WASHINGTON -- The Wizards locker room is fairly non-descript. Aside from a board tallying hustle plays from each player, there is only one decoration that stands out: A poster-sized, framed photograph of the Verizon Center scoreboard from January's shellacking of the Miami Heat, when Washington was up 53-26 over the two-time defending champions.
Washington's win was one of the highlights of the season. It was also counted as much as a win over the Magic or Bucks in terms of the team's playoff positioning. A fun game, sure, but at the end of the day, a win is just a win during the regular season.
It's this mentality -- so prominently displaying one part of one regular-season game that was only worth one win -- that has a lot to do with why the team has been so inconsistent. Wednesday's loss to the Phoenix Suns, in which the team played sloppy for the first two and a half quarters, was chalked up to -- what else -- a lack of intensity.
"We've got to realize, 18 minutes of play that way, it's hard to play that way. Are you willing to sacrifice and do that? We played about 18 minutes of high intensity. It made a big difference. We have to quit feeling sorry for ourselves, which we have a tendency to do. We're big boys here and we have to buckle up and play the game like that." Randy Wittman said.
Marcin Gortat also attributed the loss to a lack of intensity and focus. Supporting Al Harrington's earlier claim that the team lacked focus and intensity, Gortat went on to add, "Sometimes we just show that mentally we are weak."
The organization as a whole deserves some blame for this. Save for the beginning of Ted Leonsis' ownership, the Wizards have been so desperate for short term success that they've not only been content with mediocrity, they've purposely sought it out.
At the beginning of the season, possibly without exception, everyone associated with the organization listed their main goal for the year as making the playoffs. Not winning a championship or contending or winning 50 games. Just making the playoffs. After a few early-season hiccups, the team found its groove and by December it was clear that, yes, barring catastrophic injury or bad luck, the playoffs were going to happen.
Now that Washington has nearly wrapped up a playoff spot, is it really that shocking that the team has become complacent? Imagine you've trained for months for a marathon and your only goal was to finish it successfully. If you reached mile 25 and were exhausted, but still capable of moving, would you sprint to the finish line or jog? The Wizards are choosing the latter simply because they can.
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The best franchises try to build dynasties, not mere playoff teams. More than half of the NBA makes the playoffs. It's not that big of a deal, especially in the East where it doesn't even require winning 40 games some years. Striving for the playoffs or a two- or three-year window where the team might be able to win 45 to 50 games is the mentality that leads to teams like the Joe Johnson era Hawks, the Larry Brown era Bobcats and every Knicks team of the last 15 years. The best case scenario in these instances is usually winning 50 games and making the second round.
All hope is not lost for the Wizards. They will have cap space, and there are a lot of competent veterans. Bradley Beal has had his issues this year, but he's still extremely young and has the work ethic and character to be an occasional All-Star. John Wall, who keeps a photograph of the NBA championship trophy in his locker, is everything a team could want in a franchise player, and these days, is the best player in the building more often than not.
The organization's approach to team-building needs to change though. The bar needs to be set higher if the coaching staff and management is going to realistically expect more than the the careless play the team demonstrated against Phoenix. Right now, they're jogging. Maybe next year someone will motivate them to sprint.