Relevance Is Fragile: Can Washington’s Snapshot of Success Unblur the Big Picture?
On Monday night, the Wizards received the hospitality of one of the NBA’s best and most talked about teams. And, as is usually the case (Miami has only lost four home games this season), the host’s party went off without a hitch. There were a few unusual Washington performances, some of which may sustain themselves long enough to transform the brief delight of those watching into the burden of expectation. Drew Gooden’s 15 points, Andre Miller’s five assists. Both men may be long in the tooth, and not long for the Wizards, but every good team needs these transient pieces.
Every good team also needs consistent bench performers. Last summer the Wizards paid Martell Webster what was, at the time, a fair amount ($22 million over four years). On nights like Monday, where Webster shoots 50 percent from the 3-point line (4-for-8) and scores 17 points, that investment nudges the Wizards that much closer to relevance.
Losing to the Heat, despite the performances mentioned above, was expected. They had dropped three straight games, and Dwyane Wade bucked a season-long trend of resting his balky knee by playing in only his fourth back-to-back of the campaign. The NBA’s elite does not want for much (at least not in the regular season), but the Heat were desperate for a win. And even at Miami’s most detached, they have more than enough talent to come away the victor on their home court.
This Wizards season is at turns tentatively exciting and excruciatingly out of reach. It’s bittersweet. For a team already on the fringe, Emeka Okafor’s offseason injury was a gut-punch. Without blinking, the Wizards made their first sacrifice in the form of their 2014 first-round pick in order to acquire Marcin Gortat. Before the trade deadline, blood blessed the altar again, and gone were one-time hope vehicle Jan Vesely, a future second-round pick, and the figurative black eye which had enveloped and subsumed Eric Maynor by mid-December.
And when the sun goes down on this year’s version of the Wizards, whether it be in the first or second round of the playoffs, those ghosts of Wizards future will never materialize. The Drew Goodens and Al Harringtons may stay, they may retire, or they may hope (however unlikely it may be) for a last spin on the league’s championship contender wheel, landing somewhere closer to “there.” Andre Miller may be back at $5 million, or he may be bought out. Gortat may re-sign, or not. Trevor Ariza may re-sign, or not.
When the 2014 free agency period begins, the Wizards may very well have earned the wins-and-youth based allure that garners them one of a few select free agent targets. Alternatively, they may be forced to settle for the unparsed players, whatever is left after Miami, Oklahoma City, Los Angeles, and other contenders have picked over the pile. Money matters, but much of what happens, or what doesn’t happen, depends on a single concept: relevance.
Relevance is a concept that has been foreign to the franchise since Gilbert Arenas’ knee, and subsequently his reputation, were torn. Three years ago, when the Wizards were bad by design, the irrelevance may have seemed like a haven, a grace period away from the spotlight after its shine had proven radioactive. And then the folks on the third floor at the Verizon Center jumped the gun. Javale McGee, Andray Blatche, even Jordan Crawford … these guys were good, sometimes, but more often than not, they were obviously misplaced: opening acts massaged into the false perception that they were headliners. All of a sudden, no amount of missed John Wall assists tracked could convince the nation that the Wizards were anything but another of the league’s necessary dreg teams, watchable only for the bloopers and the sporadic moment of athletic, authentic NBA brilliance.
So forgive the Wizards for wanting to feel good. Even if they may have jumped the gun again.
How this season ends is far more germane to how accomplished a team the Wizards can field next year than it is to Washington’s “chances” this year. Sure, a poor finish and a spot as the 7th or 8th seed may ensure a patronizing pat on the ass by Miami and a five-game exit from playoff stage, but more importantly, it may cause the deterioration of any relevance the Wizards have accumulated through the ascension and newfound national veneration of John Wall, and through the games his team has won.
This season is a unique opportunity: each win in the Eastern Conference, which is devoid of great teams outside of Miami and Indiana, can change the league’s perception of a team. Semi-artificial prominence in the standings grants a hyperbolic veneer to a good, but not overly impressive, Wizards roster. A first-round playoff series win could be the agent of dissemination that finally brings this Wizards team to critical mass, and over the tipping point of annual relevance. At least that’s what those tasked with the stewardship of the franchise are hoping.
In the 2011 playoffs, the No.7 and No.8 seeds belonged to the Philadelphia 76ers and the Indiana Pacers, respectively. Both teams would be bounced in the first round. The Indiana Pacers, who came into those playoffs with a 37-45 record and a rookie named Paul George, signed David West that offseason. A year later they were the No.3 seed in the Eastern Conference, behind only Chicago and Miami. The 76ers, on the other hand, came into the 2011 playoffs at 41-41, and boasted an impressive young core of Evan Turner (the No.2 pick in the 2010 draft, after John Wall), Lou Williams, Jrue Holiday, Thad Young, and Spencer Hawes paired with veterans like Elton Brand, Jason Kapono, Andre Iguodala, and TAI editor Kyle Weidie’s favorite ex-Wizard, Darius Songaila. Both teams were exciting, both teams were young and perceived to be on an upward trajectory. But only the Pacers capitalized on their relevance. The Sixers failed to sign any impact free agents that summer, were the No. 8 seed in the 2012 playoffs, and then proceeded to take their team apart meticulously, brick by brick, on their way to becoming the most un-watchable team (with a plan or without) in the NBA.
Relevance is fragile. It can come and go in a week, it can build over the course of months and then burn up silently when you aren’t looking. It can spread like a virus through an isolated population, wild and incurable, before it is quarantined off and dies with its last host. Most tragically, it can be within your grasp, and because it hinges on favorable outcomes from a few unpredictable vectors, can abandon you just before it reaches that critical mass, the threshold from which there is no return. Visualize your clichéd metaphor of choice: a train track of dominoes spilling before its time, a house of cards unsettled by the slamming of a door. The quality and value of Washington’s hired guns next season may only be as high as the degree of certainty the franchise can project that the team will be successful. Will the NBA’s best free agents perceive the Wizards to be more like the 2010-11 Indiana Pacers or the 2010-11 Philadelphia 76ers?
The first “no” in the offseason, if it comes, will be the worst. It is one of the reasons that the Wizards will likely have to offer Marcin Gortat more money than the next team. Because if Gortat signs with another franchise, the next option will be at best unproven, and at worst unattractive in the eyes of the NBA’s free agency class. Momentum, though not easily valuated, is ontologically relevant to players making choices in the context of a team’s perceived future success. You can’t get good until you’re already good. You can’t win unless you’ve already won. How hard you push depends on how close you already are, or think you are.
Relevance is the reason the Cleveland Cavaliers, a team with a star in hand but just two more wins than the barren, tanking Boston Celtics, traded Andrew Bynum, three future draft picks, and gave the Bulls the right to swap 2015 first round picks for Luol Deng. They have tried so damn hard to be relevant, to matter, after a start that threatened their pre-conceived timeline and damaged their reputation as a destination for free agents to play with Kyrie Irving. Relevance is what Al Jefferson was talking about on ESPN Radio last week when he hoped out loud that his play since signing with Charlotte last summer would attract another star to North Carolina’s NBA team, a franchise that has been suspended indefinitely from the collective national consciousness.
Some players are weapons of relevance. The Wizards were in one such weapon’s presence in Miami. But there are precious few players like LeBron James (who can make any NBA city relevant), and John Wall’s enrichment program is incomplete. Wall’s absence would be disastrous, but his presence, unquestionably a boon, is not yet the siren song the Wizards need on its own this summer.
These last 19 games, and the playoff wins and losses that follow, will be the final data set before the Wizards can test an unproven (put nicely) theory that is being propagated by several other Eastern Conference teams as well (Cleveland and Charlotte especially) in the void left by a lack of Eastern Conference excellence: that John Wall’s star chops and modest, inconsistent success can disguise itself as sustained relevance long enough to attract the services of other agents of success, to build something more than mere mirage. It sounds risky, and it is. The risk is that the Wizards will be ignored, and that relevance will never mutate into excellence. The risk is a ceiling low enough to make potential, previously perceived as boundless, into something hopelessly finite.
A Collection of Precious Things
Building a contender, ultimately, is about identifying the right people. And then it’s about bringing the right people to your tent, convincing them that it’s in their best interest to stay right there with you. Luck and health don’t hurt. The season-long sales job started with the first preseason promotional material, and it won’t end until someone beats the Wizards in this year’s playoffs.
During Ernie Grunfeld’s last big job fair, where he may have been expected to cash in the team’s chips after the 2005 playoff series victory against the Chicago Bulls, Washington’s long-time team president picked up up the motley crew of Billy Thomas, Awvee Storey, Calvin Booth, and Antonio Daniels. Grunfeld also re-signed Michael Ruffin, but “lost” Steve Blake, Juan Dixon, and Larry Hughes, the latter of whom presumably jilted Washington (phew!) for Cleveland after a low-ball initial offer from Grunfeld. The most significant move of that summer was the trade of Kwame Brown to the Los Angeles Lakers for Caron Butler. And while the Butler trade adequately replaced (at a much more affordable rate) the loss of Hughes, none of the other free agents that summer, or in the offseasons that followed, moved the needle much. The Wizards never got beyond the first round again before the ceiling collapsed on them.
The stock of NBA teams does not always fall neatly into the distinct categories of rising or falling. Sometimes the trajectories are unclear, and excitement can dissipate just as easily as it builds towards something special.
For better or worse, this team is all in. The first goal of the front office is relevance through the pageantry of winning. Each win, whether it be during the regular season or the playoffs, is a form of currency, a piece of platinum in a conspicuous cache that will eventually be displayed in a glitzy glass case in front of potential signees. These final games matter, despite Washington’s current state, mired in something slightly more exciting than marshy mediocrity. They matter, and if the balance favors the Wizards, the options increase, and the path forward may be less treacherous. Without a first-round pick, and with a shallow roster that doesn’t feature many, if any, non-essential trade-able assets, Washington will need to make their luck in a free agency system that has rarely been friendly to the franchise.