I think you could best describe my Washington Wizards fandom as somewhat jaded. And I’m probably being generous with the “somewhat.” Most years I vacillate somewhere between cynical and skeptical. I try to work my way up to cautiously optimistic but, ultimately, I never fully commit. At least not in quite some time.
I think that mostly stems from some internal self-defense mechanism (and caring way too much about a basketball team). When it comes to the Wizards, I really relate to a quote by MJ. Not basketball’s MJ but Zendaya’s character from Spider-Man: No Way Home. She says, “If you expect disappointment, then you can never really be disappointed.” Wise words.
All that being said, I think I am starting to talk myself into this Wizards team. And I didn’t even need countless hours of therapy to get to that point, although, they’d probably still be a good idea (thanks a lot, Ted Leonsis). All I really needed was to pay attention to the vibes around this year’s team.
I still have enough concerns about durability and the lack of true 3-and-D wings that I wouldn’t feel safe predicting them to finish much better than 41-41. But I just have this unshakable feeling that this is one of those teams that could overachieve because they have the right mixture of the right guys at the right times in their careers.
Building a winning basketball team isn’t a math equation where 1+1=2. Teams can be greater than the sum of their parts. Addition by subtraction helps some teams. And sometimes keeping a core together and tinkering with some of the ancillary parts can yield sizeable dividends.
On this week’s Bleav in Wizards podcast, I talked to American University forward Matt Rogers about just how impactful it can be when you have a locker room full of good dudes. American University’s motto is “Character Forged Through Competition,” which is a concept Wizards General Manager and Team President Tommy Sheppard has embraced during his tenure.
Every year there seems to be one team where guys put their egos and competing agendas aside and surprise everyone. Last year it was the Timberwolves (and the Pelicans the second half of the year). The year before that it was the Knicks. And the Raptors the year before that. Why couldn’t that be this year’s Wizards?
Based on his media day comments, it sounds like Sheppard has been leaning into that concept and building toward this the whole time. Maybe this is the group where it finally pays off for him.
“A lot of players we brought in faced a lot of stress in winning situations,” said Sheppard. “That translates well [and] transports to a new team. They bring that winning mentality. They have high standards for themselves and bring players up to their standards. Sometimes, the best coaches are the players in the locker room.”
A lot of these guys have something to prove and it’s on Wes Unseld Jr. to get them to understand that winning is a better way to silence doubters than an uptick in points per game. I’ve previously offered some criticisms of Unseld Jr.’s performance last season but I think he will be a lot more comfortable in Year 2.
Last year, he had to learn on the fly and that seemed like a particularly tough group to get on the same page. He’s made his career off his ability to reach players and connect. I hope he’s playing up the notion that this whole group has something to prove.
Monte Morris has to prove he can be a quality NBA starter. Bradley Beal has to prove he can overcome his wrist injury, regain his previous form, and justify his contract. Kristaps Porzingis has to prove he can stay healthy and dominate for more than just small sample sizes.
Kyle Kuzma has to prove his play in the second half of the year wasn’t a fluke and that he warrants a long-term deal. Rui Hachimura has to prove he can do more than just score from 15-feet and beyond. Deni Avdija has to prove he can provide enough offense to get the most out of his defense. Daniel Gafford has to prove he can play 25 minutes per game. And on and on and on.
Seeing Morris and Kuzma take on leadership roles and mentor their younger teammates is encouraging. So is the fact that some of these guys, like Morris and Kuzma, seem to have real, lasting bonds with each other. Even just watching something as seemingly innocuous as training camp videos where Bradley Beal is mic’d up and pushing his teammates is encouraging.
I was even encouraged by how much they all seemed to enjoy picking on Avdija for talking too much on flights. It was clearly good-natured and they seem to be having fun together.
I’m still not predicting a Larry O’Brien Trophy anytime soon but I think I’m at least ready to buy into the idea that these guys are all-in with each other. They’re going to need to be in order to reach their ceiling, whatever that might be.
It all comes back to the vibes. Because I think they’re the best they’ve been in years, I think I’m finally ready to be hurt again. Who’s with me?