The Return of Fun and Unbridled Optimism: Are the Wizards Ready?
Turn that frown…
On September 9th, the first Sunday of the 2012 NFL season, Robert Griffin III (RGIII) led the Washington Redskins to a 40-32 victory over the New Orleans Saints in the Superdome. The days of tepid offensive performances were gone, replaced by a skilled quarterback who seemingly could engineer scoring drives at will. The next day, via his local radio show on D.C.’s Sportstalk 980, Tony Kornheiser proclaimed that this new and improved RGIII-led Redskins team was ushering in an era of “unbridled optimism.”
“Everybody knows, intellectually, that something bad can and will happen down the road. If you can’t enjoy this week, if you can’t be welcomed into the land of unbridled optimism this week, you’re never gonna be able to feel that way.” —Tony Kornheiser
Fans of the Washington football team (a group that includes Truth About It editor Kyle Weidie) rode that wave until something bad did happen. During their first playoff appearance since 2007, RGIII’s knee gave out for a third and final time, rendering Washington’s offense (and possibly Mike Shanahan’s judgement), inept. The Seattle Seahawks defeated the Redskins and optimism quickly turned into fear over RGIII’s future, as well as many loathing Mike Shanahan’s decision to keep his hurting star rookie quarterback in the game.
Just two and a half years ago, John Wall brought that same type optimism and joy to Washington Wizards fans. Team owner Ted Leonsis rolled out the red carpet, then-D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty declared June 25, 2010 “John Wall Day,” and this was all before Wall played an official game in a Wizards uniform. When Wall finally did get on the court in a game that counted, his debut wasn’t nearly as dazzling as RGII’s (Wall had 14 points, nine assists and three steals), but in that game—as well as Washington’s home opener a few days later when he scored 29 points with 13 assists and nine steals—it was clear that Wall was a franchise player.
Wall was good, but not great during his rookie year, and improvement during his second year was evident, but he didn’t take a giant step akin to the Derrick Roses and the Russell Westbrooks of the world. Some of it was blamed on the lockout and the torrid exhibition schedule Wall maintained while waiting for the NBA’s labor dispute to be resolved. An equal amount of blame could have been placed on the drastic team changes during the 2011-12 season. Flip Saunders was fired, Randy Wittman was hired, Nick Young and JaVale McGee were traded, and Andray Blatche was prematurely shelved due to a lack of conditioning.
This year, Wall’s third year as a Wizard, was setting up to be the breakout year. Not only did he play with a more controlled fury toward the end of the previous season, but the newly acquired Nene gave him a mature, reliable post option, as opposed to McGee and Blatche, who were erratic at best. The Wizards parlayed that new look into a season-ending six-game winning streak, and even Ted Leonsis began to talk about new(er) beginnings—the playoffs and, of course, references to his Washington Capitals. With Bradley Beal, Emeka Okafor, A.J. Price and Trevor Ariza on the roster for 2012-13, the Wizards had every reason to believe that they were turning a corner not visited since the days of Eddie Jordan and Gilbert Arenas in the mid-2000s.
But, as Kornheiser so eloquently said, “something bad can and will happen down the road,” and it came via an injury to John Wall’s knee. The initial diagnosis was eight weeks, then there were a series of tap dances regarding Wall’s injury timetable by Ernie Grunfeld and Randy Wittman, which led to the feeling that Wall may never return to the court this season. The Wizards’ poor performances (victories over the Heat and Thunder not withstanding) in Wall’s absence certainly weren’t helping ease matters, either. Then, the news suddenly turned positive.
First, Wall was given permission to “ramp up” his activity level. He returned to practice (seemingly a bit heavier) showing flashes of the old explosiveness. Then, via an innocent conversation with a young fan before the Oklahoma City game, Wall indicated that he could return this Saturday against the Atlanta Hawks.
The timing of his announcement couldn’t come at a better time for the woeful Wizards. Rookie Bradley Beal (who is averaging 18.2 points in the month of January), hit a game-winning shot against the Thunder and is starting to play like the third pick in the draft should. Prior to his recent ankle injury, Jordan Crawford showed that he can be more of a consistent scorer (with bad shots still peppered in, of course). Jan Vesely, who had been mired in a season-long funk, had 10 points and seven rebounds in that same Oklahoma City game, and he finally looked like a man having fun on the court and not over-thinking every move. When the healthy bodies of Trevor Booker, Ariza and Nene (OK, Nene is always day-to-day) are thrown into the mix, as well as the carefully measured minutes of John Wall, the Verizon Center just may be ready to resume rooting for the home team—as opposed to the last two homes games when Brooklyn and Oklahoma City fans took over.
On paper, and assuming the lack of conditioning does not become an issue, Wall’s return to the court should signify a return to a more wide-open style of offense. Without him, the Wizards have averaged just 12.7 fastbreak points per game—good for 17th in the NBA (which is better than expected for a 5-28 team). Last season the Wizards averaged 17.9 fastbreak points per game (3rd in the NBA,), and that was without a talent like Beal manning the backcourt. More fastbreaks equal more open-court play, which could conceivably lead to exciting finishes around the basket for Beal, Vesely, Booker, Wall, Seraphin, and perhaps even Garrett Temple.
It is doubtful that this fun, wide-open style of basketball will earn the Wizards a playoff appearance this season, given that they are 12 games behind the Boston Celtics for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. (John Hollinger’s 2012-13 playoff odds don’t give the Wiz a shot at all, and project them to finish, at best, 34-48.) But, a more exciting brand of basketball will bring excitement back to the Verizon Center, and perhaps the players will begin to have fun again. If you don’t believe that having fun is an important component to NBA success, just read what Dwight Howard said (before he got injured). Better yet, listen to what D.C.-native Kevin Durant said about having fun before the Wizards-Thunder game on Monday:
Finally, as if Wall’s alleged return and Durant’s observations aren’t enough, there are the encouraging words of Ted Leonsis, via Ted’s Take:
“We play next on Saturday night at home and it is possible but not quite certain, for the first time all season, that we could dress all of our players. I don’t want to jinx it, but we are all hoping that is what we will see. Stay tuned. Thank you.”
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