When Washington Wizards fans awoke this morning, for the first time since October 30th, there were no more games to be played in the 2013-14 NBA season. Nearly seven months after a roller coaster ride began with an opening day defeat to the Detroit Pistons, it ended in losing fashion again to a Central Division foe in the Indiana Pacers. But in between those book ending disappointments, Washingtonians were treated to perhaps the greatest season in the last 35 years of this proud, but star-crossed franchise. As those waning moments drew to a close last night after another hard fought comeback ultimately fell short, it was time to reflect on everything that turned this team from a punch-line of late night television jokes to one that received admiration for today’s performance and encouragement for tomorrow’s potential. Players will undoubtedly head into the offseason each with a unique set of hypotheticals that would have led to a series victory and kept the Wizards’ season alive. Truthfully though, it doesn’t matter. Not for the 20,000 fans who packed into the Verizon Center or the many more in the region that picked up interest in the team as the wins piled up. For as much turmoil and ineptitude as the Bullets/Wizards have been through since the heyday of yesteryear, it was simply gratifying to see a team that played hard and played together, regardless of outcome and circumstance. Yes, that’s an awfully meager goal for a professional franchise, especially one that has held five top-6 picks since 2009. But for the same reason that the team’s history has been marred by curious personnel decisions and debilitating player development, excitement can be drawn from even the most minor of victories.
I’m usually in staunch opposition of the notion that a team should be satisfied with mediocrity just because it traditionally expects failure. For example, the Clippers had one of their most successful seasons ever end last night, but should a team with Doc Rivers, Chris Paul, and Blake Griffin really expect anything less than a championship only because terrible squads before them never amounted to anything? The same ideology applies for the Wizards, and that archaic belief may ultimately lead to questionable decisions to keep intact everyone involved with this season’s progress, including front office employees, members of the coaching staff, and free agent players. But as I remove the logical thinker hat for just a second, it is a bit surreal to experience what has transpired over these last few weeks. Washington went from a team that was so far removed from the national stage that ESPN was using pictures from 2010 to one that was being predicted as the NBA’s Next Big Thing (slightly edging out the presumptive favorite, Samsung’s LeBron app). Famous talking heads like Charles Barkley and Bill Simmons spoke about the team with such confidence that it had us believing wholeheartedly in what this group could accomplish. Young stars like John Wall and Bradley Beal were being touted for greatness after each new playoff moment. And as we watched the Wizards take the stage on all the major networks, the colors all seemed brighter, from the jerseys, to the floor, to the picturesque views of the Lincoln Memorial following timeouts. It was as if the country was telling us ‘This is what real 1080p feels like’. Yes, I’m still under the belief that past performance shouldn’t dictate perception of success, because the hierarchy of sports achieves that itself. And 44 wins in a historically bad conference and a 2nd round playoff exit doesn’t generally equate as something to write home about. But maybe for just one season, this team in this city redefines that rule.
From a basketball perspective, progress this year could probably best be described as modest, as the Wizards seemed to exemplify Newton’s Third Law by matching every action with an equal and opposite reaction. Six game win streaks would be met with dropping four out of five. Victories against Miami, Indiana, Oklahoma City, Portland, and Golden State were countered by losses against Philadelphia, Boston, Sacramento, Milwaukee, and Utah. Speed of light fastbreaks were negated by running a below average pace of offense. And prolific three-point shooting was set aside for inefficient and plodding low post opportunities. For every moment that brought us up, there would be another to bring us back to Earth. We were treated to Wall’s first all-star appearance and a dunk contest championship to boot, yet also dealt with a 2-7 start and 8 straight losses when facing the prospect of becoming a winning team. This season was exciting, frustrating, uplifting, and depressing, all packed into 101 games. And the team’s imperfections were no different from years past when the Wizards were playoff-bound but noticeably flawed. But this particular squad did have one distinct trait; they played hard every night and they played hard together. That difference is what set aside the 2013-14 Wizards from your father’s Wizards or even your slightly older brother’s Wizards. The fans started feeling like they really knew who this team was and what they were about, inside and outside of the box score. We learned about Martell Webster’s locker room antics, Marcin Gortat and Nene’s comical bromance, Bradley Beal’s odd ‘Big Panda’ moniker, John Wall’s healthy McDonald’s hot chocolate diet, and Kevin Seraphin’s on the loose snake. We found out about a crucial players-only meeting that may have turned the season around and saw how resilient everyone was in the face of injury and poor performance. When everything started clicking against Chicago in Round 1, it was the perfect storm of a likable team finally achieving the success we all felt they deserved.
Nothing in the NBA is guaranteed, and even less can be assumed in regards to year-by-year growth. Just ask the Warriors, who came off a challenging 6 game series loss against the #1 seed (sound familiar?) only to get dumped in Round 1 the following year and see their coach fired. And the Wizards have no shortage of issues to address this offseason, starting with a head coach who is looking for an extension and several players key to this playoff run who are in line for new deals as well. But let’s leave the analytics and decision making to another day and use this one to enjoy what we’ve experienced since Halloween – the best basketball the Nation’s Capital has seen since 1979. Thanks for the great ride; it’s one we won’t soon forget.
DC Is Rising.