Am I Rooting for a Team That Can’t Win the Larry O’Brien Trophy?

Jun 15, 2017; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green drives a golf cart after exiting a bus during the Warriors 2017 championship victory parade in downtown Oakland. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 15, 2017; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green drives a golf cart after exiting a bus during the Warriors 2017 championship victory parade in downtown Oakland. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports /

Washington Wizards fans know that the team is trending in the right direction. The team had its best season by record in 38 years, and reached Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Still, the “Superteam era” is here, and the Warriors and Cavaliers both seem unbeatable. Are we rooting for a team that can’t win the final prize?

I’ve been a fan of the Washington Wizards/Bullets since I was 10 years old. It’s been a long, often unrewarding experience, but I’ve held firm in my loyalty throughout the tail end of the Magic/Bird era, the Jordan years (the Chicago ones!), and now the LeBron domination of the Eastern Conference.

30-years after dropping my anchor as a fan of this franchise, I’m now going on my 40th birthday (Happy Birthday to me!) and the Wizards have yet to play in a Conference Finals. They came close this season, as close as imaginable going to a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Semifinals versus the Boston Celtics.

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It’s the third time in four seasons that the Wizards have made the conference semifinals, which is no small feat and this year left me thinking this could be the start of more. Built around their dynamic backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal, the season ending loss seemed more like a beginning than an end.

Then the Conference Finals came around and Boston, the team Washington simply could not beat or slow down on the road, was manhandled by LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers 4-1, with three of those wins coming at the Boston Garden with an average margin of victory of THIRTY POINTS! 

Now, part of me was more than happy to watch the Celtics, who I’ve grown to dislike over the course of the season, lose in such a deflating manner. The other part of me however, was taken aback, second guessing how the Wizards could lose all six games they played in Boston this season. Meanwhile, Cleveland, the team Washington is ultimately gunning for in the Eastern Conference, strolled in and beat Boston so thoroughly in their own building that LeBron was routinely icing down his knees at the start of the 4th quarter.

I brushed it off though, thinking like many that perhaps Washington was simply a more difficult matchup for Cleveland taking into consideration Cleveland’s defensive issues and their would-be inability to defend John Wall and Bradley Beal man to man.

Then the finals came along and in spite of LeBron James averaging a triple double and Kyrie Irving averaging nearly 30 points per game, Golden State trounced the Cleveland Cavaliers in five games!  Now I have to ask the question, am I rooting for a team that can’t compete for an NBA Championship?

In the foreseeable future is there a path to a title?  If Washington somehow made the leap and got over the mountain known as LeBron James, they’ll be left staring down the Mount Everest of the NBA in the next round!

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How could Washington or any other team in the NBA realistically put up a fight versus a team that has two former MVPs and four All-NBA performers? The Golden State Warriors are a virtuoso All-Star team and compounding the issue is that three of the Big 4 in Golden State are plus defenders and can’t be picked on as a matchup issue on the defensive end.

Klay Thompson is a perfect example. He shot 42.9% from the field in the Finals but 1) Golden State didn’t necessarily need his offense and 2) his defense and ability to make Kyrie Irving work was a determining factor in this series.

This realization shouldn’t be isolated to the Washington Wizards, but as a fan it is a striking realization. How do you contend with a team that would be a cheat code in most video games?

Let’s say the Wizards were to get through Cleveland and face Golden State and John Wall and Bradley Beal go into an NBA Jam mode, outplaying the Warriors backcourt. Golden State would still have the 7-foot Finals MVP waiting at the 3-point line ready to deliver a dagger. At some point Washington or any other team will lose out to that fire power.  So what can teams in the Wizards position do?

Build a mini-Super Team.  Andrew Sharp of SI was on with the Sports Junkies recently and shared his opinion that teams like Washington just have to stay close, and hope for some luck along the way. The suggestion was that the Wizards need to get lucky and somehow reign in a 3rd superstar to go along with John Wall and Bradley Beal.

A 3rd superstar has long been a need for Washington, unfortunately the cap spending incurred by Ernie Grunfeld in the summer of ’16 and the payday owed to Otto Porter this summer, makes that proposition much more difficult.

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As Andrew Sharp suggested, keeping Otto “with the understanding he’s a trade piece” may be Washington’s best path to having the assets necessary to trade for a star when and if one becomes available.

Build the bench.  The Wizards, as proven the entire season, had a very solid starting 5-man lineup. The Wizards starting lineup had a Net Rating of 18.0 in 250 postseason minutes. That was actually a step up for an already strong regular season starting five which had a Net Rating of 8.1 in 1,347 minutes.

The problem was when Washington went to the bench. The bench was comprised of incomplete players. Kelly Oubre Jr. flashed potential as a one-on-one defender, but his offense and in particular his shooting was subpar.

After being acquired from Brooklyn at the trade deadline, Bojan Bogdanovic brought scoring to the second unit but offered little on the defensive side of the ball or on the glass.

Ian Mahinmi was rarely available and when he was, he was shaking off rust.

Trey Burke could score, but struggled facilitating or keeping up the pace, forcing he Wizards to add Brandon Jennings who shot a dreadful 27.4% from the floor and 21.2% from beyond the arc in Washington.

Washington needs to add versatile and proven two-way players to the bench. Adding those components would allow Washington to build on the leads their starting unit creates and take some pressure off of the starters as well.

A combo guard, another shooter, and another versatile big capable of stepping out on the perimeter on both ends of the floor would be big additions to a roster which lacks depth and versatility. The improvements could take a 49-win team to the Wizards’ first 50-win season since the late 1970s.

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Tank.  Tanking seems to be the thing in the NBA if a team doesn’t think they can compete. Washington, however, from a contract and timing perspective is not in that situation. John Wall just completed his age 26 season and has two years left on his contract and Brad Beal just completed his age 23 season and is going into year two of a five-year max contract.

Washington is not in a good position to tank nor should they.  There’s also little reason to tank as the big 4 in Golden State are all under the age of 30 and should be around for some time to come.

The Washington Wizards also won more games than they have won as a franchise since the 1978-1979 season which should be a source of optimism and something to be exited over.  Tanking offers no certainty of execution so rather than tanking, Andrew Sharp’s suggestion to stay close and hope to get lucky makes a lot more sense for this team as currently situated.

The three options presented offer a path, none of which however, offers you anything in the way of certainty. Even if the Wizards were finally able to land a 3rd star and bring in DeMarcus Cousins for example, or if Ernie Grunfeld is able to navigate the cap constraints of last summer to solidify the bench, the Wizards would still be facing an uphill battle not only in the conference, but especially so in the Finals.

The genie is out of the bottle now and the Super-team Era is here. The Washington Wizards, like many other franchises around the league now, need to figure out if and how they are going to compete for the ultimate prize.

Next: Wizards: Free Agent Options, Warriors G Ian Clark

It’s great for the league as ratings are going up and it’s obviously great for the fans of those Super-teams and players.  As a fan of a non Super-team however, it’s not as great but with 30-years under my belt, I’m in this for the long haul.