The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Wizards have plenty of questions and no good answers after meltdown against Clippers

Bradley Beal had more questions than answers after the Wizards blew a 35-point lead Tuesday. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Ten days before the Washington Wizards’ season reached its nadir — a blown 35-point lead in a loss to the Los Angeles Clippers — Kyle Kuzma had hoped to find some answers.

Washington, at that point, was three games into an eight-game homestand. It had just lost to the Portland Trail Blazers and was staring down a stretch against Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Toronto, Boston and Los Angeles. Kuzma said the challenging quartet of Eastern Conference opponents capped with a test from the West would reveal the Wizards’ mettle after they picked up wins against fledgling Oklahoma City and Orlando.

In that span, Washington captured just one win thanks to an exceptional performance against the 76ers. It closed its homestand in shocking fashion to go 3-5. And it left Kuzma with even fewer answers than he had before.

Wizards go down in flames as a 35-point lead disappears in a 116-115 loss to the Clippers

“I don’t even know, honestly,” Kuzma said after Tuesday’s 116-115 loss to the Clippers when asked which fault the Wizards should address first. “I could give you a generic answer, and I could just be like, ‘We need to come in and work hard, figure it out defensively,’ but we’re not figuring it out — that’s clear as day. Blow a 35-point lead, what else can you do at the end of the day, you know what I’m saying? Something’s got to change. Something’s got to — I don’t know.”

Kuzma and Bradley Beal looked stunned at separate postgame news conferences. Both questioned Washington’s direction while referencing unsolved issues within the team, specifically the fact that the rotation is bloated and unsettled after the return of center Thomas Bryant from an ACL tear and forward Rui Hachimura after taking personal leave. The trade deadline is Feb. 10.

Beal said he sat for 10 or 15 minutes after the game trying to figure out how the Wizards allowed the Clippers — without injured Paul George and Kawhi Leonard — to stage what tied for the second-largest comeback by any team since 1996.

Kuzma said there was nothing anyone in the locker room could say or do but laugh but made it clear that nothing about Washington’s situation is funny.

The Wizards (23-25) head into their most daunting stretch of the season yet and will face Memphis, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Miami and Brooklyn starting Saturday. As for what Washington should do in the three days it has to prepare, Beal, like Kuzma, had more questions than answers.

“Ah, [those days] are important. It’s kind of understanding who we are and what we are and what are we trying to achieve, honestly. What kind of team are we trying to be?” Beal said. “I think that’s my biggest question to all of us as a unit. Like, who are we trying to be? It’s either we want to be a winning team or we don’t.

“We’ve got a couple days to figure it out, then a tough Memphis team who’s been hot. And then you go on the road and play a few other teams who’ve been hot. It doesn’t stop. It doesn’t stop. I think that’s the frustrating part. We’re trying to make these adjustments and corrections on the fly, and we got a lot of problems … in your own household you’ve got to deal with. Just got to figure it out.”

Both players contended “something” has to change for the Wizards, but neither offered specifics. “It’s kind of above my pay grade,” Kuzma said.

The most obvious thing — though not an easy thing to solve — is that Washington must iron out its rotations. Coach Wes Unseld Jr. is using up to 11 players as the Wizards say they’re trying to see how Bryant and Hachimura fit in with the trade deadline approaching.

For Rui Hachimura, a hoops star in two very different countries, time away is a delicate dance

Beal said the frantic atmosphere, in which players are fighting to prove their value, can be detrimental. He understands the team’s hesitance to “put guys in a box” as far as their role but knows such flexibility from the coaching staff requires a player to be absolutely certain and confident in his skill set.

“Just do your job. Whatever it is you do, be a star in that — and I’m not sure if we have that,” Beal said. “And it’s tough because … we got guys fighting for survival. I don’t feed their families. We got guys trying to stay alive, trying to stay on the team, trying to avoid being traded. … That’s tough on a team. That’s tough on guys to go out and try to produce and go out there and try to compete with the minutes that they have. That’s tough. That is very tough.”

Asked whether Washington’s souring season has played into his calculation on whether to remain with the Wizards after they offered him an extension in the fall, Beal offered his usual answer: He wants to win.

Washington is 13-22 since matching the second-best start in franchise history at 10-3, at which point General Manager Tommy Sheppard and Sashi Brown, the team’s chief planning and operations officer, signed multiyear extensions and received promotions. Monumental Sports CEO Ted Leonsis said at the time that the extensions were the result of their vast bodies of work, not the team’s hot start.

Beal said Tuesday that the team has the necessary pieces. It simply needs to solve the puzzle.