While the Wizards have an ill-formed roster that’s been missing a key player, the cause of the 1-6 start is much more about organizational dysfunction and cracks in the franchise’s cultural foundation than a lack of talent. Those flaws are revealed on the court, but those on-court behaviors are largely symptoms of the personality conflicts, mistrust and resentments that have been building for years.
What were issues at times in previous seasons have become impossible to ignore. Offensively, the don’t seem to see each other, and this includes John Wall, whose greatest strength is his court vision. Several times a game, Wizards are missing obvious passes to open teammates because they’re too wrapped up in getting their own shots. They’re not making the extra pass or even the right pass...unless they think it might get them an assist.
One of the best ways for a player to get himself open on offense is to set screens for teammates, but the Wizards do little of it. Some of that is the scheme, but some of that is on the players being too content to jog to “their spots” instead of seeing opportunities to collaborate with teammates to make plays.
Effective offensive sets are designed to coordinate ball and player movements to force the defense to make decisions and create open shots. But too many players are jogging through cuts instead of going hard. This throws off timing, and eliminates opportunistic plays when a defender doesn’t react quick enough. This is true of everyone on the roster, except Tomas Satoransky. Otto Porter, Bradley Beal, and John Wall—the team’s “Big Three” —are all guilty of this.
On defense, the lack of effort and communication is glaring. They switch in ways that don’t make basketball sense. From the outside, their switching too often appears to enable bad habits.
Their lethargy extends to all aspects of the game. No one on the team consistently runs hard in transition to either end of the floor. So far this season, they’re failing to box out on the defensive glass despite a switching scheme that should almost always have a defender between the opponent and the basket. They have replacement level big men in the lineup, but the guards aren’t helping gang rebound to compensate.
The coaches are part of the problem as well. They’ve constructed an offensive “system” that invests two players with huge responsibility and leaves everyone else scrapping for leftovers. Their defense facilitates suboptimal effort. And, they’ve done weird stuff like publicly shaming Otto Porter for not taking enough shots without establishing a plan to reach that goal, or benching Satoransky (one of their more productive players) during the playoffs, and then playing a lesser player (Austin Rivers) more minutes.
And, don’t forget the front office, which constructed this expensive middle-of-the-road roster, hasn’t established a structure to help players reach their potential as players, leaders or people, and paid top dollar for a middle-of-the-road coach who has struggled to get the most from the team’s three best players.
If all this feels familiar, it’s probably because the same people have been running the organization for 15 years. Team president Ernie Grunfeld, and his team of executives, have had ample time to invest in establishing a positive team culture. Once again, the team has degenerated into a pattern of jealousy, resentment, and back-biting.
It would be easy to pin this on the players, but the players are behaving oddly like humans. An organization’s culture can be consciously designed, cultivated and maintained. It takes energy, time and the investment of resources. But, it’s important because it affects the ability of people to do the work necessary to succeed.
And, when that investment isn’t made, the result is something like what the Wizards are experiencing in the early going this season—a group of talented, intelligent basketball players who aren’t playing hard, smart or together. While the roster has its problems, what’s wrong with the Wizards has nothing to do with their basketball abilities.
The players aren’t dogging it because they’ve become lazy or content. They want to win, but the frayed relationships and “agendas” are weighing them down. The jealousy, resentment, and desire to be seen as The Guy are in the way of the team actually becoming good.
What’s potentially promising is that these problems are fixable. Even better: it doesn’t take a coaching move or a front office intervention or even a player’s meeting. What’s wrong can be fixed by each guy looking at himself—and ONLY himself—and acknowledging his part in creating the problem. It takes each guy surrendering the idea that he deserves credit, no matter how well he plays, and instead sacrificing personal goals for the good of the team.
Because when enough guys agree on the shared goal of team success, the change will show up on the court. Players will run harder in transition. Screens will be more solid and plentiful. Extra passes will lead to open shots. Defensive switches will make sense and on-court communication will improve.
The Wizards have too much talent to stay this bad. Even if they go on resenting each other, they’ll likely figure out a way to win enough games to make the playoffs. But, it’ll be a lost opportunity because they have sufficient talent to make some real noise in the East. What it’ll take is the team’s leading players deciding to put team ahead of self, and then putting that decision into action on the court.