During Barack Obama’s first term in the mansion a mile west of Verizon Center, the resident NBA team inspired about as many negative comments and as much eye-rolling as Congress did.
After all, the Wizards were a ghastly 88-222 from Inauguration Day 2009 until Inauguration Day 2013. Washington changed coaches twice as well as the entire roster.
While the Wizards failed again to top .500 this season when their comeback against visiting Boston fell a basket short in overtime on Wednesday night, they’re still a respectable 41-44 during President Obama’s second term. Since a 2-7 start this year, Washington is 18-14, 16-11 against the rest of the weak sister Eastern Conference.
The Wizards are in sixth place in the East in coach Randy Wittman’s second full season, three games ahead of ninth-place Detroit — and seem headed towards their first playoff appearance since George W. Bush’s final spring as President. They’ve whipped two-time defending NBA champion Miami and beaten former nemesis Detroit and 2013 playoff qualifiers Chicago, New York and Brooklyn twice apiece.
After the 114-97 conquest of the Heat 10 days ago, shooting guard Bradley Beal said, “that was the best ball we’ve played all year.” All year? Probably since before the 20-year-old Beal could drive.
“Last year we panicked a lot,” Beal said. “This year we are way more poised, we get a lot more stops down the stretch on defense, and we execute on offense as well.”
Washington led 43-18 after the first quarter — during which it shot .773 from the field — and by as many as 34 points in the second quarter. This after losing four straight at home and five of seven overall.
“It’s easy to get up for these games,” sweet-shooting sixth man Martell Webster said after the triumph over Miami. “When the teams below .500 come in here and if we’re able to have that [same] intensity and sense of urgency, then we’ll be a scary team in the East.”
Webster was thinking about earlier losses on F Street to the likes of lowly Cleveland, Milwaukee and Philadelphia. And now they’ve also lost to former power Boston, which had lost 11 of 12 coming into Verizon. Washington’s 61-43 halftime deficit drove Wittman nuts.
“We came out as individuals,” he lamented. “We dribbled the ball all over the place and then when we did pass it, it was to a guy with two seconds on the shot clock behind the three point line. We’re not good enough for that. Then we come out in the second half and play … the right way. … They throw in a couple shots in at the end and our guys will say, ‘That’s what beat us,’ but that isn’t what beat us. Until we get over that hump of looking at games and saying [to ourselves], ‘I’m going to get mine tonight,’ we’re going to fluctuate up and down.”
Washington ranks just 18th out of the 30 teams in scoring, but is 12th in points allowed per game.
“When we play defense first it makes our game a lot better,” said point guard John Wall.
All five starters – Beal, Wall, power forward Nene, small forward Trevor Ariza and center Marcin Gortat (acquired from Phoenix on the eve of the opener) — are averaging in double figures as is Webster. Bruising Trevor Booker has filled in well when Nene’s fragile body has kept him in street clothes. Even long-standing disappointing big men Jan Vesely and Kevin Seraphin have had their moments.
“They’re a tough team to match up with,” coach Tom Thibodeau said after his Bulls lost 96-93 at Verizon last Thursday. “You have the issue of Wall with his speed. … Webster really hurt us. Ariza is one of the guys that just gets out there and does his job.”
While Beal received an invite to Team USA’s training camp next summer, Wall has been Washington’s catalyst, finally blossoming into the player he was expected to be as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 draft. People forget that if Wall hadn’t left Kentucky after his freshman year that this would be his rookie season At 23, he’s leading the Wizards with career-highs of 20.2 points (tied for fifth in the East), 8.5 assists (first) and 1.9 steals (second) per game. Wall is also shooting (.454 from inside the arc, .318 from beyond) more accurately than ever. He should certainly be chosen for next month’s All Star Game.
“When he gets that jump shot going … he’s almost unstoppable to guard and in transition he’s as good as they come,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. “And [he] makes everybody better because he gets that ball in small spaces quickly and fluidly and consistently.”
But now comes the season’s extended major test. Wall and Co. play all but one of their 11 games through Feb. 9 against teams from the Western Conference against whom they’re just 3-9. If the Wizards survive this brutal stretch still healthy and in postseason position, the final 30 games could be more about who they’ll face in the first round of the playoffs, not whether they’ll make it for the first time since 2008.
“I respect the route that they [have taken and] that they’re progressing to,” said coach Brett Brown after his 76ers lost to the Wizards 107-99 on Monday. “They’ve been playing really good basketball. Randy does a hell of a job with them and John Wall’s growing into a really elite player. So to come in here and almost be in a position [to win] you leave with your head high.”
Imagine a visiting coach saying that after a loss at Verizon during the previous five years.
Realistically, Washington can’t win a series from Miami or league-leading Indiana which has pounded the guys from the nation’s capital twice. But at midseason, no one else in the East is clearly better than the Wizards, which is an accomplishment in itself.
Nearly six months ago, when the defending National League East champion Nationals trailed Atlanta by just 8-1/2 games and the Redskins and Capitals were both also coming off division titles, people snickered when I boldly declared that the Wizards were going to be Washington’s only playoff team.
The Nats needed a 15-7 closing tear just to finish 10 games out. The Redskins had their worst season since 1994 even though Robert Griffin III remained in one piece. And the Caps have gone 3-9-3 in their last 15 games to sink into 13th place in the Eastern Conference.
So who’s laughing about the Wizards and my prediction now?
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.