Are the Wizards on the right track, finally, for once? And if they are, is that the result of intelligent design or what simply the desperate process of elimination of possible approach? And wait a second, are they a young team or an old team?
Here's a fun game. Ask any hardcore NBA fan or writer who isn't a Wizards fan if the coach for Washington is still Randy Wittman.
"Oh, well, they... hey, yeah, I guess he is."
Then ask them if Ernie Grunfeld is still the GM.
"I mean, he was... hey, yeah, I guess he is."
It's kind of suprising in all respects. The coach and his starting power forward/center never spoke about the fact he nearly retired from the pain his foot was in last year. Grunfeld oversaw not one, but two disasters, as Gilbert Arenas' Adventures in Gunplay detonated the Arenas-Caron Butler-Antawn Jamison train that had already derailed due to injuries. He also was behind the youth movement that netted a rare (but by no means unprecedented) collection of knuckleheads without mentors in Nick Young, JaVale McGee and Andray Blatche along with John Wall.
But man, like Lazarus, don't mind the smell, just focus on the fact that the dude is still walking.
There's this tendency in sports to act as if every success story is a comeuppance to the team or person's detractors. It's fairly unique to sports where the competitive instincts most often cross over to the business side. If you read a business profile about the Wizards, it would focus on how management made mistakes, really had some big disasters to go alog with their bad luck. (And they really did have some crap luck; Arenas' injury is like, the fifth worst thing that happened to them over the past six years.)
The story would be one of overcoming one's own limitations, about the power of wisdom and the value of humility. But in sports, everything gets turned into someone "proving their critics wrong." But a smarter, more accurate, more honest appraisal can look at the Wizards and say "Yes, they made some terrible mistakes. Quite a few, really. But the approach they've taken since has been bold, and it's working out."
The only people that want veterans on their team more than coaches is other players. No player wants to be stuck alone playing teacher to a bunch of kids eight to ten years younger than them. But the Wizards needed role models. They needed someone to teach work ethic, and they needed someone who could function mentally at a professional level to give John Wall a little help. So they gambled with investments.
They grabbed Nene from Denver on a $13 million deal. They flipped Rashard Lewis and what would have been cap freedom for two underwhelming veterans who were/are considered overpaid in Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza. It seemed like such a desperate stab at avoiding a true rebuild on top of what was supposed to be a true rebuild with the knucklehead era.
(Side note: That phrase gets overused way too much. Michael Beasley has a strong affection for pot and poor shot selection. It's not the same thing. But the Wizards of Young-Blatche-McGee were knuckleheads because that's what happens when you're that young.)
And at the start of last year, with Wall out, it seemed like a disaster. Nene was missing games still with that foot injury. Bradley Beal couldn't shoot. It looked like a disaster. But then Wall came back, and with so much pressure, when it seemed like everything was unraveling, Wall caught fire, hit a whole other gear, and all the progress made with Wall out (Beal's development, the gelling of the core, Martell Webster rising from the ashes) came together to form a team that would have made the playoffs if the season were another month long.
It's a fascinating hybrid approach. Nene, Okafor, Webster, Ariza, these are all grizzled vets. Ariza is 28, Okafor and Nene will be 31 this fall, Webster 27. They're not ancient, they've just been around a long time. (33 years of NBA experience between the four of them.) Ariza and Webster are in their primes, really. But it's a veteran balance to the young core.
That young core is really just Wall and Beal, though. After years of so many missed draft picks and so many players that developed poorly, whether by product of the Wizards or their own abilities, Washington has the potential to have two stars on their roster under 25.
For Beal, it's about the natural progression of a player going into his second year. We've seen a lot of players take steps back in their second seasons over the last few years. Avoiding the sophomore slump is going to be crucial for his development. His rookie year numbers are far from encouraging. So why are so many people high no him?
There's a strong progression there, particularly after Wall's return. It's fine for Beal to need Wall as a safety crutch right now, it's like training wheels while Beal learns to ride his NBA bike. What's important is that he understands his role, and what he needs to do. He needs to focus on being a weapon for Wall while he develops his own game off the dribble.
Meanwhile, the best chance Beal has to avoid that sophomore slump is his natural basketball intelligence, as oulined by Bullets Forever:
There's a noticeable, almost cerebral nature to the way Beal plays. He's still learning how to properly work within a team defense, but the way he moves around the court suggests a natural basketball sense. The best athletes display unusual muscle memory and understanding, where "doing the right thing" on the court almost becomes second nature. You can see a little bit of that in Beal, a guy who just gets what needs to be done to help his team win.
After Wall's max contract press conference last month, Randy Wittman spoke about working with Beal to expand his game as a ball-handler and playmaker. After missing a good portion of the offseason recovering from a stress injury, working to run the offense and get his own shots is a key next step, and the seeds of success are sowed even there.
When you talk about Beal taking his game to the next level, from premier shooter to all-around superstar, it's easiest to imagine after watching plays like the buzzer-beater against Oklahoma City:
Again, that's a 19-year-old hitting a wild buzzer-beater to beat one of the best teams in the league. And yet, wouldn't you say Beal looks awfully in control during that entire sequence? It's a great combination of talent, smarts and confidence rolled into one, an artist completely in his element.
As for Wall, he got the max extension he wanted. He's had an offseason to recover from the leg injury that limited him last year. But maybe the best sign for Washington is not what he's done on the court, but in terms of leadership.
Wall returned to D.C. earlier this month for his youth basketball camp - and in preparation for late September's training camp and the upcoming season.
"Working out with the coaches and stuff," Wall said about his schedule since re-joining teammates for training sessions." Getting everybody organized, to have like a mini-camp before we start training camp."
Wall expects the entire roster together following Labor Day. He also anticipates training with former NBA All-Star point guard Gary Payton at some point before the start of camp on September 28.
Even if this isn't the first time Wall has taken these steps, it's big that he's doing it now. After his extension, with the Wizards' expectations for next season, it's important that Wall is taking initiative as the face of the franchise. He's the guy now.
And the Wizards have some depth now, young and old. Al Harrington is locker room leadership and versatility. Otto Porter is athleticism and promise. Eric Maynor is a long-term solution to the back-up point guard problem. Trevor Booker is underrated, as is Kevin Seraphin.
This is a good team. Finally. We think.
See, that's the problem. The Arenas teams should have been Eastern Conference Finals contenders. The young knucklehead group should have grown up at some point. Last year should have resulted in a playoff berth. But injuries, bad luck, gun play, there's always something. It makes it hard to evaluate the plans, the decisions. We can't just always look back with hindsight though. We have to evaluate what they've done and where they're headed in the moment. If it turns out to be another train headed off the track, so be it.
But at least they've built an engine you want to ride behind.