Hail To The District writer Dash Kannan provides a sequel — and an apology — to his previous thoughts on the Washington Wizards replacing the Chicago Cubs, in terms of the most hopeless fan base in professional sports.
Back in November, I wrote this piece about how the Washington Wizards had replaced the Chicago Cubs as the most hopeless fan base in all of professional sports.
After gaining some notoriety — and sympathetic agreement — from the rest of the lost souls in the DMV, in reaction to what I wrote, I’m here again. Not to double down on what I said earlier, but to emphasize how much I have changed my mind and how have been drawn back in by those same Wizards… yet again.
The Wizards have a record of 25-20 and sit in 5th place in the East, just one game back of the Atlanta Hawks, who have a 26-19 record and are conveniently scheduled as Friday’s opponent. Not only does this Wizards team have a 7-2 record since January 9th , they’ve rolled off 14 straight home wins. The last time they had such a streak was 1989, which legendary play-by-play savant Steve Buckhantz reminds us at least three times every home game.
Unlike what we saw for long stretches of last season, this Wizards seems to like playing with each other. John Wall and Bradley Beal — the two cornerstones of the franchise — along with future max-player Otto Porter, are playing the basketball of their young careers. Markieff Morris looks so much better than he did last year. Even Marcin Gortat is back to his usual double-double role. The team looks like it could play with any other team in the NBA, not named the Warriors or Cavaliers.
So, based on where we were about 90 days ago, what gives? How the hell did this team turn it around so fast?
For all the chatter about data analytics (which I find myself sometimes myopically focusing on) dictating schemes and styles in the NBA, we tend to overlook the basic idea of developing young players — like Wall, Beal, and Porter. For as much grief as he’s taken here, since the moment he got to town, that can all be attributed to head coach Scott Brooks, and the staff he’s assembled.
In Oklahoma City, Brooks was often criticized for letting his two superstars — Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant — play “hero ball” while the rest of the players on the court stood around, and for his rotation and substitution patterns. But the one thing that he did have an instrumental role in was the development of Durant, Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka.
When the Wizards started the season with a 3-9, I did not give them much of a chance to turn this around. But what Brooks has done is allowing Wall to play his game, while fine-tuning the rest of the offense around him, letting the other guys feed off his playmaking ability and develop their own potential. Beal has been more aggressive in attacking the basket, and is always a threat to start heating up as a jump shooter (like when he scored 13 of his 31 points against Boston on Tuesday). Meanwhile, Porter — the same Otto Porter, who who didn’t have range beyond 20 feet while playing for the Georgetown Hoyas, somehow LEADS THE LEAGUE IN THREE POINT FIELD GOAL PERCENTAGE. Yes, that’s actually happening.
But all that still isn’t what’s most impressive about Brooks. That’s actually reserved for job he’s done in the turnaround of the beleaguered bench unit.
The highly-erratic Wizards’ bench, which still has its habits of giving up a lead when it’s on the court, has improved significantly. Though it still ranks last in the league amongst bench units according to hoopsstats.com, Brooks’ mixing and matching has provided relief for the starters. Jason Smith, who may be the biggest surprise of the season (and who I was a fan of signing), has become a deadly midrange shooter. Despite his lack of foot speed, he provides Wall with a solid pick-and-pop player, and if nothing else, knows how to use all six fouls effectively.
Kelly Oubre, the second year player who barely got on the court for previous head coach Randy Wittman, has developed into a solid three point shooter in his own right, and his athletic gifts have provided the team with a defender who can guard three positions. He did a fantastic job guarding Isaiah Thomas in the fourth quarter in Tuesday’s win, and Brooks has shown more and more trust in having him guard the opponent’s best player.
Trey Burke and Tomas Satoransky alternate running the point guard position, with Burke sometimes sliding into the shooting guard role for instant offense. Past that, Brooks has trimmed his rotation, sitting veteran guard Marcus Thornton and highly-paid forward Andrew Nicholson in favor of younger, more athletic players that fit the team’s makeup. The impact of that, given this team’s recent history to bench it’s young players while giving mediocre veterans their valuable minutes, should not be understated.
All of the above is taking place without the Wizards biggest offseason acquisition in center Ian Mahinmi, who’s played only one game this season, and is aiming for a return sometime in February.
After beating the Charlotte Hornets and Boston Celtics — two playoff teams — in back to back nights, the Wizards are going full steam-ahead in the right direction. And, I actually think Mahinmi will make a monumental impact on the team when he’s finally on the court, providing stability and depth to the center position that has no one besides Gortat.
Again, Washington’s turnaround this season could — and should — be credit to Brooks. General Manager Ernie Grunfeld still cannot be trusted to draft anyone relevant to the team’s success or acquire players that the other 29 teams in the NBA wouldn’t even consider signing as their 12th man.
Regardless, as things stand today, the Wizards are squarely in the mix for one of the top four or five seeds in the Eastern Conference. Three months ago, that statement would’ve been laughable. So, let’s take a moment to enjoy this, and see where it goes. This team isn’t winning a championship, but neither are 28 other teams.
Mea Culpa, Wizards. I was wrong… (I hope).