A Reminder of When Things Were Different | Wizards Blog Truth About It.net

A Reminder of When Things Were Different

Updated: January 13, 2019

[Photo: AP Photo/Nick Wass]

Things weren’t always this way. There was a time, not long ago, when a matchup against the Toronto Raptors on a snowy Sunday afternoon in January would be appointment television for the average Wizards fan. A double overtime nail-biter? That’s must-watch television (NFL playoffs aside).

This was a surprisingly fun ending to an exceptionally mediocre first 40 minutes, a throwback to when Wizards-Raptors games were things people looked forward to. Jake Whitacre’s recurring bit about the Wizards sweeping the Raptors in the 2015 playoffs remains amusing, but it lacks the luster it once possessed now that the two franchises are soaring in opposite directions.

Bradley Beal had a monster game, playing 55 of 58 minutes and dropping a huge line of 43 points, 15 assists, 10 rebounds, 3 steals, and 2 blocks. Trevor Ariza came within a rebound of his own triple-double, and Otto Porter added 27 points on a wild 44 bench minutes. All good and exciting things, sure, but in the end, the Wizards fell for the third time in as many tries to the Raptors, dropping to 18-26 while Toronto improved to a league-best 33-12.

If the season ended today, the Wizards would finish with the sixth-worst record in the league and the Raptors would have home-court advantage through the playoffs. Ted Leonsis and Co. will bill this as an “epic clash” against one of the top teams in the league, with the Wizards coming up just short despite playing without their star point guard. Sure. Continue to delude yourself.

Remember When?

In the years immediately following Trevor Ariza’s initial departure from Washington, the Wizards and Raptors were talented young teams battling for the right to lose to LeBron James in the Eastern Conference Finals. There was reason to be optimistic about the Wizards’ future, reason to think the backcourts of John Wall and Bradley Beal and Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan would go head-to-head for years to come.

The miasma of Ernie Grunfeld lingered then as it does now, of course, but optimism was abundant.

That’s all changed — for the Wizards, at least. All the Raptors have done is developed and grown and refused to settle. They’ve taken calculated risks. The Wizards have remained complacent, mitigated all potential out of fear of taking risk, and, more crippling than anything, settled.

Players get complacent sometimes in games, or seasons, even careers. When fans get complacent, it’s supposed to inspire change. In the case of the Wizards (and the local football team, for what it’s worth), it’s only inspired more of the same. Continuity.

I’m 27 years old. I’ve never witnessed an especially good Wizards team. That season right after Ariza left, when Paul Pierce ripped the Raptors’ hearts out in the postseason? That was the first time in my lifetime that Washington’s franchise won at least 45 games. The Wizards’ big three carried an average age of just 22 years that season, and the signing of Pierce the offseason prior seemed to suggest impactful players across the league were finally starting to take the Wizards seriously.

But cracks were always present, and they deepened in the coming years. Randy Wittman was retained for another year, which precipitated a drop to 41-41. Over the course of 24 months, Grunfeld traded a first-round pick and five second-round picks in deals that netted Kris Humphries, Jared Dudley, Markieff Morris, Kelly Oubre, and Trey Burke. (The second-rounder for Humphries never conveyed — it was eventually used on Aaron White.) Despite a weak bench and a young, unproven core, the Wizards gingerly went all-in.

Even during that 41-41 season, which was filled with frustration and disappointment, there were countless reasons to watch the Wizards play. They had so much youth and potential, and it was exciting to see the future of the team develop. There was genuine curiosity as to how they would handle the adversity of a down year. There was constant demand for Randy Wittman to be relieved of his duties, which naturally led to the fantasies of what a modern, progressive coach might be able to do with this collection of talent. And if nothing else, John Wall was a highlight machine.

All of those reasons to watch are no longer viable. The core youth has turned: Wall is 28, out for the season with yet another leg injury, and his contract is among the league’s most daunting; Porter still shows occasional flashes of what he could become, such as his Sunday performance, but he’s now 25 years old, remains far too inconsistent, and looks much like the player he’s looked like each of the past three seasons.

Beal, as he has repeatedly in the past month, showed Sunday why he is the team’s best player — with or without Wall on the court. The Wizards trailed by as many as 16 points in the fourth quarter, and by more than 20 for much of the middle portion of the game, and Beal’s monster fourth quarter was the catalyst for Washington’s comeback. But his growth simply can’t make up for the complete lack of youth on the roster, Porter’s gradual development, and Wall’s value cratering.

While it’s fun and nostalgic seeing Ariza in a Wizards uniform, the reckoning will come soon as he’ll leave again in the offseason and Washington will be left with nothing. Meanwhile, the Wizards have a total of four sub-25 players on the roster (now that Kelly Oubre is in Phoenix): Troy Brown, Thomas Bryant, Devin Robinson, and Sam Dekker.

Brown is sitting on the bench in favor of players such as Chasson Randle, even in blowouts, reminding fans of Otto Porter’s rookie season and Kelly Oubre’s rookie season. For a team in salary cap hell with minimal cheap, young talent, the last thing Washington can afford to do is bring first-round draft picks along slowly.

So what reason is there really to watch? Beal and Tomas Satoransky are fun to watch, and Thomas Bryant has been a pleasant surprise. Ariza is forever easy to root for, though he doesn’t have the same juice he had in his first stint. Scott Brooks is regularly out-coached, the top-end talent of the opposition is typically better than Washington’s, and the opposing bench is almost always better than Washington’s.

The crowd is rarely into the game, and empty seats dot the lower level. There’s no real reason to be optimistic for the future, because the team has exhausted most of its potential and all of its money. The general manager should have been fired a decade ago, and there’s little reason to believe he’ll be fired this time around. What’s worse, he’ll probably have the opportunity to make an attempt at a season-saving, future-mortgaging trade ahead of the deadline that further cripples the franchise.

This is where we are now, and we’re in the early stages of this phase. It could be years before the Wizards are either relevant or fun again. For one day, it was exciting to watch the Wizards again. But much like the next few years will look, they came up short in the end.

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Bryan Frantz
Reporter / Writer at TAI
Bryan is a D.C. native with a degree in something or other from UNC. He has important, interesting hobbies, but mostly he just weeps over D.C. sports teams. You can find him on the Metro, inevitably complaining about Red Line delays.