ nose-dive after November.
Dec. 8: Misery in Cleveland
Only a few days before this game, the Wizards were 11-14 and just a half game out of the eighth seed. It would be the last time the team would be so close to playoff position. Still, on this night Washington could have made up ground: John Wall was returning to the lineup after taking a brief leave of absence for the birth of his son, and the team was playing the Cleveland Cavaliers, a squad with only six wins.
Things didn’t go as planned. One day after backup center Jason Smith was traded, the Wizards showed little spirit and lost to the second-worst team in the East. The Smith trade did not go over well in the locker room and after the game, players privately vented about the move. When asked about the deal, one player paused for several seconds before releasing a sigh. He described it as “a heartbreaking loss.”
This night was just the beginning of the massive change coming to the Wizards. Wall played the worst game of his nine-year career in missing all five shot attempts and finishing with one point. After the game, Wall disclosed that he had been playing with bone spurs in his left heel. The revelation began a spiral that would eventually land Wall on a surgeon’s table, lost for the season. And months later, the same injury led to an even more troubling diagnosis.
Dec. 14: The three-team ‘Whoops!’ trade that confused the NBA
In the moments following a Friday night loss in Brooklyn, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Austin Rivers found out they were part of a three-team trade. But the trade got tangled up between Washington, Phoenix and Memphis when the wrong Grizzlies player was named in the deal.
The trade halted, for the night, but in the initial shock of the news, Oubre and Rivers tried to wrap their heads around what had just happened. Rivers sat in his locker stall staring at his phone as staffers and teammates gave him space. Before Oubre faced reporters, he was advised to deny any knowledge of the trade and after two questions he left the Wizards locker room for the last time.
The players learned about the trade from team staffers, and not directly from anyone in the front office — a point Wall brought up when sharing his reaction about the confusing night and backed up later by Oubre.
“I’m past it. I’m glad that the guys in the locker room were man enough to tell me what was going on when it had involved me,” said Oubre, before his Dec. 22 return to Washington as an opponent. “So that was a blessing.”
Jan. 17: Wizards play in London, Ted Leonsis vows ‘never, ever’ to tank
Despite Wall being officially out for the season following surgery on his bone spurs, the Wizards were still competing. After Washington defeated the New York Knicks, 108-107, in London for the NBA Global Games showcase, a stretch of six wins in 10 games, an international reporter asked Bradley Beal about how he has personally succeeded without Wall. Beal answered as diplomatically as possible, explaining that playing without Wall is difficult. As he rose from the dais, Beal flashed a hint of exasperation about the question and mumbled under his breath that “y’all trying to get me in trouble.”
Ted Leonsis also made the trip across the Atlantic, packing a pair of rose-colored glasses.
“Bradley Beal told me, ‘We got enough. We’re going to make the playoffs. We’re not going to let you down,’ ” Leonsis said. “So who am I to change the goals? We said, ‘No excuses.’ It would be easy to say we have so many players out injured, but we’re not going to do that. We’re not letting anybody off the hook. We got to make the playoffs.”
Feb. 6: The core is no more as the Wizards trade Otto Porter Jr.
Late on Feb. 4, Leonsis was in Chicago for a business trip when he received a call from Grunfeld. The conversation went like this:
Well, you better sit down.
What Grunfeld said next would take Leonsis several moments to process: Wall had ruptured his left Achilles’ tendon and would require another surgical procedure. The Wizards were suddenly dealing with Wall’s recovery, which could cause him to miss the entire 2019-20 season. Only a few days earlier, Leonsis had gone on record saying the Wizards would not trade a member of their core. That changed, however, with one phone call. Suddenly, getting out of the luxury tax became paramount and the Wizards sacrificed Otto Porter Jr.’s max contract for the greater good of their salary cap.
Washington traded Porter to the Chicago Bulls for two expiring deals, Bobby Portis and Jabari Parker. On Feb. 6, Porter had finished warming up for a game in Milwaukee when he learned about the deal. He dressed, shared goodbyes with teammates and staffers and was escorted back to the team’s hotel by Wizards security. Porter, who had missed 10 consecutive games in December with a quadriceps injury, had the backing of the Wizards but also often drew criticism for not being aggressive enough.
“He was deserving of the money,” one team staffer said, summing up Porter’s last two seasons in Washington after getting the max, “but he didn’t produce.”
March 20: The end is nigh
The Wizards lost in overtime to the Chicago Bulls, falling 12 games under .500 . Beal was angry.
He told reporters the Wizards “didn’t want to win,” then moved to the postgame spread of deep-dish pizza, chicken wings and salad. These meals are for players and the entire traveling party. While trays of lettuce remained intact, Beal wanted protein for his to-go box and found only a few chicken wings. Beal grumbled about the unfairness in that he plays "80 minutes a night” to have only leftovers saved for him.
The food wasn’t the source of Beal’s unhappiness. He was frustrated because on this night, he realized the Wizards’ chase for the playoffs had ended. The loss was part of a five-game slide and though Beal would not concede defeat in the moment, deep down, he knew it was over.
“I think when we lost to the Bulls in Chicago, I think I had a feeling. I think even then, that might have solidified it,” Beal said weeks later. “After that game, it was like, ‘Damn, we needed that one.’ For the most part, you never want to think that, but mathematically, you look at everybody’s schedule, you know. You got to be realistic at the same time, too.”