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With the exception of the San Antonio Spurs, the fortunes of professional basketball teams—heck, all professional sports teams—are cyclical. From 1995 to 1998, the Chicago Bulls won 203 regular season games, lost only 43, and won three back-to-back championships. Then Michael Jordan retired for the second time, and the Bulls failed to make the playoffs again until 2004-05, when they lost in the first round to… the Washington Wizards.
Since changing its name to the Wizards in 1997 (from the superior but far less politically correct Washington Bullets), D.C.’s professional men’s basketball team has had its own cycle of ups and downs. The year they beat the Bulls in the first round of the playoffs was Gilbert Arenas’ first year in D.C. Agent Zero’s arrival was an up. He gave new life to the Wiz and raised their profile in the hoops community, taking them to the playoffs four years in a row. Though the team never advanced past the first round, the potential was there. (The NBA playoff structure, for Washington fans who haven’t always needed to know it: first round, second round, conference finals, NBA finals.)
Then came the down: Arenas tore his MCL in 2007, and the team was swept by LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round. Despite his injury, the Wizards signed Arenas for a mind-boggling $111 million over six years, a gesture Arenas honored by later bringing an unloaded gun into the locker room. Even if you don’t care about the Wizards, or basketball, you probably remember what happened next: Felony charges, an NBA suspension, and a lot of losses intermingled with the front office’s decision to explode the roster. The Gilbert era ended with a trade to the Orlando Magic for forward Rashard Lewis, a nice guy and two-time All Star who made his free throws but was already on his 13th year in the league. Lewis helped the Wizards dump Arenas’ remaining $60 million salary, but he didn’t—couldn’t—“fix” things. The team lost mightily over the next three seasons.
In 2014, the Wizards finally left the desert. Led by point guard John Wall and defensive cornerstones Nenê Hilario and Trevor Ariza, they blew out LeBron and the Miami Heat during a regular season game, and made it to the playoffs despite a series of injuries to Nene (sparking the hashtag #prayfornene). In a redux of 2005, they again beat the Bulls in the first round, shocking NBA nerds everywhere. In the second round, they gave the Indiana Pacers—the second-strongest team in the Eastern Conference last year, after LeBron’s Heat—a run for their money.The Wizards lost the series 4-2, but even in defeat, fans had cause for celebration: D.C.’s NBA team had won a second-round playoff game for the first time since 1982.
That’s how the first half of 2014 went. The second half of the year has been even better. Though they lost Ariza to the Houston Rockets, the Wizards signed Kris Humphries (formerly Mr. Kim Kardashian) and Paul Pierce (The Truth) in free agency, and both veterans are earning their paychecks. Georgetown grad Otto Porter Jr., thought last year to be a waste of a third overall draft pick, tore it up in the summer league and has performed admirably in the regular season. Just last month, Porter led the Wizards to a victory over the Milwaukee Bucks after Pierce was ejected from the game. Even the affectionately known AARP squad—oldsters Drew Gooden (33) and Andre Miller (38)—are imparting lessons and making buckets. (At 37, Pierce would be an AARPer as well, were he not in the starting lineup.)
The result? The Wizards are 18-6 in the Eastern Conference as of this writing, in second place, and only half a game behind the Toronto Raptors for first. But D.C. sports journalist Jake Russell recently pointed out another significant aspect of the hot start: This is the team’s best 20-game opening to a season since 1974. Which means it’s fair to say this is either the best Wizards squad in the last 30 years (based on playoff performance), or the best Wizards squad in the last 40 years—which includes 1977-78, the year of their only NBA title. (Why are we still talking about Washington’s football team?)
And things are still going to get better. John Wall is an incredible point guard, a good guy, and he’s also only 24. Porter and Bradley Beal, the Wizards’ up-and-coming shooting guard, are each 21. The locker room has good chemistry, veterans like the idea of coming to D.C., and the youngsters are getting better every day. The only thing that could possibly improve the Wizards’ current situation? If Suitland, Md., native Kevin Durant decided to come home in 2016, when he’ll be a free agent. I think he’ll do it. Only a crazy person would pass up a chance to play for these Washington Wizards.