May 12, 2018

What A Mess!

This is a long post. I apologize. Get an extra beer for this one.

It's been a couple of weeks since the Washington Wizards were bounced from the 2018 NBA Playoffs and I'm still furious. For me, the entire 2017-2018 NBA season was a complete waste of time, effort and money for this franchise and as an 18 year season ticket holder, I'm disgusted pretty much with this entire group. And by that I mean from the last guy on the bench all the way to ownership. I think most other fans of this team who are in any way emotionally connected with seeing the Wizards succeed are too. Except maybe the folks who are in charge of the team who purport to be fans too.

I've been writing this blog for about six of my 18 years as a hard core member of the Wizards faithful and I've never been so low. Not even after the two 19-63 seasons I've suffered through. In fact, I'm so annoyed, discouraged and devastated over this season that this summer I'm actually checking out. It's too late for me to get my money back for next season (unless I can leverage what I am sure will be no SummerFest this year - despite the promise on the Wizards website - into a full refund) so there's not much I can do except express my objections to this last season in this blog post and then stop paying attention to this franchise for a while.

So here's what I'm going to do. I'm going to write this post detailing all the ways I think this Wizards franchise is broken, write three more blog posts to wrap up the year and then stop. For a while. I'd like to be done with these four planned posts in May then you won't see anything out of me on this blog for either June or July and maybe not August. No thoughts on the draft, no thoughts on free agency (I know, right? What free agency?), no thoughts on team names or mascots or logos or anything like that. Nothing. I'm that pissed off right now. The Wizards have sucked the enjoyment out of being an NBA fan. I'm so down I can't even watch Clevealnd Cavaliers playoff games just to see them lose.

Here are my top 12 objections to the mess I've stood by, paid for and watched on the court of Capital One Arena from mid-October to the end of last month. Enjoy my rage! Ultimately this post will probably make me angrier because I know nobody at the Wizards cares.

1. Overconfidence
The Wizards started this year claiming they were the best in the Eastern Conference. Based on what, you may ask? Honestly, I have no idea. I guess the fact that they lost in seven games to the Boston Celtics in the second round of the playoffs last year? How bad is it for this franchise and the players on this team that after coming close to getting out of the second round of the playoffs (that means they won just one of the four rounds required to win a title) constitutes success to think you have arrived?

Bradley Beal was the early season advocate of the Wizards being the best team in the East during the first couple of months of the season and in true Beal fashion he based those calm, confident declarations on no results whatsoever. Eventually, even the Wizards on court futility caused Beal to stop saying that the Wizards were the best team in the East. Once he did that I was pretty sure this sort of silliness was going to end. Until...Markieff Morris claimed the Wizards were better than the Toronto Raptors. After the team had lost to the Raptors four games to two in the first round of the playoffs. I guess in this age of Trump as president we can convince ourselves anything is true if we say it confidently enough.

2. Bad Losses
In chronological order: at the Lakers, Phoenix, Miami, at Charlotte, Portland, at Utah (not necessarily to a bad team but 46 points!!), at the Clippers, at Brooklyn, at Brooklyn (not a typo; two different times). at Atlanta, Utah (without Rudy Gobert in a "revenge" game), at Dallas (0-2 vs. the Mavs this year), Minnesota, Denver, New York, at Chicago, Atlanta, at Orlando.

Some of those don't seem so bad right? Miami? Wizards lost by three after scoring 29 in the first half. Portland? Wizards were up 17 in the fourth. At Charlotte? Wizards were up 7 with two and a half minutes to play. At the Clippers? Lost by 1 to a team starting Sindarius Thornwell and Wesley Johnson. Minnesota? Wizards were up 7 in the fourth and let the Timberwolves end the game on a 25-13 run. Now they seem bad, right? Sure, the loss in Utah probably was going to be a loss anyway but the team quit before it even started playing. All told this year, the Wizards lost at least one game to 8 of the 10 worst teams in the NBA.

3. Poorly Constructed Roster
In an age of small ball, multiple shooters to space the floor and athletic wings who can play multiple positions on offense and defense, the Wizards have stayed traditional. It paid off this year in the form of the eight seed in the East. Stretch four? Maybe. Stretch five? The Wizards entered the season with $35 million committed to three mostly traditional non-stretch five centers. The exited it with five point guards and just one shooting guard on the roster. Cool. Who does this?

Other roster blunders? No draft picks the last two years and no undrafted rookies means no cheap labor with huge upside. Jodie Meeks contributed minimally this year but fortunately for him he has a player option next year worth more than $3 million. Guess who's picking up his player option next year? Well, yes, Jason Smith too, who's got one for almost $5.5 million. Jodie Meeks and Jason Smith aren't making almost $9 million combined anywhere on their own. Fortunately for them, they don't have to look for jobs next year. On the flip side, Mike Scott was a great free agent pickup this past offseason. Unfortunately for the Wizards, he has no contract for next year which likely means he's gone. Unfortunately for Wizards fans, the guy who created this whole mess won't.

4. Nobody Cares
Yep, I know I already said this. By nobody here, I mean primarily the players and the owner, although considering the job that's been done this year and in the past couple of years by everyone in between, it's not a huge leap of faith to understand how much those folks care also.

As a player, how much can you care if you lose to the Phoenix Suns, Dallas Mavericks and New York Knicks (minus Kristaps Porzingis) at home? How much can you care if after losing to the first two of those teams you declare that you still feel your team is still the best in the Eastern Conference? How much can you care if you keep making the same mistakes over and over and over again and after each game describe how you have to fix your mistakes? How much can you care if you lose at home to the Atlanta Hawks missing their two best players when you really need a win to save playoff seeding? Or you lose to the Orlando Magic in the last game of the season when they deliberately sit their starters in the fourth quarter? No Wizards player said they don't care this season; they didn't have to.

After a disappointing season, I would expect the captain of the ship, the owner, to offer some words to season ticket holders about how this year's performance was not good enough, that he and the rest of management haven't done enough to put a successful team in place and that changes will be made if required to get this team pointed in the right direction. We didn't get that. Instead we got "our team showed this year we have the pieces to make [a championship] happen" and "we have a lot to be proud of." We do? What's that? An eight seed, one Division Title the previous season and a first round exit?

Leonsis then goes on the crow about how good the TV ratings were, noting game 5 of the Raptors series was the highest rated game in 10 years. I get it now. He cares. Ratings=money. I guess as long as ratings are good, we can declare a success.

But the biggest indicator of how much ownership doesn't care might be the tweet above. I can't believe Ted is telling Wizards fans (because that tweet addresses all Wizards fans whether he likes it or not) that he's not concerned about the team's struggles or future. 

I'm telling you...nobody cares.

5. The Salary Cap Situation
I've been a staunch defender of Ernie Grunfeld as the President of Basketball Operations for the Wizards over the years. But if there's one glaring unforgivable blunder, it's the salary cap situation the Wizards are in right now.

Here's the backstory. In an effort to rebuild the team around John Wall, the Wizards go young and cheap and manage to clear the books of a ton of salary for the 2016 offseason so they can sign a marquee free agent to a maximum deal. It's a plan they have spent years working out and it works out. They actually clear enough salary cap space to make a huge splash in free agency. 

One of the first rules of planning is that if something changes to subvert your plan, change the plan in a forward thinking way. Two things went wrong for the Wizards in 2016. First, there are really no marquee free agents outside of Kevin Durant, who's already said before free agency starts that he's not even going to consider Washington. Second, a new television contract kicks in, the salary cap skyrockets and tons and tons of teams have enough cap room to offer maximum contracts to free agents. How Wizards management didn't find out this was going to happen before it happened is beyond me. Isn't this the sort of stuff yu pay people to know? Whatever.

So what do the Wizards do to change their plan? Nothing. They strike out swinging on the next two free agents after Durant (Al Horford and Nicolas Batum if you must know) and then spend all their money on third tier guys for long term deals. The haul? Zero starters, including one guy (Andrew Nicholson) who's not even in the NBA any more. Know what the Wizards roster is going to look like next season? Pretty much the exact same as the eighth place team in the East this year. Know why? Because they are over the cap and the players they signed in 2016 are still on the team. It's like the Wizards didn't understand anything about the salary cap, which might actually be true.

For his efforts here, Ernie Grunfeld received a two year extension, presumably on the premise that the Wizards at the start of this season were now the best team in the East, which as we well know by now wasn't ever true. The Wizards are pretty much boxed into having to trade someone this summer with some legitimate upside. I hope Ernie realizes this.

6. Scott Brooks
When he was hired as the Wizards head man, most folks saw Scott Brooks as a huge upgrade over his predecessor, Randy Wittman. I mourned in my own way the departure of Randy Wittman. I appreciated Randy's straightforwardness and his ability to get the Wizards to play defense like they hadn't played in years, putting two teams into the top 10 of the NBA in defensive efficiency. While I hated to see the Wizards let the coach with the highest playoff winning percentage in team history leave, I also understood there was only so far Randy was going to get us.

Who thinks Brooks is taking us further? I'm serious. Ignoring the fact that Randy got the Wizards into the second round of the playoffs twice and Scottie's only done it once, what gives us hope that Brooks has this coaching thing solved? The team is still prone to inefficient and ineffective late game offense when Bradley Beal or John Wall dribble the ball for 16 of the 24 seconds on the shot clock. Both Beal and Wall play a ton of minutes. He refuses to make changes to his starting lineup (or any rotations really) when things aren't going well. He's shown a reluctance to play younger players, preferring to get predictable results with little upside rather than taking a chance and finding a gem. And the team is no longer the defensive juggernaut they were under Randy Wittman.

Still think I'm delusional about this subject? Tell me Randy was working with a better lineup than Brooks. You can't. Also Brooks is making about 3-4 times what Randy was making in his last year. You ought to get what you pay for. It's pretty clear in some games, particularly late in games, that Brooks is a step slow. I don't know what he can do to get some help this offseason, but he needs to find a way. I'm not advocating going back to Randy Wittman as coach but look, something  has to change about Brooks' approach to the game. Different assistants maybe?

I stubbornly maintain that Randy Wittman is my favorite Wizards coach of all time. Brooks was on his way to passing Randy until this year. He's now got work to do.

7. Otto Porter
If there are folks out there dying to tell us how great Otto Porter is as a basketball player (and there are), they point to how efficient he is as a player. Efficient game. Efficient defender. Efficient shooter from two (50%), downtown (44%) and the charity stripe (83%). Third on the team in points per game, second on the team in rebounds per game, first on the team in steals per game, second on the team in Player Efficiency Rating (PER). Efficient, efficient, efficient.

Know why Otto's so efficient? Because if there's a shot he doesn't like, he generally doesn't take it. He engages correctly when the time is right which is awesome. I'd love a team full of Otto Porters. The problem? Otto Porter is the highest paid player on the team. He has to take more risks, drop that efficiency and have a greater effect on the game. During the playoffs, he slipped to the fourth leading scorer behind Mike Scott. I get that Wall and Beal are going to get their shots but 8 shots per game during the playoffs for the man making more than anyone else on the team don't cut it.

8. Free Agents
Two years ago, Al Horford chose the Boston Celtics over the Washington Wizards. He blamed it on the fans. Yes, the fans. Like the Wizards fans. Yep, you and me. I think there's something else going on.

Two years ago, the same summer that Al Horford signed a max contract in Boston and the Wizards answered with millions and millions for Ian Mahinmi, Andrew Nicholson and Jason Smith, the Philadelphia 76ers had just finished a season in which they won just 10 games. This year they won 52 games, a mark that the Wizards haven't hit since 1979. 

What does that have to do with free agency? Well, in the scrap pile that is buyout season in the NBA, the Sixers, winners of just 10 games two years ago, picked up Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova, two legitimate rotation players. The Wizards got Ramon Sessions. Now I'm not knocking Sessions. He filled in nicely as Tomas Satoransky's backup. But it's telling that when John Wall came back from injury that Sessions couldn't even get in a game. And after the Wizards signed Ty Lawson before the playoffs, Ramon couldn't even get dressed for some games. Yes, the same Ty Lawson who couldn't get an NBA contract before the season started. Why can Philly sign quality free agents mid-season and the Wizards can't?

I'm thinking Horford choosing Boston had more to do with confidence in this team's direction than the fans. Call me crazy. I'm also thinking the Wizards have zero chance of attracting a ring chasing veteran that's got some life left this offseason. Call me crazy there too if you must.

9. John Wall
I hate to say anything negative about John Wall. He's my favorite Wizards player of all time and the Wizards best player of all time (Wizards, not Bullets, folks). But we can all improve, right? 

If I had two wishes for John Wall this offseason it would be this. First, live up to the challenge Kobe Bryant gave him (and which he accepted) to make NBA All-Defensive First Team. I get that the knee injuries probably held him back this year from being all he could be on the defensive end but we need more. John could be a serious defensive stopper in this league. He's got all the physical tools and is one of the best shot blockers in the league. All it takes from here on out is effort. No more letting guys go by and trying to poke the ball away from behind. When it works, it's great; when it doesn't, you just let your man go right by you forcing someone else to rotate or just allowing an easy bucket.

Second, get some ball skills coaching. I've seen a number of Wizards bloggers imploring John to get together with Drew Hanlen who's worked with both Bradley Beal and Kelly Oubre to improve their skills. Last summer, John embarked on a barnstorming tour of closed gyms visiting and working out with other NBA superstars. John is one of the scariest point guards for opponents to defend. Imagine him with an improved handle. If there's one thing that drives me nuts about John's game (other than the matador defense cited above), it's the bad turnover. Some folks have told me you can't have an aggressive John Wall without them. Why not?

10. Two Way Contracts
This fall, the Wizards will finally field a G League (formerly NBDL or D-League) team. When they do, they will become the 27th franchise to do so. Not the last of adopters, but awfully late, right?

Over the past few years, I've waited for this to happen and watched player after player be shipped off to who knows where to play with other teams' systems and develop not much at all. Or at least not in a way that would benefit the Wizards. Maybe next year will be different.

Of course I thought that about our two way contracts this year. In case you missed it, this was the first year the NBA allowed two way contracts. What does that mean? A player signed under a two way contract spends the majority of his time in the G League but is able to be called up to the NBA level by one team and one team only. It's a way teams can identify developing talent relatively inexpensively which could help them in the future. 

In the past, the Wizards have treated the G League like an obligation and not a benefit. They have engaged in the most minimal ways and predictably, they have reaped pretty much zero benefit. I was shocked when the team was a relatively early adopter of the two way contracts, locking up their maximum two shortly after the draft. But my mid-season Michael Young was gone and it took until game 82 for Devin Robinson to get in a game.

Will it change when the team has a G League team of their own? There are no indicators that it will. But the Wizards have to change here. It seems organizational from top to bottom.

11. Season Ticket Costs
I know I've ranted plenty about this subject in the last few months but I have to bring it up again. Considering everything I've written about in this post so far, do we really think the Wizards deserve to raise ticket prices by up to 20%? What are they selling, exactly? Unless something serious changes this summer, we've gone in one year from a team in the top two or three in the Eastern Conference to a team that has been passed by Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Indiana with younger rosters with more upside and more cap flexibility.

I get that Wizards tickets can sell better now than five years ago. I get that John Wall and Bradley Beal form a backcourt duo that people are willing to pay to see. But if they don't win it won't last long. People will become bored and lose interest in the same old Wizards. The best way to get fans in seats in my opinion is to build loyalty and a can't miss experience for season ticket holders. To me, that means a more competitive team and cheaper tickets that can't be re-sold. I floated this idea before on this blog and I'm still all in on this concept.

Charging me 20% more next year is close to criminal. But as I've already said, nobody cares.

12. Missed Opportunity
This is my last point on this post. If there was a year, however improbable it might seem, that the Wizards might have made a run at the NBA Finals, it was this one. Now, keep in mind, I'm not saying win the NBA Championship. I said NBA Finals and that's probably it. Think about it, at the beginning of the season it seemed like Cleveland this year was not the lock they have been in the past few years to come out of the East; Boston after major trades may have needed a couple of years to gel; and nipping at the heels of the top teams in the East (which presumably at the beginning year included the Wiz) were the maybe-really-good-in-the-future-but-not-ready-this-year Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks. It seemed like the Wizards if they were really serious could have sneaked in there.

Now, I get that with the Eastern Conference Finals about to tip off this weekend and both Cleveland and Boston looking like there's no way the Wizards could beat them that things don't look quite like I described them in the paragraph above. But what if the Wizards had really made a serious run from the beginning. Yes, John Wall's injury derailed some things but the team was losing to Phoenix and Dallas and Brooklyn (twice) before Wall went down. Flip 13 of those 17 bad losses I've listed above and the Wiz are in second place.

Too rosy an evaluation? Maybe. What I've written above still wouldn't have overcome the poorly constructed roster and the fact that free agents don't want to sign in Washington and John Wall's injury. But we'll also never know because of the overconfident, don't care way the team including the coaching staff went about this year. These opportunities don't come along that often. Look at the next two years for the Wizards: they are stuck with the same general manager who got them into this mess with the same coach who has struggled with late game execution with the same lineup that's a year older (which is a bad thing in some spots) and no ability to sign free agents for any kind of salary. How was last year not the golden opportunity? The Wizards are faced with a situation where they are going to have to do something different to fundamentally avoid repeating the same mistakes and they have shown no tendency to do that in the past.

Maybe I'm being too harsh but to me the plan that Ted and Ernie came up with a few years ago has failed. What now? You're putting the hopes of fans in the care of the same people and expecting different results. It's a measure of how despondent I as a fan feel that I could come up with 12 things that I don't like about the current situation. I could have kept going. At one point I had 14 but just felt that would make too long a post. This situation needs some serious help. It's on everyone in the organization. Prove to the fans that you are charging more money next year to watch this mess that you care.

Sam Cassell feeling the mood of Wizards fans. Although the Wiz did win this game.

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