John Wall’s hairy new look symbolizes the 2018-19 Washington Wizards perfectly. It’s a lot: all the braid-able hair on top of his head, the wild beard, the new tattoos. They’re a lot: deeper and more versatile, bigger personalities, greater potential to thrive or self-destruct.
You don’t quite know how to feel about Wall doubling down on this shaggy, “Crazy J” style, and you can’t be certain whether it’s retro or trendy or even sustainable. You don’t quite know how to feel about the Wizards doubling down on an idling second-round-or-less core, and you can’t be certain whether their changes make them retro or trendy or even sustainable.
Wall, their leader and virtuoso playmaker, is just fine with the uncertainty and trepidation. It just gives him and the Wizards more to prove.
“Everybody’s just got to sit back and watch,” he said.
If you could ignore history and prejudge this team solely on its talent and interchangeable parts, you would start your expectations at 50 victories and a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference. But it has been 40 years since the franchise won at least 50 games, and in the Wall/Bradley Beal era, the Wizards developed a bad habit of winning 40-something games and shaking their heads over how they could have done more. They have made the playoffs four times in the past five years but failed to advance beyond the second round. Last season, they couldn’t get out of the first round.
Over the summer, Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld put together what is widely considered his best roster since arriving in D.C. in 2003. To a team with a playoff foundation, he added three players who averaged double figures in scoring a year ago: center Dwight Howard, forward Jeff Green and guard Austin Rivers. They also drafted Troy Brown Jr., a multipositional 19-year-old who is capable of being a rookie contributor, and made a waiver claim on Thomas Bryant, a developmental big man with a future. The only key departures were Marcin Gortat and Mike Scott, but Howard is an upgrade over Gortat, and Green is more versatile than Scott.
If this were the Howard of six years ago, we would be making Finals predictions. But this is the 32-year-old Howard, a former all-star now on his sixth team. He’s not the offensive force he once was, but he still averaged 16.6 points per game for Charlotte last season. He’s not the best defensive player in the game anymore, but he’s still an anchor on that end and still the best rebounder of his generation. But is there room for his ego on a team that has a history of chemistry problems?
For now, the players are saying the right things. It’s also the first week of practice, and there is no reason to be bitter or disappointed or misunderstood.
“Our conversations have been about winning and how we can win together and how all of us have to really put our egos aside to accomplish what we want as a team,” Howard said of his offseason communication with Wall and Beal. “I think all of us have had great individual careers, but as a whole, we have to understand that it’s all about winning as a team. I think we have a great opportunity in front of us.”
It’s both an opportunity and a test of the Wizards’ foundation. Owner Ted Leonsis hasn’t just preached positive thoughts about this team. He has backed up his optimism by paying the luxury tax on the team’s high payroll for the first time last season and committing more money (about $135 million) this season. You don’t risk paying the luxury tax for consecutive years without belief. And it’s more than Leonsis simply following a similar model to what worked for him with the Capitals. He likes this team, period. He thinks these players have more in them.
For several years, depth has been an issue; it shouldn’t be now. Sometimes the Wizards haven’t had the proper mix of big men to play with their gifted perimeter players; in theory, Howard is a good fit. Coach Scott Brooks is in the third year of a contract paying him $7 million annually. The team is practicing in a new, state-of-the-art training facility, and Capital One Arena just received $40 million in upgrades.
For all the consternation about what the Wizards aren’t and resignation that this team will never be great, the person who matters most remains patient.
“I love that Ted didn’t give up on us,” Beal said.
But the gestures of confidence come with an expectation. Leonsis talked about the team having “no excuses” in a recent interview with NBC Sports Washington. Everyone in the organization seems to understand the urgency.
“Obviously, the time is now,” forward Markieff Morris said. “The message is, ‘Win right now.’ We’re going to get to the playoffs. It’s after that. The professionalism is going to be a big thing for us.”
Said Wall: “I think probably, after this year or next year, if it doesn’t work out, we’ve got to start to find different ways. But I think we’ve still got an opportunity to improve and get there. Some teams give up quicker than other teams, but I think we’ve still got a lot of opportunity to prove [ourselves].”
Brooks needs to motivate this team to avoid those sluggish performances against sub-.500 opponents. Even with Wall missing 41 games, the Wizards could have been much better than 43-39 if they had shown the professionalism and hunger to compete on a consistent basis. The Wizards have depth now, and Brooks must use it. The bench can be a motivator, finally. Players also shouldn’t feel as taxed throughout the season, and when injuries occur, the team won’t be scrambling as much to adjust.
But in professional sports, grown men must act like adults, too. Brooks can do only so much in a league in which the players have so much power. Ultimately, it’s on Wall to lead better, vocally and by example. As the point guard of a team with at least eight players capable of averaging double figures, he has a lot of people to keep happy. He says he wants to be defined by winning, so let’s judge him on that. Wall doesn’t need to average 20 points and 10 assists to be an all-star. He needs to orchestrate success and be a steward of the team’s chemistry.
“For me, it’s always, like, everybody says, ‘You can get to the second round, but you can’t get past it,’ ” Wall said. “I never want to be one of those guys who can’t get past the second round. So my next step is making it to the Eastern Conference finals and hopefully to the Finals. That’s my ultimate goal. I think, for me to have a heck of a career, if I don’t win a championship, I feel like my career was failure. So that’s my ultimate goal.”
In terms of having the proper tools, the Wizards are closer to the championship than they have been with Wall commanding them. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re close. They still have a good distance to travel, and if they don’t make major strides this season, the worth of patience will be on trial.
The team is better, supposedly. The stakes are higher, definitely. There’s more of everything this season, from Wall’s hair to the team’s hopes to possible repercussions for failure.
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