The Washington Wizards are in the NBA playoffs for the first time since 2008. Last week, they won the first game of a playoff series (for the first time since 2006), then won the second one (for the first time since 1982), both on the road against the fourth-seeded Chicago Bulls, to bring a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series back home to the Verizon Center. Since the NBA regular season is really just an aperitif for the playoffs, you may only now be realizing you should be paying more attention to the ‘Zards. Here’s a guide to this year’s team, so you can brush up in a hurry and join the rest of the city in hopping on the bandwagon. Oh, and Game 3 against the Bulls tips off at 8 p.m. tonight. Tickets are available, but they’ll cost you. Game 4 is Sunday at 1 p.m.
What/how/who are the Washington Wizards?
A mix of South, West, Midwest, East, Poland, Brazil, and French Guiana, the 2013-14 Washington Wizards are a collection of young and old souls on soles who—gasp!—genuinely like each other. Now, they’re in the NBA playoffs for the first time since 2008, have a 2-0 series lead over the Chicago Bulls, and with two games coming up at home, including tonight’s, they have the District abuzz.
But the Wizards used to be bad, right? And the rebuilding process hasn’t gone so smoothly, has it?
Very true. Team owner Ted Leonsis has stomped on burning bags of pixel shit over the fact that he once anointed Andray Blatche, Jordan Crawford, and John Wall as Washington pro basketball’s next “Big 3.” But his franchise, like so many NBA teams now following suit, also had to be “bad by design” in aftermath of the Gilbert Arenas era, which left the franchise in ruins and ultimately led to dead sharks in a shark tank.
Did Leonsis’ design work?
In a sense. Crawford, still inhabiting his own planet called “Steez,” was traded for a ham sandwich and is now making token appearances for a playoff team in California. Blatche,whose contract Leonsis extended in late 2010, had it amnestied less than two years later, and he’s now a bit player with the Brooklyn Nets, an enrollee in Camp Kevin Garnett. But they did help break the Wiz down in order to rebuild.
But wait. John Wall is still around, right? Isn’t he pretty good?
Indeed. Wall, an all-star this year, still plays at 7th and F streets NW, and he’s blossomed like Mayim Bialik. His 20-year old sidekick, second-year player Bradley Beal, is totally Jenna von Oÿ. Whoa, too many references to a mid-’90s teen sitcom about a girl, her rock ‘n’ roll dad, and mother abandonment issues. But hey, these are your Washington Wizards.
Um, OK, but who else?
Wall, Beal, and Trevor Booker—average age of 23—are your youthful core, as far as playoff participation goes. The rest of the postseason bunch includes Trevor Ariza, Marcin Gortat, Maybyner Rodney “Nenê“ Hilário, Martell Webster, Al Harrington, Drew Gooden, and Andre Miller—a group of carefully added veterans whose average age is over 32. Four weren’t on the team at the beginning of last August, and only Nenê and Webster are currently on the books for beyond this season. Otherwise, 2013 lottery pick Otto Porter has existed at times over the 82-game schedule, Kevin Seraphin is the smiling social media junkie with a French accent, Chris Singleton likes cereal just as much as any Wizard, and Glen Rice Jr., a 2013 second-round pick, has shown distant promise.
Whatever works. It was a “playoffs or bust” season for the Wizards in this the fourth year of the rebuild. Having punched the Chicago Bulls in the mouth to the surprise of pundits near and far, the Wizards are building excitement and turning heads just as much as their future is uncertain. One thing is sure, however: Wall’s maximum contract extension, signed last summer, kicks in next season and will keep him on the team up to 2019; and Beal, in just his second season, is set to join him to form the NBA’s most exciting backcourt for years to come (with apologies to Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors).
How did the Wizards not bust?
It was an up-and-down but overall positive regular season. They started 2-7, but then exceeded the expectations of pretty much everyone with 44 wins to 38 losses through a schedule that had its ups and downs but never got out of hand. The Wizards lost three or more games in a row on four separate occasions, all coming before the second week of January, but they never lost more than four in a row. They won three or more games in a row on three separate occasions, all coming after that second week in January (season-high streak: six).
They swept New York City’s boroughs (Manhattan’s Knicks and Brooklyn’s Nets) 6-0, they beat the Miami Heat twice, and won hard-fought battles with a slew of other tough NBA playoff teams (Golden State, plus the Oklahoma City Thunder, Indiana Pacers, and Portland Trail Blazers). The Wizards also dealt with bouts of malaise and lost to some of the league’s worst—Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Utah, Boston, and Sacramento. Washington needed to win their very last game of the season over the lowly Celtics to secure the 5-seed in the Eastern Conference; a loss would have dropped them to the 7-seed and a very losable first round matchup with Miami.
Who’s responsible for all of this?
One Ernest “Ernie” Grunfeld. His first 10 seasons as president of Wizards basketball operations saw four playoff appearances, just one trip to the second round, and 491 total losses, second-most in the NBA during that stretch. In his 11th year at the helm, Grunfeld has seemingly found the right mix, and the 44 wins achieved by this team is the second-most during his reign. But, alas, Grunfeld’s name has long been a bad word in still-active D.C. sports management, perhaps second to only Dan Snyder, and angst does exist in Wizards Nation over whether present-day success will lead to the return of the much-maligned man with a mustache after his current contract ends this summer. Grunfeld helped create the memorable Arenas era, as paper-thin and impractical as it was, but he also had a heavy hand in its demise. Everyone loves a good sports comeback story, but does everyone love an Ernie Grunfeld comeback story?
What is #WittmanFace?
#WittmanFace is the officially unofficial hashtag of the renowned faces (mostly pained expressions) made by Wizards head coach Randy Wittman. A #WittmanFace Google image search should do the trick. The coach has been panned for his poor career record and lack of playoff experience, but now he appears to have his team extra-focused. With a contract that also ends after this season, the coaching he’s done for his job just might work.
Does the Curse O’ Les Boulez even exist?
No. Never did. Counter question: Does Tony Kornheiser even exist? Think about it.
How do I get my #DCrising hashtag on?
Well, good sir or ma’am, you do it the only way one can via a team-developed playoff tagline for social media… by getting out, standing up, and showing support for a team on a D.C. pro sports scene that’s desperate for something good. Plus, it’s better than Flip Saunders‘ “Our Time” slogan from the failed 2008-09 campaign, which only got so far as to remind us of bunch of lovable, treasure-hunting kids at the bottom of a well sucking on an inhaler. Worked out for the Goonies in the end, but poor Flip was more like Chester Copperpot.
What are the symptoms of Bullets Fever (or rather, “Wizards Fever”)?
You mime outlet passes with an invisible ball like Wes Unseld, chew straws like Caron Butler, toss fruit plates and live in Groundhog Day like Antawn Jamison, poop in shoes like Gilbert Arenas, spring like Bernard King, can’t say you do like JaVale McGee, unveil the Wizard like Martell Webster, enjoy Frosted Flakes like Trevor Booker, spontaneously do the Dougie like John Wall, are willing to die for the team like Andray Blatche, chill like Trevor Ariza, throw verbal daggers at co-workers like Steve Buckhantz, make faces at your cat like Randy Wittman, and believe that Bradley Beal is, in fact, a Big Panda in a human costume … if you do any of those things, then you might have Wizards/Bullets fever.
How often should I pray for Nenê?
Oh, quite often. The spiritual Brazilian doesn’t need your support for his Lord, necessarily, but the 31-year-old needs your prayers for his ligaments. Always elevating his soreness (which some teammates call his “cover smoke”) and forever in an ice bucket, if anything has been apparent through two playoff games, it’s that Nenê can make the Wizards special. They need him healthy, and they need him engaged. So, take a moment, maybe even a tweet, and #Pray4Nene.
So when’s the draft lottery and NBA draft? Always a big time of the year for the Wizards.
Not a chance, kiddo. The Wizards are in the playoffs! Pay attention: they will NOT be hoping ping pong balls bounce in their favor for the seventh time in a row and the 21st time out of 29 draft lotteries held at some point in May. And regardless, this year the team doesn’t even have a first-round pick. On the eve of this current season, anticipating that center Emeka Okafor would be out for the year with a freak herniated neck disc injury, the Wizards traded Okafor and their 2014 first round pick to the Phoenix Suns (turned out to be pick No. 18) for center Marcin Gortat, aka the Polish Hammer, aka the Polish Machine, aka the Wizard who gets pumped for games by listening to “Miami joints, club music and trance music.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery