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NBA

The Wizards Are Circling The Drain, Forever

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Clippers came all the way back from 35 points down to embarrass the Washington Wizards in D.C. Tuesday night. Clippers head coach Ty Lue nailed several unproductive starters to the bench for the second half, went with a series of small lineups, and rode the hot hand all the way to victory. Luke Kennard finally put the Wizards into the toilet, where they very much belong, with a 30-footer and then a dramatic four-point play inside the game’s final 10 seconds, sandwiched around a humiliating five-second inbound violation by the Wizards. It was the second-biggest come-from-behind victory in NBA history.

It is the theory of first-year Wizards head coach Wes Unseld Jr. that what doomed his team in that dismal second half is that they stopped doing the things they did to get the lead in the first place. “We had a good rhythm, we were playing well,” claimed Unseld, about his team, which to be clear is the Washington Wizards. “We thought we had the win in the bag, and we stopped playing how we played to get the 35-point lead.” This explanation is very tricky. It almost sounds tautological—we lost because we stopped winning—and is such a familiar part of coach-speak that it has a kind of elemental resonance. Your ears and brain are inclined to treat it as an absolute truth: The Wizards had a dominant first half, and then they suffered a collapse and lost, and so naturally they must have stopped doing whatever it was that got them out ahead. Simply continue to do what you did when you were winning, and you will never lose.

I am frankly too exhausted by the Wizards to fit this historic loss all that precisely into their history. Let me simply point out that the Wizards this season have the eighth-worst defense in the NBA and the ninth-worst offense, by points per possession. They are the NBA’s third-worst three-point shooting team, by percentage. Not one of their starters is producing a positive net rating this season, which should not be possible for a team that has been hovering at or above .500 until this week. They’ve now lost four in a row, including a blowout home loss to the Boston Celtics Sunday afternoon that Bradley Beal described as “embarrassing,” two days before the Clippers brought him a little closer to the true meaning of the word. It’s part of an ongoing, season-long swoon: They’ve gone from atop the East to the 10th seed, where they sit tied with the Knicks for the conference’s final play-in spot.

The Wizards, entering this season, had lost 135 of 226 games since they promoted Beal to the role of Face of the Franchise, after John Wall was lost to injury during the 2017–18 season. The roster this season is supposed to have been built to suit Beal as a centerpiece better than any since he arrived in town 10 years ago, but possibly general manager Tommy Sheppard overshot his mark: Through 48 games the team is a full 2.5 points per hundred possessions better when Beal is off the court, which is definitely not what you want to say of someone to whom you’re prepared to give a $235 million contract. Of the 17 five-man lineups across the NBA that have played at least 200 minutes together this season, the Wizards’ starters are one of just five to produce a negative net rating. Their most-used players very obviously hate playing together. Montrezl Harrell and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope recently tried to punch each other in the locker room, during halftime of a game. Newly acquired point guard Spencer Dinwiddie is the most miserable-seeming player I have watched on an NBA court since Jan Vesely returned to Czechia.

The Wizards have not been to a conference finals since 1979. They have won more than 44 games in a season three times in the last 43 years. I don’t really believe in curses, but I do believe that an organization can have so little experience with or memory of real success that unfamiliarity with it and desperation for it combine into a kind of repelling force. I would like to suggest that this force manifests not as missed shots or turnovers, but as a tendency to believe that 24 minutes of uncharacteristically coherent play against a tired, out-of-sorts, and ice-cold visitor is proof that your deeply shitty team, configured more or less exactly as it’s been configured for months of hideous basketball, has finally toggled the switch from the Sucking And Losing setting over to the Beating An NBA Team By 35 Points setting. There’s recency bias, and then there’s standing in the midst of this disgusting mess, looking up at a scoreboard that reflects one half of one game, and thinking to yourself, Clearly we are doing something right. That is a level of derangement that science has not yet dared to name, let alone explore.

With Beal’s contract coming up at season’s end and the NBA’s trade deadline less than a month off, Washington’s once-promising season is now careening toward a precipice. Sheppard has preached patience and transparency as the guide-words of this season and the next era of Wizards basketball, but it’s not clear yet whether anyone with decision-making powers is prepared to accept the awful probability that the team’s current form doesn’t merely coincidentally or superficially follow a long pattern of losing, but is another in a line of unholy offspring. Kyle Kuzma, who stinks at basketball but has not yet had his brain poisoned by proximity to this organization, seems to understand it well enough: “I mean, something’s gotta change, I don’t know. It’s pretty comical at this point … We can just continue to do this or we can change, I don’t know. It’s kind of above my pay grade.”

The next few weeks will demonstrate how much change the Wizards can stomach. If Beal is still The Guy, then they’ve obviously got an awful lot of work left to do in the margins. But it’s the belief that they can gain the upper hand on other NBA teams by tinkering around the edges of a perennial loser that keeps the Wizards franchise mired in this shit, in perpetuity.

Where Unseld played himself was in thinking that this team, utilizing the same bullcrap player roles and combinations, had discovered the “WIN” button, because they’d dominated one half of one game of basketball. You fool! Take a closer look at the button and you will see that it actually says “WIZARDS,” and you were jamming away at it the whole time. Of course you lost!