The Wizards begin every home game with a gimmick called “Stand Until We Score”, where fans are encouraged to stay standing after the opening jump ball until the Wizards score. It is an attempt to engage fans with the game from the very beginning, but in practice it is an exercise in self-masochism. So far this year, the longest the fans have stood was for 2:32, against the Detroit Pistons. Fans that night saw the Wizards miss five shots and commit one turnover before Nene mercifully put back an offensive rebound. Every time I attend a Wizards game I wonder if this will be the night they open the game with a five minute scoring drought.
I wonder about this because Wizards offense is historically bad. If it doesn’t improve, it will go down as the eighth worst offense in the last 40 years. Nonetheless, a surprisingly large percentage of the crowd does indeed stand until the Wizards score. This is surprising not because the Wizards are so bad, but because it’s about the last time the crowd engages with the game until the prospect of free food in the fourth quarter.
Last night’s matchup against the Thunder should have drawn one of the best crowds of the year. The Wizards were playing against the best team in the league, featuring a couple of superstars, one of whom happened to grow up in Washington D.C. But until the last four minutes, the last four minutes in a game that the Wizards led for most of, it might as well have been played in a high school gymnasium.
Before the final, frantic, four minutes of the game, the loudest the crowd got was with 6:37 left in the fourth quarter, before Serge Ibaka stepped up to take his second free throw after missing the first. Did the fans sense that the Wizards eight point lead was under assault, and the team really needed another free throw miss? Nope, they’re the worst team in the league, what difference will a win or a loss make? The fans yelled because of another Wizards promotion, where if an opposing player misses both free throws the entire crowd wins a free Chick-Fil-A sandwich. I’m paying for lunch today, as Serge Ibaka made his second free throw.
The second loudest the crowd got was when Kevin Durant viciously crossed up Martell Webster. The third loudest it got was when the eight year old with neon shoes crossed up his head band wearing opponent during the half time youth game. For this debacle, a debacle in which the fans don’t get up for one of the most exciting games of the year, look to owner Ted Leonsis, for what to the fans really have to get excited about? Besides being on pace to win a meager 12 games, the season after winning (a lockout adjusted) only 25, the Wizards have the worst future prospects of any team in the NBA.
The ineptitude starts at the top. Ernie Grunfeld is one of the last of a dying breed: the General manager without a business or math background. Competing against GMs with MBAs or experience sorting massive amounts of data, it is no surprise that ex-players like Geoff Petrie, Joe Dumars, Rod Higgins and Grunfeld are some of the worst GMs in the league. Grunfeld has a bad draft record, has gotten the worse end of most trades, and presides over one of the few front offices without a single analytics employee. The Wizards are also only a few million dollars away from hitting next year’s luxury tax limit; they have no flexibility to sign players until the 2014-15 season.
Head coach Randy Wittman isn’t any more qualified. Wittman’s .280 winning percentage with the Wizards is right in line with his .326 winning percentage he carried into the Wizards job. It is no surprise that he hasn’t actually won a head coaching job in over ten years; his last two have only come about because of mid-season firings. Wittman has been fired by the Cavaliers, fired by the Timberwolves, and should have been fired by the Wizards after last season.
While not quite as barren as management, the talent level on the floor isn’t much higher. In two years of play point guard John Wall has shown flashes of brilliance, but his actual production hasn’t been anywhere near commensurate with what is expected of a number one pick. Rookie Bradley Beal could end up being a pretty good player, but he is already getting lapped by a host of fellow rookies. David Thrope has Beal at 12 in his latest rookie rankings (ESPN Insider), which sounds about right. After those two, who I think both have good player but not star potential, the only other player that could get minutes on a playoff team is the the Wizards’ thirty year old, injury prone center on a bad contract.
There are many bad teams in the NBA, but the Wizards are the only bad team without any hope. The Cavaliers have a bonafide superstar. The Hornets have a star (when he is healthy), a potential superstar, two nice rotation players and an up-and-coming coach. The Bobcats have a potential superstar, a very good player and an intriguing head coaching prospect. The Detroit Pistons have the Twin Towers 2.0. The Mavericks still have Dirk Nowitzki and an owner willing to do whatever it takes to win.
Last night’s buzzer beater by Bradley Beal will buouy the team’s spirits for a few days, but soon the dour Randy Wittman will return. And at some point this season, despite their general apathy, Wizards fans will boo. Maybe it will be because the team is losing by 40, or maybe because they will finally realize how insulting it is that A.J. Price is their starting point guard, but even apathy has a breaking point. When the media moralizers come pitchforks in hand to decry Wizards fans for turning on their team, kindly give them directions to Ted Leonsis’ courtside seats.
To paraphrase an underrated movie, a basketball team can make you feel dizzy, like you’ve been drinking Jack and Coke all morning. It can make you feel high full of the single greatest commodity known to man: promise. Promise of a better day. Promise of a greater hope. Promise of a new tomorrow.
Everywhere, it seems, except for Washington D.C.