At least for a few weeks this season, the Wizards appeared to be one of the best stories in the NBA.
They were 10-3 and played strong defense and had a ready willingness to do so. After trading Russell Westbrook to the Los Angeles Lakers over the summer in a massive five-team deal, they came out in the early days of the 2021-22 season with a deep rotation and appeared ready to prove any doubters wrong.
Then came a 14-26 run to the NBA trade deadline, an injury to their best player and a whole host of questions about where the franchise is headed.
The deadline has since come and gone, and the Wizards have moved out a few expensive contracts and brought back another in Kristaps Porzingis, ever hopeful that they’ll be able to tap into his talent when healthy. And, perhaps most importantly, they’ll look to keep everyone pointing in the same direction.
“We’re in February, so it doesn’t really pay to talk about November and December, but it’s the same team that started out 10-3 and all we heard about was how great the chemistry was,” team president and general manager Tommy Sheppard said Friday. “I think people deal with success a certain way, and sometimes success can have a success strain. Maybe we didn’t do as great a job managing success early.”
There were various comments about players having different agendas. Since-traded Spencer Dinwiddie commented that he spoke up earlier in the season, trying to be a leader, and it wasn’t necessarily welcomed by his teammates.
When Thomas Bryant and Rui Hachimura returned to the lineup, their presence didn’t make a deep team deeper, but rather presented lineup problems. There weren't enough minutes for everyone to play.
Sheppard said Washington's infamous Jan. 25 loss to the Clippers, when they blew a 35-point lead in a stunning home loss, felt like a turning point. But he also added their skid was due to a dip in their defensive play — another point to the team’s chemistry issues. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope noted just a week ago that the team needed better defensive communication and a true defensive communicator on the floor.
“We fell off defensively and that caused a lot of stuff,” Sheppard said. “I mentioned earlier that COVID was a big butt-kicker, losing players is tough, integrating two new players is tough. None of those are excuses, but you can kind of follow the trajectory of our defense. We lost seven games we really had no business losing. One thing we’re very good at is winning close games, to be in that position means you’re doing something.”
Sheppard did, however, remain hopeful about the future.
There were positive signs, he said, about the direction of the team before COVID-19 hit the roster and before the defense dropped off. And he’s hopeful that the new mix of talent, both for the end of the season and into next, will make for a better, more cohesive unit.
“I do know we were 15-11 and COVID hit this team, and we really have been struggling ever since then to get our legs back under us,” Sheppard said. “Just when we thought it was behind us, then [center Daniel Gafford] gets hit the other day. That’s not an excuse, but those are facts. We’ve missed a lot of players during that time.”