So much for teaching the overhyped young folks a lesson. On opening night at Capital One Arena, the Philadelphia 76ers — who are the future of the NBA or the universe or something — were the ones who pushed the Washington Wizards. If the 76ers really did just offer a glimpse of where the league is headed, the Wizards and every other contender would be wise to reach elite status quickly.
The Process has proceeded, it seems.
That was the dominant impression Wednesday night — that Philadelphia's long and perplexing rebuilding process is entering a more competitive phase — even though the Wizards did plenty of good things to overcome their first-game yips in a 120-115 victory. If the gruesome injury to Boston forward Gordon Hayward on Tuesday night left you thinking the Wizards' chances to win the Eastern Conference had increased, then this performance served as a reminder that such speculation is irrelevant right now because there are still too many unknowns about this new season and too much opportunity for emerging teams to shake up the logic.
It's all about experimentation and discovery at this point. Despite 41 bench points, including a fantastic all-around performance from Kelly Oubre Jr. (14 points, eight rebounds, two steals and two blocks), the Wizards still have major problems sustaining leads when they substitute en masse. They still are too lax on defense, and Philadelphia took advantage by making 15 of 35 three-pointers. With Jason Smith exiting the game with a right shoulder sprain, their power forward situation qualifies as temporarily problematic; starter Markieff Morris is already out for the season's first few weeks.
That said, the Wizards remain a dynamic and balanced offensive team. They played their best basketball in the first and third quarters, outscoring Philadelphia 66-46 in those periods. Their max-contract trio of John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr. combined to make just 21 of 56 shots, but you could see why the Wizards are among the safest playoff bets in the East. And with Joel Embiid — the best center ever to play just 31 games over three seasons — on the other side, Marcin Gortat was up to the challenge, finishing with 16 points and 17 rebounds.
For mid-October basketball, it was riveting entertainment despite a sloppy ending. Philadelphia certainly did its part, with Embiid playing well (18 points, 13 rebounds) and stretching his playing time restriction from an expected 16 to 20 minutes to nearly 27. Point forward Ben Simmons, the 2016 No. 1 overall draft pick who sat out last season with a broken foot, finished with an impressive 18 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. And guard Markelle Fultz, the 2017 No. 1 pick from Upper Marlboro, returned home and scored 10 points in 18 minutes in his NBA debut.
The 76ers made the Wizards look old at times, which is incredibly difficult to do. But in the end, the green hoops prodigies just made them mad. And that’s when the highlights came: Oubre with a one-handed dunk tip off a Beal jump shot; Wall dunking left-handed and catching a lob from Beal; Gortat making his Polish Hammer gesture after a slam.
“Much credit to Philly; they have definitely gotten better,” Oubre said. “They are not the same team they have been in years past. They are actually starting to become a great team.”
For both teams, it was appropriate that this game was the opener. The Wizards, who still seem like a secret even after advancing to the second round of the playoffs in three of the past four years, hosted an ESPN-televised event against a team oozing own-the-league potential. But as the Wizards can attest, the Process is arduous, even when a bustling young team feels like it has arrived. There’s nothing harder to do in the NBA than to take a bushel of pre-prime talent and create a winner.
The Wizards hoped to be in their current position sooner. It’s crazy to think because this group first made the playoffs in 2014, which was the second season that Wall and Beal were together. But it has taken time to reach a level of consistency, and before the season, Wall shed light on an underrated issue when he said: “The toughest thing you have is two young players that want to be great. Sometimes it might work, and sometimes it might not work.”
Think about that. Here’s what Wall is saying: It’s easier for stars to coexist when there is more separation of age and aspiration and an understanding of the hierarchy. Wall and Beal figured it out. The Sixers have three young potential all-stars trying to mix individual accolades and team success at once. And while they were smart to add veterans JJ Redick and Amir Johnson, the other role players around Embiid, Simmons and Fultz are all crazy young. It’s not just the inexperience of playing in the NBA that’s so difficult. It’s the inexperience of sacrificing. How does a young player sacrifice when he aspires to do so much? How does he stay consistently focused?
The Wizards have been through all of this, and now they can be considered a success story. This season will provide a better understanding of whether they can achieve greatness, but they have built what should be a sustainable contender. Their draft-based approach has worked. They are the only current NBA team to draft and reward three players with max contracts. They respect how far they have come.
“You know what the hardest thing for the young man is?” Gortat said during a recent interview. “We all enjoy diamonds. We all enjoy women. We all enjoy cars and beautiful houses, trips, the best parties and the life. The hardest thing is to come at 6 o’clock in the morning to the gym when nobody watches you. It’s easy to play when you have 20,000 people in the stands — women, cheerleaders, actresses, models, front-row celebrities — but it’s really hard to wake up at 6 o’clock in the morning and go to the gym and work on your left hand. This is the hardest part, when nobody’s watching.”
As a team, the Wizards have been able to speed up the developmental process, but they still want to go faster. And they weren’t anointed the way Philadelphia has been.
“I think we have a chance,” Embiid said. “We are all still learning how to play with each other. I just think we have to play more together.”
The 76ers have time, and surely the Wizards are hoping they take plenty of it. They don’t need an upstart joining the Eastern Conference race this soon.
Box score: Wizards 120, 76ers 115
Fancy Stats: The Wizards are the fourth-best team in the East