If accolades and popularity were the only markers for improvement, the Washington Wizards took major steps forward this offseason.
On paper, the team has filled several voids. Austin Rivers will provide much-needed relief for Bradley Beal, who played the fourth-most minutes in the league last season. Jeff Green is capable of playing both forward spots and can take the role previously played by Mike Scott. Dwight Howard, even at this stage of his career, is an intimidating big who can provide the Wizards with the athletic inside presence they’ve lacked for years.
But for at least the third off-season in a row, the Wizards are finishing making moves without having constructed much of a team identity. Even worse, they seem to have abandoned Ted Leonsis’ 10-point plan for building a winning team – specifically the seventh bullet.
7. No jerks allowed. Implement a no jerk policy. Draft and develop and keep high character people. Team chemistry is vital to success. Make sure the best and highest paid players are coachable, show respect to the system, want to be in the city, love to welcome new, young players to the team, have respect for the fan base, show joy in their occupation, get the system, believe in the coaches, have fun in practice, and want to be gym rats. Dump quickly distractions. Life is too short to drink bad wine.
Leonsis’ plan lacks specifics – it’s vague in nature and kind of flexible in the way it can be interpreted. But jerks are like adult films: we know them when we see them.
Washington dumped Marcin Gortat this summer partially because of his involvement in the disintegration of the team’s locker room. Then they replaced him with Howard – a player whose rotten reputation is evidenced in the way he went from being an untouchable commodity to a journeyman overnight.
Howard has been a part of four teams in the past three years, including the buyout from Brooklyn that led to him signing with Washington. He hasn’t been kicked around because he lacks talent – he’s still a walking double-double. He’s been ostracized for supposedly being too entitled and quick to isolate himself from teammates – something he’s denied since joining the Wizards.
“I ain’t never been no a–hole, I ain’t never been no mean person,” Howard said on Instagram Live. “I would never try to destroy a team, but that’s a narrative that they always tried to say to me because they couldn’t say nothing else.”
Whether or not he was the culprit, the teams Howard has played for recently have been out of sync. Houston became a championship contender after Howard left, Atlanta started a rebuild shortly after his departure and Charlotte couldn’t crack the playoffs in the horrid East (perhaps because the Hornets’ locker room hated Howard, according to former Wizards center Brendan Haywood).
Howard can deny any wrongdoing, but there’s reason to be apprehensive about adding him to an already-fragile environment. A sensible jury would analyze the evidence and convict Howard of violating the seventh point – the hearsay and 17 technicals, the most in the league last year, is enough to label him a “jerk” beyond a reasonable doubt.
But maybe, just maybe, Howard’s play on the court will start reflecting someone who’s become accepting of his current status as a role player. And if that happens, Washington will be able to find its identity – which is hidden in plain sight. Howard, and his teammates, for that matter, don’t have to pretend to be nice-guys, because as long as they’re winning, the outsiders’ perception will become irrelevant.
The team should embrace the idea of being unlikable, force opponents to play their way instead of trying to mimic the elite – and, most importantly, climb atop the standings in the wide-open East, ten-point plan be damned.