Once upon a time, the Washington Wizards were known as Warriors East. Their offensively potent lineup featured former Bay Area stalwarts Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison, and Larry Hughes, who led the team to the first of four playoff appearances in the mid-2000’s (including the only one that didn’t fall victim in Round 1). The team was built for the present and the future, given the eclectic mix of emerging stars and established veterans and always seemed just a piece away from making a legitimate run in the Eastern Conference. But even after an upgrade at third banana from Hughes to Caron Butler, Washington could never sustain that early success, as knee injuries, gun charges, and LeBron James brought the whole thing down. Fast forward six years through the darkest days in recent franchise memory and the Wizards have recovered some of that decade-old magic. The team sits at 20-20 and will attempt for the fourth time this season to go over the .500 threshold (which would also mark their first positive W-L ratio since Washington flashed a dominant 2-1 record in November 2009). And to continue with tradition, it’s possible that this squad is following the blueprint laid out by that same West Coast counterpart, except this time it involves building a similar team, just not the exact same one.
The Warriors as we know them today haven’t been a flowery model of the new-age NBA for that long. In fact, only two years ago they were bad enough to be hanging out at the lottery (even getting there with a tanking strategy that would make Philly jealous) amid fearful concerns lain on the ankle of Stephen Curry and the elbow of Andrew Bogut. After a 2012 Draft Class that brought in Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green, the wheels started turning. Curry and Bogut mostly stayed on the court and the team finished 47-35, good for 6th in the Western Conference and the first postseason action since Baron Davis and Stephen Jackson wrote the folklore of 2007’s upset vs. the Dallas Mavericks. As was the case vs. then-league MVP Dirk Nowitzki, Golden State wasn’t expected to escape their first matchup. The Denver Nuggets would get 4 of 7 games at the Pepsi Center, a venue where they sported a 38-3 record during the regular season. But behind the heroics of Splash Brothers, the Warriors advanced to the Conference Semifinals and a date with the San Antonio Spurs. Despite serving as an appetizer to Tim Duncan and Co.’s bigger plans, Golden State’s season was a success.
That overachievement, coupled with some savvy roster moves by GM Bob Myers that allotted the team max cap space put the Warriors on the map as a true destination for the cream of the free agency crop (even receiving a coveted meeting slot with Dwight Howard). This season, with newly acquired Andre Iguodala in tow and on the court, the Warriors have been one of the best teams in the NBA, owning a 10 game win streak and nearly accomplishing the first ever 7-0 road trip in the league’s history. The nucleus expects to remain intact while pieces like Barnes, Thompson, or David Lee can still be made available if and when needed. So the question that strikes me when looking at this two-year rebuild that the Warriors achieved is whether it would be feasible here in the Nation’s Capital. Although the situations may appear somewhat different on the surface, there are more than a few commonalities between the two teams that could allow the Wizards to replicate some of the same success. Actually capitalizing on those opportunities is a separate story, but as long as they exist, it’s wouldn’t hurt to prepare a little bit.
The immediate connection between the two teams is the reliance and emphasis placed on a powerful backcourt. Curry/Thompson is the highest scoring PG/SG combo in the league and is followed in 2nd place by John Wall and Bradley Beal. Both sets of guards were drafted two years apart, meaning the teams will have time and flexibility around the latter’s contract extension. Although it is a prevailing thought that guards don’t win titles, franchises can have more than just the singular goal of the Larry O’Brien trophy. Sustained playoff success, something Washington has not tasted since the heyday of the 1970s, can be achieved with Wall and Beal at the helm. Another parallel between the two teams is the way the rest of their rosters fill out. Golden State has a set of traditional bigs in Andrew Bogut and David Lee that Washington mirrors with Nene and Marcin Gortat. The Warriors also sport versatile perimeter players in Barnes, Iguodala, and Green that is somewhat copied by the Wizards in Trevor Ariza, Martell Webster and whatever Otto Porter becomes. Neither team would show off its bench depth, though each can provide a spark at those occasional moments. Golden State is obviously ahead in the process of achieving respectability but Washington could prove to be not too far behind.
For those who are mocking this article on sheer basis that the Wizards even come close to the Warriors in terms of roster, front office, or coaching talent, it is true that Washington lags behind in all three categories and probably severely in at least two. But the equalizer is that the Verizon Center is geographically about as far East as it comes in the NBA and therefore thoroughly protected by E-League membership. For as long as ineptitude reigns supreme with the 12 other teams not named the Indiana Pacers or Miami Heat, the Wizards have a chance to compete with the core that they have. As it stands today, Washington is in 5th place in the standings and only a game out of actually hosting a first round playoff series. It’s not inconceivable to think that the Wizards could win against a Round 1 opponent like Atlanta, Chicago, or Brooklyn, and then push either Indiana or Miami to 5 or 6 competitive games. A run like that could give credence to Washington being an up-and-coming team and one that is armed with near max-cap space to offer future free agents (storyline sound familiar at all? Maybe like previous paragraph familiar?). Of course, cap space isn’t the only input needed for success, as it could also turn into $54 million of Josh Smith, but it’s not a bad thing to have either. Especially if playoff run would further validates John Wall after what should be his first NBA All-star selection next month (and an outside chance at 3rd team All-NBA), Washington could become a hotter destination. It’s already the 7th largest TV market in the country and although basketball is not #1 in the hearts of locals, the Nationals and Capitals proved it’s possible to get love from the DMV without dressing in burgundy and gold.
Look – by no means am I suggesting that the Wizards should start printing 2015 Conference Finals playoff t-shirts or assume Kevin Love and Kevin Durant are dying to take pay cuts to play in DC. I’m just drawing the possibility that Washington could replicate the Warriors’ ways, in the relative world of the Eastern Conference.
Both franchises have gone through enough heartache to cover three or four more and neither has ever affected the NBA landscape for very long. But both also sport new owners (Ted Leonsis and Joe Lacob) who have no connection to the futility of the past and those men are both committed to building a winner. One has already achieved that objective so it’s up to the other to do the same. Leonsis will probably have to clean house of the coaching staff and front office as Randy Wittman and Ernie Grunfeld have proven long ago they aren’t the right guys for the job. He may want to look to the new analytical era of the NBA for his next hires, as they may actually make use of the SportVU cameras that the Wizards sprung for.
There will be several other decisions like these that will directly affect the team’s outcome. But the infrastructure is in place for the Wizards to be a real player in the East. Let that soak in for a second, because it’s a phrase that hasn’t been possible in quite a long time. Actually not since the last time comparisons were drawn to those boys from Oakland.