The nadir of the modern Washington Wizards lasted for two brutal months across the winter of 2009–10, but it was a long time coming. The once-entertaining core of Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison aged into an injured and overpaid mess, and instead of injecting the team with youth, management traded away a top-five draft pick for Mike Miller and Randy Foye. A month into the season, beloved owner Abe Pollin died, and on Christmas Eve, Arenas and teammate Javaris Crittenton pulled guns on each other in the locker room. The fallout led to Arenas pleading guilty to a felony, but not before staging a horrifically ill-conceived pregame huddle.
There is no playbook for dealing with that kind of turmoil, but the Wizards eventually followed the game plan of the early-aughts Portland “Jail Blazers” and "Malice at the Palace" Indiana Pacers: clean house. The locker room full of players whose character was described as “questionable” -- Arenas, Crittenton, JaVale McGee, Andray Blatche, Nick Young -- has been disbanded, Blatche the last to go when he was amnestied in the summer of 2012. Less than four years after that fateful Christmas Eve, John Wall and Bradley Beal are firmly situated in the backcourt as new franchise cornerstones. As their rate of maturation accelerates, the playoffs are not a mere hope but an expectation.
Given this lofty promise, the start of the season hasn’t been very encouraging for the 5-8 Wizards. They have already conducted the dreaded "players-only" meeting, and veteran Nene publicly called out the team’s young players. While locker room misbehavior has generally given way to veteran accountability -- the team is 3-1 since the players talked things out -- this isn't exactly what the Wizards had in mind for their new era. And things will only get more thorny in the immediate future with Beal set to miss at least two weeks with a stress injury in his right leg.
The team does seem to be improving, though, and the catalyst for that turnaround is the scintillating play of Wall. In the Wizards' 98-89 win over the New York Knicks on Saturday night, there were two max players on the court, and one of them was decisively better. It wasn’t Carmelo Anthony.
When Wall has his midrange game working, he is nearly impossible to guard. Crouching in the triple-threat position, there’s nary a defender in the league quick enough to stick with him on his drives, let alone contest jumpers. It now seems likely Wall, who is averaging 18.6 points and 8.9 assists per game with a 19.96 PER, will justify the maximum extension he signed during the offseason.
Wall may be making a lot of noise on his rise to the league's upper echelon, but it doesn't sound like the fan base is listening, at least not yet. Washington is a basketball city, home to more than 10 current NBA players and the celebrated Goodman League. Two major college basketball programs, the Maryland Terrapins and Georgetown Hoyas, are also local. But in the ranks of the city's professional teams, the Wizards are a distant third -- fourth on days when Stephen Strasburg is pitching.
Saturday night’s game against a high-profile and hated opponent drew 18,089 fans, the best total of the young season but still 2,000 short of the Verizon Center’s capacity. Worse yet, it seemed like half of them were Knicks fans.
In Wall (23 years old) and Beal (20) the Wizards seem to have the type of young, dynamic talents needed to keep the team competitive well into the future and, ultimately, make the city care. But Washington hasn't had much had much luck with first-rounders otherwise -- Jan Vesely, Chris Singleton, Kevin Seraphin and Trevor Booker have been busts. Sensing a need to surround Wall with the talent they couldn't find in the draft, Wizards management has made a series of short-term moves, taking on long-term money and giving away draft picks in order to build a roster that will probably top out with a first-round playoff loss this season.
Ultimately, the bifurcated and sloppy development model the Wizards have pursued over the past four years may not matter. The old adage is that the NBA is a stars league, and Wall is brightening into a shiny one. The Oklahoma City Thunder or Miami Heat models are rendered irrelevant if Kevin Durant doesn’t develop or LeBron James suffers a devastating injury. The important moves aren’t the shuffling of players on the periphery but acquiring and developing top-10 players.
The cherry on top of Wall’s 31-point and seven-assist decimation of the Knicks came with 30 seconds left, as Iman Shumpert drove for a consolation bucket. Wall soared in from the weak side, and making full use of his 6-foot-4 frame he audibly spiked the ball into the stands. Postgame he was asked if it was a statement block. "Nah," he said, "we’ve seen the team score the ball at the end of the game on us before, and we didn't like it, we didn't want to give nobody an easy basket to end the game."
It was the safe answer -- the point guard’s locker room persona is as quietly confident as his play on the court is in your face -- but if the Wizards are to overcome a bumpy rebuild, Wall will have to submit statement plays every night.