WASHINGTON — Washington, depending on who is in power, has been known for infighting, people bemoaning failure despite lofty expectations, and bursts of optimism punctuating bouts of apathy.
But enough about the old Washington Wizards. Let’s talk about the new ones.
The Wizards, at 11-6, are among the best teams in the N.B.A.’s Eastern Conference. But recent trends say they shouldn’t be. They have only one perennial All-Star — Bradley Beal, who is having an underwhelming season. Their most productive player, Montrezl Harrell, has been coming off the bench. Multiple starters (Thomas Bryant and Rui Hachimura) haven’t played yet. They have a first-time head coach in Wes Unseld Jr. More than half of the players are in their first season with the team.
Oh, and there’s one other thing, as Harrell said after a practice this week: “We’re the Washington Wizards, brother. We don’t get any respect.”
The Wizards are coming off three straight losing seasons, and they haven’t reached a conference finals since Jimmy Carter was in the White House and Unseld’s father was on the team. Perhaps the current success is worthy of celebration, but the universe has a way of restoring proper basketball balance. On cue, the Wizards are hitting some bumps, having lost three of their last four.
“It’s November, you know what I’m saying?” said Kyle Kuzma, a starting forward and one of nine new players. “There’s been plenty of teams that start off hot and fizzle out.”
But there’s some reason for tempered optimism. The last time the Wizards started this well was in 2014-15, when they finished 46-36 and lost in the second round of the playoffs to an Atlanta Hawks team starting four All-Stars. That Wizards team was led by the dynamic backcourt of Beal and John Wall.
Now, the Wizards are opting for a less top-down approach. Tommy Sheppard, the general manager who was recently promoted to team president, overhauled the roster in the summer, adding depth and defense on the wings by swapping Russell Westbrook for a package of picks and players in a five-team trade. Westbrook, the N.B.A.’s 2017 most valuable player, had been Washington’s second-leading scorer, behind Beal.
“When you have a vision in the summer, and you see it start to come together, it’s very gratifying,” Sheppard said. “But at the same time, you’re always very cautious. Don’t get too high or too low at any point of the season.”
The Wizards are winning by riding a staunch defense — on pace to be one of the best in the N.B.A. — and their new players, like Harrell, Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, all of whom were acquired from the Los Angeles Lakers in the Westbrook trade. It was a gamble on both ends: The Wizards, who are trying to persuade Beal to sign a new long-term deal, moved out a bona fide star in Westbrook, while the Lakers gave up multiple role players, two of whom had helped them win a championship.
“I knew it was time to go,” Kuzma said, adding: “When you think about it, you got traded for a Hall of Famer. Anytime an organization can trade for a Hall of Fame-type of player, you kind of have to do it, especially when you’re the Laker brand and you’re all about stars.”
The early returns: The Lakers have slumped, coming out of the gate at 9-10 and often seeming as if they could use the exact type of players they gave up in the trade. Not that Kuzma or Harrell, at least outwardly, take any pride in that. They’ve opted for magnanimity instead of early gloating.
“It’s not about that,” Harrell said. “It’s a long, long season. Like I tell people all the time, we’re just trying to stack good days upon each other, man.”
He continued with what seemed to be the Wizards’ tagline: “Never get too high. Never get too low.”
Harrell, in his seventh season, is known for ferocious dunks, and he succeeds as a big man despite being shorter than most other centers and forwards. He makes his living around the rim and doesn’t shoot 3-pointers. In the summer of 2020, he surprised many by taking less money to sign with the Lakers, who had just won a championship, than what he most likely could have gotten from other teams. Harrell couldn’t find his footing. His playing time was reduced over the season and he was out of the rotation in the playoffs, where the Lakers were eliminated in the first round. (Lakers Coach Frank Vogel attributed the minutes reduction to the signing of center Andre Drummond and not wanting to simultaneously play two big men who don’t shoot well.)
“I’m not a coach, but I went in and did my job,” Harrell said. “I went in and practiced like a pro and prepared like one. And when it came down to game time, it wasn’t in my calling, brother. It’s not up to me.”
Harrell’s production this season may end up indicting the Lakers. He’s averaging 17.5 points and 9 rebounds on 65.3 percent shooting, all on pace to be career highs. And he’s doing this mostly from off the bench while playing the most minutes of his career. By some metrics, Harrell hasn’t been just the best player on the Wizards, he has been among the most productive players in the N.B.A.
The season has felt, Harrell said, like a “weight being off my shoulders.”
If there’s anyone familiar with the trials and tribulations of basketball, it is Unseld, the Wizards’ rookie head coach. His father, Wes Unseld, played for the franchise from 1968, when it was known as the Baltimore Bullets, to his retirement in 1981. The elder Unseld won a Most Valuable Player Award, and is the among the most celebrated players in the team’s history. He also was the team’s head coach over seven seasons, and one of its front office executives for years. He died last year.
Asked what advice his father gave him about coaching, Unseld Jr. deadpanned, “‘Don’t do it.’”
“I saw the impact it had on him,” said Unseld, who was an N.B.A. assistant coach for 16 years. He added: “I think his competitive spirit and his approach was different than the players that he coached.”
Unseld said he’s trying to be more even-keeled.
“Maybe it’s my personality,” he said. “Maybe it’s my nature. I never get too high. I don’t ever want to get low. It doesn’t mean you’re devoid of emotion and you just don’t care, but try to put things in perspective.”
What is clear is that the franchise still orbits around Beal. This is the 28-year-old Beal’s 10th season with Washington, which drafted him third overall in 2012. A three-time All-Star, he can become a free agent this summer, in an era of player-engineered superteams. Sheppard said that the Wizards are committed to persuading Beal to stay and that the recent roster overhaul was part of that effort.
“He’s been a huge catalyst for everything that we’ve done and a big supporter,” Sheppard said, adding, “Our full intention is to have Bradley Beal and build around Bradley Beal.”
This season, Beal has received more attention for matters off the court. At the start of training camp, Beal told reporters that he had not been vaccinated against Covid-19 and cast himself as a vaccine skeptic. The disclosure was jarring, given that Beal missed the Summer Olympics in Tokyo after testing positive for the coronavirus, and because so many Wizards tested positive last season that they did not have enough players to compete for nearly two weeks.
Suddenly, Beal became a cause célèbre for conservatives in the United States who have spread vaccine misinformation and resisted mandates, like Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas. Beal later said that he would still consider receiving the vaccine and that he didn’t want Cruz’s support. Sheppard said that he respected Beal’s decision and that vaccination was “personal space, and I don’t invade that.” Unseld said he is not worried about Beal’s choice because he can’t control it.
Yet with cases once again rising in the United States, the Wizards could be without Beal, their leading scorer despite his struggles, if he contracts the virus or is put in the league’s health and safety protocols.
In the meantime, Beal has deflected questions about whether he’ll stay with the Wizards long-term, but he did offer one encouraging sign for Sheppard going forward. Before the season, Beal told The Washington Post: “My biggest thing is getting us off going to a good start.”
That box is checked. Now comes the harder part: staying successful.
“We have a good coach, a new system, almost a whole new team,” Beal told reporters on Sunday. “Everything is different. Everything is going to feel a little bit different or new, but that in a positive way.”