But the fall from "true contender" to "fringe contender" is a steep one — one of the largest a team can take.
Grantland's Zach Lowe wrote that about the James Harden trade and its possible impact on the Thunder's title hopes in 2012. I walk around seeing everything in
Bullets Wizards red teal red, so I had to stop and savor the bitter reminder that Washington is several conversations removed from fringe contender status. Here's a brief look at what a few of those conversations might look like.
Establishing the ground floor
Say what you want about the starting lineup, this team will not go away. As fans expected, the Wizards struggle to put the ball in the hoop in half-court situations at the end of hotly contested games. As maddening as the defense can be, they can flat wear opponents down. That effect was mitigated last year as teams could often rest on defense against a largely stagnant Wizards attack. The advent of the motion offense hasn't unpacked the paint, but it has kept opponents from recharging their batteries on D. Not an optimal solution, but as long as the Wizards keep snagging the lead late, I won't argue (too much). Remember that whole 'fourth quarter games' thing Scott Brooks preached? The Wiz are overcoming (self-inflicted) adversity and putting themselves in position to win. The cream rises, I hope. #meritocracy!?
But that's all old hat. The lowest metric for success in this rebuild is establishing a positive institutional reputation. At the GM level, Ernie Grunfeld won't be mistaken for R.C. Buford any time soon, which drastically lowers the ceiling on what this franchise can achieve. Buford was able to turns Richard Jefferson's mind-boggling extension into fewer years of Stephen Jackson and a first-round draft pick. The OkAriza acquisition resulted in a reluctant reception from the optimists and while the veterans are off to a poor start, the season is still in its infancy.
But this is really about the players, and by extension, the coaches. Fans know that both John Wall and Nene's endorsement in last season's exit interviews played a role in Randy Wittman receiving tenure, as it were. The team leaders buying in to a coach's agenda with the rest of the roster following suit is business as usual everywhere else in the NBA, but such is the hand the Wizards have been dealt. That's the first step the Wiz must take. There isn't a tenured player who isn't ready to move on from what the team has been in recent years, and they are on their way.
Keeping Ernie Grunfeld's modus operandi in mind with the talent already on the roster, becoming a low playoff seed should be a snap, barring a storm of injuries. Retaining cap flexibility for a push into the middle playoff seeds? The OkAriza trade did the franchise no favors from a cap perspective, but won't impact the team's ability to retain their rookie crops. Adding complementary pieces will require some magic from EG. Predicting a kinetic team that hustles their way into fourth quarter games, that re-establishes a professional brand in D.C. and spawns at least a low playoff seed-caliber team is about as dangerous as betting Wittman will be screaming on the sidelines come gametime.
The interim goal
Like most interim goals, this one is eminently achievable. In this follow-up scenario, every player has another season or two in the Wittman administration. Project reasonable growth and maturation for the rookie class (another Kevin Seraphin-ian offensive leap would be nice) and we'll translate that into a team that can, and does, win an increasing percentage of those fourth quarter games with moderate half-court execution and a top-10 defense.
When it comes to establishing a professional reputation, it's one thing to achieve buy-in from your team members. Results like a playoff series win after years of chaos and a rapid purge will draw the kind of attention that gets people nodding, thinking 'I see what they're doing, where that could be going.' The Wizards can make that happen with a decent complementary signing or two, once the team makes the call on which of their rookie crop they'd like to keep, hopefully making the call at the proper time, as well. Retaining the right players on the right deals is the hallmark of institutional competence in the NBA.
Throw that all together, and you've got a team that can challenge for the 4-6 seed, maybe for years. It's not far enough for fans of this team (we are hungry!), but if there's one thing we know, it's patience. To reach this point, there's real evidence of player development at work in the roster. Ernie has made something meaningful happen on the trade market with OkAriza that hasn't resulted in long term salary and positively impacts the team's fortunes.
This is where the 'easy' road ends. Ernie can pull off a slick move or two and there's some evidence of player development in D.C. already. Pending tomorrow night's game against the Celtics, it looks like Randy's meritocracy may be about to flex its muscle. Becoming the Atlanta Hawks of yesteryear isn't anything to sneeze at, but that's not what fans, the players, the coaches or the owner is shooting for.
Betting on apotheosis
You know what? Let's take this one off the rails. Warp speed, Mr. Sulu:
- Jordan Crawford follows the slow-developing guard paradigm, hereafter referred to as the Crawford Conjecture. He cuts down on bad shots, doesn't gamble on defense, makes deadly off-ball cuts and passes like he has eyes in the back of his head. ESPN releases an article entitled 'The Return of the Combo Guard'.
- Kevin Seraphin dueling Al Horford is a thing. He makes an All-Star team a year after winning Most Improved Player. Ask a fan about post scoring in the NBA and they forget to mention Zach Randolph. Low foul rate? Try all-NBA defensive third team. Headlines a Grantland article on Wizards physicality and rep as the new Bad Boys of the NBA.
- Trevor Booker is a spot starter at either forward position depending on matchups, whose pure kinetic playstyle makes him the new Gerald Wallace. Capable of taking over a game off pure hustle? Check. The crowds in DC love him, because his workmanlike-approach is the opposite of superstar offense. After a symphony of ball movement, it ends with a player taking a contested, yet not wild, 17 footer with a familiar stroke. Every fan thinks, 'I'll take that, all day.' Or perhaps the team is getting back on defense but Booker is making a move on the offensive glass. The buzz is instantaneous because everyone knows who that has to be, because his shoes are already at the defender's chest height and it's two points out of nothing. Bleacher Report has a slideshow on the most recent Trevor Booker analogs ending with Gerald Wallace and concludes nothing in particular.
- Jan Vesely becomes Nick Collison with dunks. He's always in the right place making the right pass or the right cut. His free throw percentage is 70 percent. His screen-setting impedes opposing players. He is a double-double threat any given night while providing suffocating help defense. An announcer declares Vesely is just a Wizards basketball player the way announcers now talk about Spurs basketball players. Truth About It writes a biopic ending in the NBA craze sweeping his home country entitled 'Czech Your Country, Bro'.
- Bradley Beal becomes an Olympian based on his heady game, outside shooting, solid positional defense and assassin's mentality. An anonymous scout is heard to remark, 'in Beal's hands, the ball becomes a knife and he is going to cut you'. He becomes a spokesperson for McDonalds. My son constantly demands Happy Beals around lunch time. Bullets Forever posts weekly articles talking about how relieved we are that we didn't draft the new Mike Miller. Teams gameplan to keep the ball out of his hands, but they can't do it. Why not?
- John @%$#ing Wall. Slam puts out an article penned by Scoop Jackson. It covers the story: life growing up without his father. Learning to deal with his anger. Kentucky and premature stardom. Franchise savior, GAME-CHANGER and 25 million dollar front-man for Reebok before hoisting a jumpshot. Derrick Rose is John Wall's floor. Dougie-gate. Cowherd. Derrick Rose taking a quantum leap. Injuries. The 'rebuilding' years in Washington. Fighting through. The JaVale McGee trade. The upswing. Team coming together without him. Returning to the floor like he never missed a day. Missed the playoffs but everyone can taste the rising, they know it's coming. All-Star game, playoffs. Team firing on all cylinders. It's the night before the Wizards first Eastern Conference Finals matchup with the Heat, what everyone's been waiting for. Scoop Jackson tells you John Wall is ready. Are you ready? Wizards fans everywhere are hospitalized with broken bones in their hands punching walls and pounding tables screaming they are ready.
- Chris Singleton is here because if the Wizards are going to announce him after Earl Barron...but srsly, folks! Chris Singleton becomes a Tony Allen/Jared Jeffries defensive hybrid. He's a lethal cutter with a vicious streak who loves getting out on the fast break and can bury the trey. Also, one third of 'Cerberus'. When teams go small ball, the Wizards trot out Booker at the 3, CSing at the 4 and Ves at the 5. NO ONE IS SCORING ON THE THREE-HEADED DOG FROM HELL. Forms garage hip-hop fusion group with Trevor and Jan, also named Cerberus. Chris Baker becomes spokesman for Doughpe clothes because they're 'swaggy mcswag swag'. All-NBA defensive first-team. Hates Dwayne Wade and makes it his personal mission to shut him down EVERY TIME HE PLAYS THE WIZARDS. Someone calls him our Kevin Garnett and is told shut up, but affectionately.
Yeah, fringe contender for sure if all that happens. Fun imagination is fun. Here's to apotheosis, and Ernie fitting all that under the salary cap.
What does your Wizards apotheosis look like?