WASHINGTON — For many Washington basketball fans, especially those below the age of 40, it doesn’t get much better than the mid-aughts.
The Wizards went just 45-37 in the 2004-05 season, which, until the 2014-15 team won 46 games, marked the best season in franchise history since the 1970s. That season marked the first of four seasons in a row that the Wizards, spearheaded by Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler, won at least 41 games.
However, Washington never made it past the conference semifinals in that stretch. It was swept by the Miami Heat in the second round in 2005, then LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers eliminated the Wizards in the first round three times in a row, winning 12 games to Washington’s four in that time.
After that fourth season, the Wizards imploded. Injuries and off-the-court issues decimated the team, and a 43-win season was followed by five consecutive seasons of fewer than 30 wins.
Most franchises wouldn’t regard a four-year stretch featuring a 171-157 record as the “best of times,” but such is life with Washington basketball. In 55 seasons, Washington has five seasons of 50 or more wins and 17 seasons of 30 or fewer wins. The franchise has just 12 seasons of at least .500 ball since 1979.
Despite the relatively moderate success, Jamison thinks the team was better than the record and results suggest. Speaking with The Sports Junkies on 106.7 The Fan on Thursday, the 16-year veteran said those teams in the mid-aughts were good enough to contend for a championship, they just hurt themselves off the court.
“Did you think you had a team that was a championship contender when Gil was going, and you were going, and Caron,” host John-Paul Flaim asked Jamison. “Did you think that could be a championship team?”
“Of course,” Jamison said. “I think that was a team that had three guys that could compete, could take over at any given time on the court. We had some young pieces, as well, we had a decent bench. Our biggest problem, of course, was off-the-court issues. It’s kind of frustrating when — I’m done playing, I can go back and think about everything, and just like, we never got the opportunity to see what type of team or how deep or how good we really were because of off-the-court issues. And it’s frustrating that Ernie [Grunfeld] and Tommy Sheppard and those guys had to break it up because it wasn’t just all about basketball. Guys got along, guys depended on each other, guys enjoyed playing with each other. Whether it was egos involved or stuff happening off the court, we just never really got to see what type of potential [we had] or could we really be that contending team. But if you sit here and ask me, did we have the talent to be a contender, I would say yes. But once again, it takes more than talent to compete. Sacrifice, dedication — those teams didn’t have that as a team, as a unit, to be able to reach our potential.”
Those teams featured, in addition to Arenas, Jamison and Butler, notorious “knuckleheads” — as they came to be frequently referred to as — Nick Young, Javale McGee, Andray Blatche, Jordan Crawford and DeShawn Stevenson.
Jamison was diplomatic, but he admitted the difficulty in dealing with some of the personalities on the team.
“Whether it was [Arenas], or Blatche, or Nick Young, or McGee, you know, for some reason we could never just gel and put all our egos aside and just really concentrate on really competing and being that type of team and trying to bring a championship to D.C.”
Nonetheless, Jamison said Arenas was the key to the Wizards’ success, limited as it was.
“Every team needs a guy like Gilbert Arenas,” Jamison said. “And when I say that, [I mean] you need a guy who has the talent like Gil. You look at the Cleveland team, you have a LeBron James, or you have, with Golden State, a Klay Thompson or a Stephen Curry. He was that guy, talent-wise. I think the problem was, he was that guy talent-wise and also, you need a guy with a personality like Gil’s, as well. I think the problem we ran into is he was both for us. I was fortunate enough to be able to have his ear, to be able to be like, ‘Gil, let’s stay focused.’ One thing I will say, when it came to playing the game of basketball, when it came to practice and when we were on that court, you didn’t have to worry about Gilbert Arenas at all, giving it his all or sacrificing for the sake of the team, or anything like that. First and foremost, the guy competed like no other player. I played with LeBron — other than Kobe, out of all the guys I played with, Gilbert Arenas’ work ethic was second to none. The guy used to come in at four or five o’clock in the morning after a tough loss, in the gym, getting up shots. He loved the game of basketball. I think toward the end of his career, he hurt his knee, he kind of knew he wasn’t going to get back to 100 percent, or he knew that something wasn’t just right, that’s when you start to see everything go, y’know, times 10.”
The full interview, which features a great deal of talk about Arenas and the Wizards of a decade ago, is posted below.