For the first time in years, things are good for the Washington Wizards. They’re headed to the playoffs, point guard John Wall has emerged as a star and there’s stability in the locker room. Eventually, a lot of basketball fans may even take notice.
The Wizards haven’t generated the type of buzz you would expect during a season in which they’ve become something they haven’t been in a long time: an interesting team. But by playing well Monday against the Miami Heat during their final regular season game at Verizon Center, the Wizards could at least improve their profile entering the postseason.
The two-time defending NBA champion Heat is battling the Indiana Pacers for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. The Wizards hope to hold off the Charlotte Bobcats in the race for sixth. With a lot at stake for both teams, the Wizards have an opportunity to generate excitement. The lack of it surrounding them is reflected in the NBA’s attendance figures.
Among the league’s 30 teams, the Wizards ranked 18th in home attendance through Saturday, averaging 16,942. The Atlanta Hawks and Bobcats are the only definite playoff-bound clubs that draw fewer. But the turnstiles aren’t reflective of how far the Wizards have come on the court.
The Wizards went 0-12 to open the 2012-13 season and were 5-28 while Wall rehabbed from a knee injury. As horrendous as they were, though, the Wizards managed to average 16,343 fans at their home games, finishing 20th in attendance.
The Wizards have 13 more victories than they did a season ago after 80 games. In Wall and guard Bradley Beal, they are led by one of the game’s top young back-court tandems. The organization has become a model of professionalism after being one of professional sports’ longtime punch lines. And yet the Wizards have attracted only 599 more fans per game than they did while producing more oh-no moments than victories. That doesn’t add up.
After making a big move in the standings, it was reasonable for the Wizards (42-38) to expect a corresponding bump in attendance. Generally, that’s the way it works. In the Wizards’ case, many of their potential supporters seem to be taking a wait-and-see approach despite already having seen a lot worth celebrating. In all likelihood, some are holding back because of the organization’s recent history.
The Wizards’ former franchise player thought it would be a good idea to bring guns to the locker room, and management wasted years trying to build on a foundation of quicksand and making excuses for millionaire knuckleheads. Granted, that’s a whole lot to overcome. But the Wizards shouldn’t be held hostage by their past forever.
Now they’re united and focused on team goals. Just ask Wall.
No player has been more important in the Wizards’ transformation after experiencing “the tough times . . . when we won 20-something games three years in a row,” Wall said after Saturday’s 104-91 rout of the Milwaukee Bucks at Verizon.
“The organization did a great job of picking people and going to get veteran guys. . . . All the young guys [who have] been here did a great job of developing our game each year.”
True. Wall, who became a first-time all-star this season, has developed the most. He’s respected throughout the league (“John Wall is really playing at a high level,” Bucks Coach Larry Drew said) but hasn’t faced as much scrutiny as other rising professional sports stars because the Wizards haven’t moved the needle much. The minimal reaction to Wall’s recent trip provided a reminder.
Last Monday, the 2010 No. 1 overall pick from Kentucky traveled to Arlington, Tex., to watch Kentucky play Connecticut in the NCAA championship game. Wall returned in time for Tuesday’s practice in preparation of Wednesday’s showdown against the Bobcats.
At the start of Wednesday’s game, Wall appeared sluggish. The Wizards trailed by 20 points in the first half and wound up losing in overtime. Wall finished with a triple-double but missed 12 of 18 shots from the field.
Questioned by reporters about his decision to attend the game, Wall insisted the trip did not affect his play against the Bobcats. The story ended there. If quarterback Robert Griffin III flopped in a key Washington Redskins game two days after having traveled to Texas to watch his alma mater, Baylor, sports-talk radio stations wouldn’t have had enough phone lines to accommodate the people eager to rip him.
Wall and the Wizards will gain more of the spotlight as the NBA playoffs begin this week. Monday’s game against Miami, against which the Wizards are 1-2 this season, will help determine seeding. If the Heat and Wizards finish second and seventh, respectively, in the conference, they would meet again in the postseason only a few days later. “We’re taking the right steps,” Wall said.
Yep. The Wizards have something to offer. All you have to do is look.
For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.