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The Wizards’ once promising season has so far produced more misery than success. The team that started 10-3 imploded, and Washington’s best player and center piece, Bradley Beal, is out for the season following a wrist injury and subsequent corrective surgery. But Wizards players and front office staff believe their recent trades at the NBA deadline can help them finish the season strong and build for the future. On Valentine’s Day, the Wizards beat the Detroit Pistons, 103-94, to improve their record to 26-30 this season, tied for 10th place in the Eastern Conference. The team is 2-1 since the Feb. 10 deadline.
“I think we’re great, chemistry-wise,” Wizards forward Kyle Kuzma said after the win. “I think we’ve got a pretty good understanding of roles right now on the team. Everybody’s gelling, fitting in. Everybody’s just doing what they’re supposed to do.”
The Wizards surprised the league with a trade that brought Kristaps Porzingis and a protected second round pick in this year’s NBA Draft to D.C. in exchange for Spencer Dinwiddie and Dāvis Bertāns. Washington made the move to add a special talent in the former All-Star Porzingis, who was affectionately nicknamed “The Unicorn” his rookie season because of his ball-handling and shooting abilities, rare for a player listed at 7-foot-3. The Wizards also traded center Montrezl Harrell to the Charlotte Hornets for veteran point guard Ish Smith, who spent his previous two seasons with the Wizards, and young big man Vernon Carey Jr., and made a deal with the Phoenix Suns that sent out point guard Aaron Holiday.
Call it addition through subtraction. Over the last few weeks, as the Wizards began to lose game after game and slide down the standings, chatter about players’ dissatisfaction with their roles emerged. On Feb. 5, after the Wizards lost the seventh of their past eight games, Harrell responded to a question about the mood of the team with unfiltered honesty.
“It sucks, bro. That’s the mood of the fucking team. It sucks,” Harrell said. “That’s the energy in the room right now. It fucking sucks.”
Dinwiddie was slightly more diplomatic with his feelings on being a leader after a loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on Jan. 29, saying: “It’s an interesting situation. I spoke up a little bit early on [this season]. It wasn’t necessarily welcomed. And so, like I said, I try to do whatever’s asked of me. At the end of the day, everybody has a role to play.”
The dynamic in the Wizards locker room had reached toxic levels, given the frustrations the players shared with media members. On Jan. 11 against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Harrell and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope reportedly had to be separated by teammates after a halftime altercation. It was in the team’s best interest to try and get any disgruntled players out of the locker room so it can focus on developing their young prospects. A source with knowledge of the situation tells City Paper Harrell was outspoken about his dissatisfaction with effort from some of his teammates and his propensity to be vocal was wearing thin on his teammates.
During this time, Wizards general manager and president Tommy Sheppard had to work to make sure everyone was on the same page.
“Communication is always a priority for me no matter what the circumstances, particularly when working with a highly-talented, highly-competitive group like our players and coaches,” Sheppard tells City Paper in an email. “So my role as a leader at all times, despite where we may be in terms of wins & losses, is to bring everyone together and make sure we’re all on the same page and driving towards the goals and expectations that Wes [Unseld Jr.] and I have established to help us succeed at the highest level.”
Sheppard’s comments sound good in theory but really only work in practice of actually pulling everyone together and attempting to galvanize the group. Whether Sheppard’s overtures were working or not doesn’t really matter at this point because the team decided it would be best to bring in a new set of characters to help this team.
Porzingis is the prize for the Wizards. He has career averages of 18.7 points and 7.8 rebounds per game on 44 percent shooting from the field and 35 percent from 3-point range. The problem with Porzingis is his propensity for injury, including being out of game action over the last three weeks with a right knee bruise. Unseld said Porzingis’ knee injury is progressing and he anticipates he will be able to play in one of the teams two remaining games before the all-star break begins.
The fact that the Wizards unloaded contracts of players who did not fit in on the court has been a positive for Sheppard and the franchise, but it also begs the question of why these players were given lucrative contracts in the first place. Bertāns signed a five-year, $80 million contract extension in 2020 and that deal has been an albatross almost since the second the ink dried. Bertāns admitted to being out of shape after he arrived last season and blamed his conditioning on being in Latvia early in the pandemic and not being able to play basketball. The biggest issue with Bertāns’ last two seasons with the Wizards is the drastic swing in his three-point shooting. Nicknamed the “Latvian Laser,” dating from his time with the San Antonio Spurs, Bertāns would go long stretches of not hitting enough shots and then suddenly get hot over short periods, but the eye test always revealed a player who was far too inconsistent.
Dinwiddie’s issues on the court stemmed from him still recovering from an ACL tear that happened in December 2020, impacting his explosiveness. The Wizards are tied for 24th in pace in the NBA this season, making them one of the slowest teams in the NBA. They only generate 98.2 possessions per game and a lot of that had to do with Dinwiddie’s inability to push the ball up the court.
The fact that Dinwiddie had just signed a three-year, $54 million contract this summer could be looked at optimistically, as his salary was needed along with Bertāns’ to reach the salary of the incoming Porzingis. The pessimistic perspective is the fact the Wizards once again find themselves in a scenario of putting out fires they themselves started, a classic theme from the tenure of former team executive Ernie Grunfeld.
That Sheppard was able to turn two bad deals into a former All-Star is a positive, but there are still questions about whether Porzingis will be healthy enough to be a contributor and get back to his former self. The biggest question and the elephant in the room is if the addition of Porzingis will be enough to help convince Beal that staying in Washington is the best decision for his career.
Beal opted to have surgery on his left wrist last week and has been ruled out for the rest of the season, so he very well could have played his last game for the Wizards if he decides to opt out of his contract and leave the Wizards via unrestricted free agency. On the court, Porzingis can be a good fit next to Beal as a three-point shooting big-man. He not only has extended range as a shooter who can space the floor offensively for Beal, but he is a proficient shot blocker who can defend the rim and help mask some of the Wizards’ deficiencies on the defensive end of the floor.
With Beal ruled out, the Wizards will now get a chance to get a good look at their trio of young players in Rui Hachimura, Deni Avdija, and Corey Kispert. If the Wizards are able to have team success and make the play-in tournament or even the playoffs, then that is a good sign of things to come. If the Wizards cannot dig themselves out of the hole and make the playoffs, they will have a shot at getting a high draft pick in the draft lottery. The trade deadline deals at least gives them options moving forward with a roster the team hopes will bond better than the one that started the season.
Photo by All-Pro Reels, used under the Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 license.