WASHINGTON, D.C. — One by one, the Washington Wizards took their spots in front of their stalls, answering questions after Friday’s disturbing 134-111 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. There was an expectation of fireworks, possibly a public rebuke from John Wall or maybe Bradley Beal, but the Wizards were decidedly on message, and shockingly in step.
It’s maybe the most together they’ve looked all season.
There’s Beal’s locker on one side, in the middle. There’s Dwight Howard across from him, Wall a few down from him, in the corner. Kelly Oubre is by Howard, Austin Rivers across from him, Otto Porter in the corner nearby. They’re all lined up, separated by a few inches of mahogany-stained wood panels. But after a fifth straight loss to drop them to 1-7, they couldn’t feel further apart.
Beal dismissed the idea of hitting the panic button. He affirmed his commitment to fight.
“I don’t love where we are, but I love where we are, and I’ll never give up on this team,” was one of Beal’s lines, a twisted attempt to say he still likes his team.
On the other side, Wall stubbornly answered questions, sticking with the approach the Wizards need to compete and play defense, eventually dipping his toe into the chemistry and effort elements. Howard went with “mindset,” saying they need to keep a positive outlook and just keep working. Rivers came the closest to saying something, but stopped himself short when asked if there’s a deeper issue to the team’s hapless defense.
“Yeah it could be more than that,” he said. “I don’t want to speak on it too much. But, you know.”
Drama around the Wizards is nothing new. They spent a large part of last season openly sniping each other in the media, with Wall and Marcin Gortat’s relationship uncomfortable to the point of being nothing more than working acquaintances; Gortat was traded to the LA Clippers this past offseason in exchange for Rivers.
There’s long been chatter around Wall and Beal’s partnership, and with a new mix in the locker room including Rivers and Howard, it seems potentially combustible. Add in a cringe-inducing 1-7 start to the season, which has featured the last five losses coming by an average of 18.6 points, and an eventual splintering feels inevitable.
“I have a lot of confidence in our guys staying together and I also have a lot of confidence our guys are going to play well,” coach Scott Brooks said. “We’re going to start playing better together.”
Brooks pointed to having Howard – who was solid in his Wizards debut – and Friday’s game was the first time the team has had its full complement this season. But if that’s the assumption, to just get Dwight Howard and Markieff Morris out there to fix it all, the Wizards may not be all that close to turning any pages. The issues seem deeper rooted than that, an unspoken internal disconnect the apparent source.
“I’ve been with the group for over two years,” Brooks said. “We’re going to stick together. We have a tough patch. We start the season with some tough games. Every team in this league, you don’t go through it and keep going straight up. You’re going to have some stretches where maybe it’s [games] 30 through 35 you’re going to lose three or four in a row. Unfortunately, we’ve lost some games we wish we didn’t lose and a couple things here or there could have changed it.”
The mood in the Wizards locker room could be viewed one of two ways:
a) it was confident, almost resilient, the attitude of a team that has been here before, with a 2-8 start two seasons ago turning into 49 wins and a moderately successful playoff run; or
b) alarming indifference.
They were booed to an uncomfortable level at multiple points of the game, but it was never mentioned postgame. Howard still found it in him to make a joke about looking a little slow in his first game of the season, resembling former franchise great Wes Unseld. Beal got dressed and joked with staffers and friends in the middle of the room, Wall never once reacted to any idea of frustration or panic.
Reality is, it’s a bit bleak for the Wizards. In an Eastern Conference that has finally had the window opened with LeBron James’ departure, the Wizards have the comfort of stability and star power. Wall referenced how they’re better “on paper,” but of course, paper can be shredded or thrown away. They have a backcourt locked into mega contracts for the long term, and a roster already $8 million over the luxury tax. Outside of a drastic move that includes trading one of their franchise players, there’s really not another great option other than simply playing better.
“What are we going to do about it?” Beal said. “Just fold up early in the year and give up on the year or fight back and try to compete like we know we’re capable of doing?”
The next two weeks for the Wizards could make or break their current incarnation. They play the New York Knicks on Sunday, then have a three-game road trip against the Dallas Mavericks, Orlando Magic and Miami Heat, then five straight home games featuring matchups against the Magic, Cleveland Cavaliers and Brooklyn Nets. Brooks went out of his way to say the team is sticking together and he’s not worried about the locker room crumbling. The players didn’t point fingers, except at themselves.
There’s still time to salvage the season, but time might be running out on salvaging their direction.
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