“We didn’t bring enough energy tonight.” “Guys were out there hunting for their own stats.” “We just played down to the level of our opponent.”
Over the last two seasons, phrases like these seemed to emerge from the Wizards postgame interviews on what seemed like a nightly basis. Whether it was the playoff run in 2017 where they came this close to the Eastern Conference Finals, or a lack of self-awareness — after that 2017 season, the Wizards felt that they had ‘arrived’. However, the rest of the NBA didn’t get the memo.
Tensions in the locker room carried over to the court as you could visibly tell who was upset with their role and which guys weren’t playing nice behind the scenes. What was even more frustrating though was that team’s effort. In 2017-2018, the Wizards had no issues waking up for teams like 76ers, Raptors, or Celtics, but would sleepwalk through (and lose) games against teams whose win total would end up in the 20s like the Suns, Hawks, and Nets — only to be followed by sound bites of ‘not taking their opponent seriously.’
Just a few weeks ago on December 23 in what looked like at the time a meaningless game against the New York Knicks, the Wizards gave us a hint that the culture just might be changing in Washington.
Leading up to that game, the Wizards had lost three straight games and seven of eight overall. The injuries had already started to pile up for Washington to that point and they’d be without two starters in Davis Bertans who suffered an injury just two days prior in Philadelphia and Isaiah Thomas to suspension.
It would have been easy for that team to not show up against New York. Heck, no one would have blinked if the Wizards would have rolled over, taken the loss, and moved on. But on a night where Washington’s roster consisted of five ‘full-time’ NBA players and five players who had spent some time in the G-League this season, the Wizards were able to come away with the victory.
Fast forward two weeks and the Wizards have not only built off that win, but have knocked off the NBA’s upper echelon in the Miami Heat, Denver Nuggets, and Boston Celtics in the process — all without Bradley Beal.
Unlike the past two seasons where those Wizards teams held a sense of entitlement, this team is way different. And quite frankly they have to be. The injury bug has already bitten this team in a major way evidenced as 19 different players have suited up for the Wizards this year. The rotation along with the starting lineup has been a game of musical chairs as it’s unclear who will be available and who won’t be on any given night.
As a result, certain guys are stepping up in a major way. Look no further than Gary Payton II. Payton was about to suit up for a G-League game in Las Vegas only to receive a call from the Wizards to hop on a plane and head to New York for a game against the Knicks.
Payton wowed in his debut as he scored 10 points, gathered 11 rebounds (team-high), dished out five assists and notched six steals — not bad for a guy who didn’t land in New York until just hours before tip. Payton has been very solid for the Wizards since arriving and brings a level of intensity on the defensive end which was missing from this team over the first two months. His reward? He’s now in the starting lineup.
Troy Brown Jr.’s season started off as a roller coaster of an experience but now looks to finally be finding his footing. After losing his minutes in favor of guys like Isaac Bonga and C.J. Miles, Brown finally looks to be in his comfort zone in his current role off the bench. Brown has also taken advantage of his increased minutes and has had a fabulous start to 2020 as he’s averaging 16.7 points and 9.7 rebounds in 33.5 minutes of play since the calendar flipped to January.
We can’t forget about the veteran, Ish Smith who has been the catalyst for the Wizards down the stretch over these past two weeks. The move to sign Smith this summer was scoffed at, meanwhile, he’s turning in his best season to date, is carrying the Wizards on any given night during crunchtime, and has outplayed starter Isaiah Thomas to the point that it’s borderline criminal that he’s not starting over him.
What makes this team so much fun to watch is that in order for the Wizards to win a game, one if not multiple guys have to step up on any given night. It wasn’t enough for Jordan McRae to explode for 29 points against the Miami Heat, but career nights from Garrison Mathews and Ian Mahinmi were needed in order for Washington to run away from Miami that night. Same goes for the game against the Denver Nuggets where Ish Smith poured in a career-high 32 points on a night where the reserves combined for an unheard of 92 of the 128 Washington points.
Guys are playing their asses off on a nightly basis and quite frankly, they have to. Just eight players have guaranteed contracts next year with the Wizards and for the guys who don’t have guaranteed deals, both veterans and youngsters, there’s no guarantee that they’ll be on an NBA roster next year.
Even with the improved play over these past few weeks, the Wizards are still projected to end the season with a win total in the high 20s. Once the injuries started to mount, guys could easily thrown in the towel and started hunting stats for their next contract — but this team feels different.
On a nightly basis, guys are playing with a sense of urgency and it seems like they genuinely enjoy playing with each other which is a sigh of relief based on the team that took the floor the past two years. And maybe, just maybe, the culture shift that everyone knew was needed is finally starting to take form.