John Wall, in shutting himself down for the season with a heel injury, is technically putting the Washington Wizards out of their misery, but that’s a this-year-only thing. His new contract (four years, $169 million) hasn’t kicked in yet, and that’s going to be a source of despair for some time. The Wiz are, if definitely not the worst team in the NBA, aggressively competing with the Chicago Bulls for the title of most dispiriting. Without Wall—who despite being a liability in certain respects and demonstrably not a franchise player, at least lent his squad some scant legitimacy—Washington’s playoff hopes are thoroughly cooked. And they are not, like Orlando or Phoenix, a lousy young team that’s a little bit interesting on the basis that they’re still figuring stuff out. No, they’re fascinating in a painful way, and as the calendar turns over into 2019, that’s not something we want to make time for. It’s already mid-winter; there’s no need to make yourself feel extra dismal by watching Washington sink like a stone for 12 minutes before flipping over to the Pacers game. Just start with the Pacers instead. Bojan “The Auteur” Bogdanovich is shooting 46 percent from three. You’ll be happier.
But extraordinarily busted teams are worthy of appreciation. They’re just hard to put up with over the course of a full season. So before we lower the 2018-19 Wizards into the ground and place a thick steel plate over the grave so nothing can ever emerge, let’s note what made them perversely special.
1. They’ve never stopped hating each other. It’s been a point of contention for a while now, argued by a certain blinkered subsect of Wizards fans, that the players get along just fine and their intrasquad blow-ups only receive more coverage than that of other teams because the franchise has to contend with the Washington press and a reputation for orneriness. That’s likely true, to an extent. LeBron’s second spell in Cleveland, for instance, came with a fair amount of grousing and grumbling that was amplified by daily national media coverage. Are the Cavs necessarily a happier organization without LeBron? Probably not, but we don’t hear about their dysfunction because LeBron is gone and many, many fewer people care about them these days.
With that said, the Wizards are, by any measure, a swollen reddened mess of egos and blame-shifting. They shipped out temperamental big man Marcin Gortat over the summer because his relationship with John Wall had completely soured. Bradley Beal and Wall clearly don’t like each other and aren’t a great on-court fit, which exacerbates the problem. In late November, there was a Royal Rumble-style practice tiff in which Wall yelled at Jeff Green and Scott Brooks, Beal denigrated GM Ernie Grunfeld while beefing with Austin Rivers, and Kelly Oubre cussed out Brooks. All of this happened in the midst of a three-game winning streak. That’s next-level toxicity. Oubre and Rivers have since been traded.
2. They have mastered the face-saving loss. Don’t get me wrong, the Wizards have gotten blown out plenty, but over the past month or so, they’ve specialized in the professional, pedestrian eight-point L. The specific style in which they pull this off is spectacular. They simply don’t try in the first half of most games. They stand around and scowl on both ends of the court. Beal does some stuff; the rest of the team basically doesn’t. They get down by double-digits and pretty much bury any hope of getting a win. Then, with the game gone late in the third quarter or early in the fourth, they start to function like an actual basketball team, moving the ball on offense, attempting to stay connected on defense, and because they’re not untalented, they widdle the opposition’s lead down to three or four. This is when they fall apart. Clank a few contested jumpers, blow a few assignments. Whatever. We don’t care. Buzzer sounds, another defeat in the books.
It’s profoundly discouraging and never, at any point, particularly fun to watch. It would be impressive if they were doing it on purpose. Anyway, a lot of those workaday losses on the Wizards’ schedule are blowouts in disguise. Their point differential should be worse, which is saying something, because it’s already negative-179 through 37 games.
3.Dwight Howard has barely been involved. I’m not touching the alleged story about Howard’s taste for transgender sex parties and his preacher friend harassing trans women associated with him. It’s too baroquely fraught to discuss at anything less than the length of a column I will never write. But the butt injury is funny. The fart joke lovingest player in NBA history coming down with an ailment out of an anarchic six-year-old’s short story is fitting enough to make the staunchest atheist believe that maybe there actually is a cosmic author up there, clickety-clacking away and amusing himself with comedy that walks the line between hack and sublimity.
We all saw disaster coming when Dwight joined an already messed up squad over the summer, but here’s the thing: he hasn’t contributed much in one direction or the other. His sore glute has limited him to just nine games, and he’s out for the foreseeable future after getting surgery to try to fix the issue. Maybe it’s because he’s been a peripheral figure or maybe it’s because he’s actually been a value-neutral teammate, but Wiz coaches and players aren’t anonymously complaining about him to the media like his colleagues in Atlanta and Charlotte did. Dwight has simply been a warm, frequently inactive body on the end of the bench, positing the question that, if you’re on the Wizards for any amount of time and don’t get into a shouting match with John Wall, do you you even exist?
Howard’s inert Washington tenure is, in its way, emblematic of what a conflagorous stinkshow the team has been this year. He’s not helping, but he’s not hurting either. Perhaps because he couldn’t possibly make things worse.