Wizards Running Up The Down Escalator
D.C. residents cheered when three new escalators opened at the south entrance of the Dupont Circle Metro Station in October 2012. The Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority (WMATA) closed the southern entrance for repairs for nearly nine months, but the wait was worth it, in theory. WMATA had decided to strip the entrance and rebuild from scratch this past summer, finally doing away with some of the least reliable escalators in the system.
New “transit-grade” escalators promised a better commute—to “unsuck” D.C. Metro—in one of the city’s busiest, and deepest, subway stations. In reality, Metro and its faithfully frustrated riders were forced to deal with 20 outages in the first 40 days after the grand reopening.
Construction is a constant in the nation’s capital, but, for one reason or another, it never seems to go according to plan. Just ask any Wizards fan who is still waiting for their team to climb out of the gutter.
Supporters of D.C.’s pro basketball team have suffered through nearly 200 losses and some of the worst basketball the Association has ever seen for almost five seasons now. We all know about owner Ted Leonsis’ blueprint for rebuilding his Washington Wizards: stay financially flexible, sign free agents and develop supposedly talented prospect. And, perhaps, trade some of said prospects for major players when the opportunities arise.
“We are a team that has been completely reconstructed in less than two years,” Leonsis will tell you (with a twist of the truth), “and we are hardworking, fun to watch, easy to cheer for and have exciting young players.”
Indeed, the team has been completely reconstructed—John Wall, the No. 1 overall draft pick from the 2010 NBA Draft, is the longest-tenured player. And this year’s team does regularly compete for 48 minutes—though, as Kyle Weidie noted on Twitter: “The Wizards have worked hard, but they have rarely, rarely looked sharp.” They haven’t been much fun to watch. They haven’t been easy to cheer for. And the young talent has been slow to develop, like sub-Saharan Africa or the second season of AMC’s “The Walking Dead.”
But it’s not all bad. Scouts Inc.’s David Thorpe continues to shower Bradley Beal with praise, most recently in this ESPN Insider story about rookies on the rise: “He has a calmness and an awareness about him that screams ‘poise.’ It is a rare gift to have at his age.”
And Jordan Crawford, in his third season, has taken steps in the right direction. The combo guard is putting up career-highs in points (15.6), assists (4.6) and rebounds per game (4.0). J-Craw is also sitting on the best PER of his short career, 16.58, to go with his best Offensive and Defensive Ratings (100 and 107, respectively), but he’s a productive 6th man at best, and possibly trade bait to snag a predator a little higher up the food chain.
As for the rest of the Wiz Kids, Kevin Seraphin is averaging career-highs in points (10.9) and rebounds (5.3), but that hasn’t helped the Wizards win many games. Pocket square enthusiast and NBA analyst Kevin Pelton has this to say about the third-year big man:
“After a promising sophomore campaign, Seraphin has quietly regressed badly this season. His minus-1.8 WARP ranks ahead of only Austin Rivers. Seraphin has shot an empty 45.1 percent from the field, struggled on the defensive glass, and the Wizards have been outscored by 15.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor.”
As for No. 6 overall pick Jan Vesely, we haven’t seen much of him on the court, and you’d be out of luck if you were hoping to find his jersey on the Wizards’ online team store. But Vesely has played OK in limited minutes, highlighted by a 10-point, seven-rebound game against this week against the Thunder.
Fan-favorite Trevor Booker had this to say about potentially making his 2012-13 season comeback versus Atlanta this Saturday, per Craig Stouffer: “I’m ready. I’m back to my usual self, dunking on people, scoring 30. That’s what I do.” I looked up his stats. Booker has never dropped 30 (and his career average is 6.7 points per game).
Chris Singleton? Some say he changed his name to DNP – Coach’s Decision.
The Washington Wizards are terrible at being terrible. I’m pretty sure. In sports you sometimes have to be bad to get better, but the Wizards have been bad and have only gotten worse—26 wins in 2009-10, 23 wins in 2010-11, 20 wins in 2011-12, and just five wins this season.
In recent memory alone, the Wiz have signed, released, then resigned Alonzo Gee, James Singleton, Cartier Martin, Shaun Livingston, and Shelvin Mack. And the roster has generally been so bad that all five of these journeymen started for the woeful Washington at different intervals. In some cases, kicking the tires has paid off: James Singleton was, arguably, the most productive Wizard last season. But with others, regret has been a common theme. Shaun Livingston, signed before the 2012-13 campaign, played just 18 games before being waived for D-Leaguer Garrett Temple. Alonzo Gee, 25, had a breakout season for the Cavs in 2012, averaging 10.6 points and 5.1 rebounds per game. He was named the team’s most improved player and the front office handed him a three-year $9.75 million contract in the offseason.
For the Wizards, it’s not so much a case of not knowing what you had till it’s gone. It’s more of an ‘If you don’t really know what you’re looking for, how will you know when you’ve found it’ sort of thing. There’s a lesson to be learned in sports history. On the gridiron. Let me take you back to the mid-1900s.
In the 1950s, the Green Bay Packers were, in a way, a lot like today’s Wizards. They won championships between 1929 and the mid-’40s, but the Green Bay teams assembled in the post-war era played as big as the town itself (then, claiming about 62,000 people). Everyone was searching for answers, but mostly the nearly 1,700 shareholders, including the majority shareholders at the American Legion Sullivan-Wallen Post No. 11, who in 1949 bought nondividend stock at $25 a pop to save the Packers, a publicly-owned nonprofit, from financial ruin. Neither the locals nor the legionnaires had any real power, but that didn’t stop them from meeting to plan a front-office overhaul.
It started at the top. The Packers hired, then fired three coaches in nine years—Lisle Blackbourn, Gene Ronzani, and Raymond “Scooter” McLean. That trio lost 72 games, but Scooter McLean was arguably the worst offender. He really did give a damn, he wanted to win, but didn’t know how to unify his locker room. Think Flip Saunders’ Subway-fueled nightmare as Wizards head coach.
McLean’s team during his one-year stint as head ball coach was historically bad, on par with this year’s 5-28 Wizards (whose locker room is holding up, somehow).
As told by Pulitzer Prize winner David Maraniss in his Vince Lombardi biography “When Pride Still Mattered”—he takes us back to December 1958:
“McLean had resigned under pressure … following a season-ending loss on the coast to the Los Angeles Rams. In his only year coaching the Packers, he had established a new standard of ineptitude, compiling the worst record in team history, 1-10-1, a mark that New York sportswriter Red Smith, who had grown up in Green Bay, later immortalized with the phrase: ‘The Packers underwhelmed 10 opponents, overwhelmed one, and whelmed one.’ ”
Golden Boy Paul Hornung—a former Heisman Trophy winner and do-it-all athlete who led the NFL in scoring over a three-year span—wanted to be traded. Shoot, Hornung had even thought about quitting. “It was very individual,” Hornung was later quoted saying. “Those guys in Green Bay that year didn’t give a shit about winning or losing.”
Knuckleheads, anyone? It sounds familiar.
It was ugly off the field, too. The president of the Packers board of directors at the time, newcomer Dominic Olejniczak, had to face an effigy of himself swinging from a lamppost outside his office before his coach was pressured to resign.
“When you haven’t won a goldarn game, you want to know what’s going on,” said former Packers star and member of the Packers executive board Tony “Gray Ghost” Canadeo. “If you don’t ask, you’re being a jackass. Scooter, hell, I knew Scooter and played against him and liked him. But Scooter had no control of the team.”
Things had to change, and they did. Long story short: Second-year boss Olejniczak hired Vince Lombardi, the New York Giants offensive coordinator, and that put them on the right track. The Pack would be back. Lombardi had mastered the skill of empathy, helping him motivate players and work a room, and he always seemed to get his way. The running joke was that he treated everybody the same, like dogs. But there is absolutely no doubt Lombardi got the best out of every player by his side.
“He would have no tolerance for the halfhearted, the defeatist, the loser,” wrote Maraniss. “Anyone who didn’t like it was perfectly free to get the hell out right now.”
Lombardi, addressing his full team of Packahs for the first time in February of 1959, boomed: “There are trains, planes and buses leaving here every day, and if you don’t produce for me you’re gonna find yourself on one of them.” Sensenbrenner Hall at St. Norbert College, where the Packers were holding camp, was dead silent, almost muted by shock. Lombardi was no Scooter McLean, that was clear enough. But it was the first time in a long time that someone had begun to ask the right questions. Can you play? Will you sacrifice for your teammates? Will you play through the pain, whether physical or emotional?
The media, at a glance, didn’t think too much of the toothy Italian’s chances in America’s Dairyland, despite already having young players like Bart Starr, Jim Taylor, Forrest Gregg, Willie Davis, Jerry Kramer, Ray Nitschke, and Hornung at his disposal.
“Last and probably least—that’s the sad forecast for the once-proud Packers. They’ve got a good new coach in Vince Lombardi, but he might as well kiss this one off as a rebuilding year,” predicted “Sport” magazine.
A rebuilding year… Pfffft!
Lombardi had already waited a lifetime to be named an NFL head coach. He’d never been associated with a loser, and didn’t plan to start. In his first year as head coach, he produced Green Bay’s first winning season in more than a decade—seven wins, five losses. Lombardi was named Coach of the Year and would go on to win five championships, including the first two Super Bowls, and would develop 12 All-Pros.
Lombardi’s plan to win was centered around three principles: repetition (only perfect practice makes perfect), confidence, and passion. Those principles had shaped Lombardi’s coaching philosophy from the beginning—even as a basketball coach, leading St. Cecilia High School in Englewood, N.J. to a regional championship and later coaching Fordham University’s freshman and varsity teams between 1947 and ’48.
Being really bad, even “by design,” was never an option for Lombardi, who tweaked his schemes and drew up trick plays in hope of finding a winning spark, even if Father Gannon, who was directing the Fordham’s sports show, had “expressed his preference for safe losing and mediocrity.”
This brings us back to the Washington Wizards.
“We would all find it unacceptable if we finished with the second- or third-worst record in the NBA this year,” Leonsis said this summer. “That would be a failure and the failure would start with me.”
(They’re in dead last, failing at a historical rate.)
“I know the fan base, and frankly the media, would like the magic wand waved and the team with three superstars here overnight. But I lost the magic wand. We’re having to do it the old-fashioned authentic way, which is I think the way you’re built to last.”
Ernie Grunfeld, who joined the Wiz as President of Basketball Operations in 2003, has said the team has been “very pleased” with the development of its young players and their “commitment to winning” under Coach Wittman, who everybody within the organization seems to support. But is Wittman (or Grunfeld, for that matter) the long-term answer? If not, the players will likely have to learn a new system, find new roles, and perhaps be asked to develop new skills—more disruption that’ll only set back a team that has had four head coaches in four years.
Where’s the change we’ve all been promised? Color schemes, logos and the jettisoning of a few knuckleheads notwithstanding. It doesn’t seem like it’s around the corner, despite taking down a premier Western Conference foe in the Thunder on Monday night (they’ve done that before, along with defeating the Los Angeles Lakers and the Miami Heat). See, the brass thinks it’s too soon to evaluate the team’s performance: “Once we get everybody together, that’s when we’re going to have to evaluate,” Grunfeld said before Christmas.
When will the team have everybody together, exactly? Saturday, when Booker and Wall finally return to action? Or later, when Wall plays himself into game shape? Or was Grunfeld referring to the start of next season, when the brutal 2012-13 campaign is all but forgotten, indistinguishable from seasons past, and the hope for relevancy is pinned to the nameplate of another top lottery selection? Or worse, giving away a top lottery ticket for have-been, no-good veterans.
If Lombardi were in charge, he’d probably ask, “What the hell is going on out here?!”
Memphis has started to ask the right questions. They’re not satisfied, despite being 23-10 with the 4th seed in the West, and they’re not waiting till the moment is right to take action. The Grizzlies’ new-look front office doesn’t think its roster is “constructed to contend for the Western Conference title” and is looking to shake things up by possibly trading Olympian wing Rudy Gay, reports Yahoo!’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
Winning isn’t a sometime thing, it’s an all the time thing … unless you’re in D.C., where you’d be hard-pressed to see consecutive wins outside of Tanking Season. Problem is, Tanking Season (April)—where the Wiz are 13-10 over the past two seasons—is always a time for optimism from the front office.
Here’s Ted Leonsis’ take, from April 27, 2012:
“The Wizards concluded a season of rebuilding—post an NBA lockout. We were as advertised—except—we started to show our upside in the last month of the season; post trade for Nene. We won our last 6 games in a row. [...] We have the youngest team in the NBA. We are selling lots of new tickets—we are renewing at a very high pace our season ticket holder base. We will have a high pick in the upcoming draft—and we have cap space to sign a free agent this off season. We have, as discussed, upside. We were bad—by plan—and now we plan to be GOOD.”
It was playoffs or bust this year, and the Wizards must be looking for a refund. The 5-28 Wiz are projected to finish 18-64, the franchise’s worst record since 1998-99. At best, they could finish 33-49—in other words, a banner year that will have produced more wins than half the Wizards teams over the last 15 years. They’ll surely win a few more games this spring, but is a 30-win season and a last-place finish in the NBA something to write home about? Will a second-half turnaround excuse the beginning of this season? Injuries are a convenient excuse for hard times, but let’s be serious: The Wizards aren’t the only team that has had to deal with bumps, breaks and bruises. The 2010-11 Packers, for example, were forced to put 16 players (seven starters) on injured reserve, but they still managed to win a Super Bowl.
Where do the Wizards go from here? Like Metro, the Wizards don’t seem to be adhering to their own maintenance standards, and appear destined for another fresh start in 2015, when Nene will be the only Wizards player with a guaranteed contract.
The escalator to the top appears to be out of operation, indefinitely—the Wiz have installed a lot of replacement parts, but they’re still dealing with yesterday’s transit authority and expecting better service. But the steps out of the depths are there. Unfortunately, climbing out sounds like something for another day—a resolution for another year.