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Recent upset wins show Wizards are becoming the blue collar team they set out to be

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Recent upset wins show Wizards are becoming the blue collar team they set out to be

WASHINGTON -- "All this talk about they're the worst team in the league. Might be the hardest playing team in the league." - Jamal Murray after the Wizards' win over the Nuggets on Saturday.

"All their players played at a level much higher than we did. They were locked in, played hard, determined, focused, aggressive, and we were the complete opposite." - Nuggets coach Mike Malone

"They kicked our ass today... Just from the start of the game. You guys saw it out there. We just didn’t match their intensity." - Jaylen Brown after the Wizards' win over the Celtics on Monday.

It's one thing for the Wizards to say they want to be a hard-working, blue collar team, as they did for much of the summer, training camp and the preseason. It's another thing entirely when opponents say it, in these cases unprompted by a specific question.

The Wizards wanted to forge an identity this season as a scrappy, gritty, hard-nosed team that gives the type of consistent effort that can catch good teams by surprise. It took a few months, but that is exactly what they have become.

They have pulled off three major upsets all within a span of eight days. Last week, they took out the 26-10 Miami Heat, currently the third-best team in the East. On Saturday, they stunned the Denver Nuggets who at 25-11 are No. 2 in the West. And on Monday, they shocked the 25-9 Boston Celtics, the second-ranked team in the Eastern Conference.

All of a sudden, the Wizards are a team no one can take lightly. Do so at your own risk because they are adding more and more notches to their belt.

"I think that's a compliment when a player says this team plays hard," head coach Scott Brooks said. "The last thing you want is to be on a talented team that doesn't play hard. I've been on some of those and I've coached some of those."

Heck, if you gave Brooks some truth serum, he might tell you he coached one of those teams last season. And the season before.

How many times in the last two years did all of us complain about how the Wizards were underachieving, that they were overlooking teams? The players said it themselves. So did Brooks, so did chairman Ted Leonsis.

Now the Wizards are the team that punches up, that plays with an edge and catches their opponents off guard.

"We’re just trying to play hard, try to play smarter. We’re embodying who Coach Brooks is," point guard Ish Smith said. "Coach Brooks is a fighter and that’s who he was his whole career. I think we’re doing a great job of doing that these last few games.”

Taking on Brooks' identity; that sounds familiar. In fact, it's a variation of what general manager Tommy Sheppard prescribed in the offseason. He wanted to build a culture from the ground up and with Brooks molding their early development. He played 10 years in the NBA as an undersized point guard and he did it by being tough and working twice as hard as the next guy fighting for scrap minutes and roster spots.

What the Wizards have put on the floor in recent years wasn't Scott Brooks. This team, though, is starting to show the traits.

They have Gary Payton II, a 27-year-old journeyman, scratching and clawing to find a niche in the NBA. He's a physical perimeter defender and he sets an important tone at the front line.

Young guys like Isaac Bonga, Troy Brown Jr. and Garrison Mathews have infused the team with energy on both ends. And veterans like Smith, Ian Mahinmi, Jordan McRae and Isaiah Thomas have provided poise and play-making.

Smith mentioned Brooks' philosophy but also threw out another comparison that was made in the summer which until this point hadn't really come to life. 

"I thought Brooklyn had laid that [foundation] down," he said. “Brooklyn, I thought, did a great job of it last year. They’ve been doing a great job over the last two years – they haven’t had any true superstars, but now they do. They’ve just been playing hard and guys have emerged out of nowhere."

The Nets are a model for what the Wizards want to become in several ways. For one, they rose from the ashes of their fateful trade with the Celtics to become playoff contenders by finding piece after piece from relative obscurity. Smith mentioned Joe Harris and Spencer Dinwiddie. Jarrett Allen and Caris LeVert could be included as well.

Brooklyn had to overcome one of the biggest roster-building obstacles in NBA history by finding diamonds in the rough. With John Wall's supermax contract and Achilles injury, the Wizards will have to be creative themselves. So far, they are doing a solid job developing young players like Mathews, Thomas Bryant and Moe Wagner; guys who were overlooked by other teams and brought in as bargains.

But what the Nets also did that is a long-term goal for the Wizards is they build a culture that attracted free agents. They played hard and unselfish and guys like Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving took notice.

If the Wizards are to reach that point, it is still a long ways away. They would need cap room, good timing and the right player to come along. And Brooklyn made the playoffs last year. The Wizards are 12-24.

But for now, they can appreciate the fact they are starting to see the benefits from the groundwork they have laid.

"I feel like we all have a great group. We all care for each other and want to see each other do well," forward Troy Brown Jr. said. "Especially because we're really young, so at this point we have a lot of guys who are trying to make a name for themselves and are trying to develop in this league. So, we all care for each other and just want to see each other succeed. You can see that from the reactions on the bench."

The way you know a culture is being established is when the same positive traits are seen even when some pieces are missing. The Wizards continue to battle an array of injuries and on Monday were without seven players. They beat Miami, Denver and Boston all without All-Star Bradley Beal.

Brooks is having to piece together rotations that include guys like Payton II, who joined the team just weeks ago on a hardship exception. Yet, recently he has been getting results.

"We've had a lot of moving parts and it seems like the common denominator is we are playing hard at all times. Sometimes we may not have a lot of scoring options out there, but I can honestly say we have a lot of effort options out there. That's a good thing to have and that's what we want to build our program on," he said.

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5 biggest 2020 offseason questions for the Wizards, like will Davis Bertans re-sign?

5 biggest 2020 offseason questions for the Wizards, like will Davis Bertans re-sign?

Now that their 2019-20 season is finally over after nearly 10 full months, the Wizards' offseason is going to pick up very soon. The draft lottery is on Aug. 20, so just one week after their season finished.

The Wizards are entering one of the most important offseasons for them in recent memory. Here are the five biggest questions they will need to address...

Will Davis Bertans re-sign?

The No. 1 question for the Wizards this offseason centers around their most prominent free agent. Bertans enjoyed a breakout season in Washington after coming over in a trade from the Spurs last summer. But he is an unrestricted free agent and he won't be cheap, as he is now legitimately one of the best three-point shooters in the NBA. He can impact games dramatically despite barely touching the ball.

The WIzards made a bet that they could re-sign Bertans by not trading him at the deadline in February. Now it will be up to general manager Tommy Sheppard to seal the deal. The good news is that there is mutual interest. Bertans likes playing in Washington and is intrigued by the role he could play next season with John Wall and Bradley Beal back. Bertans could be a perfect complement to them and help supercharge the Wizards' offense into one of the very best in the NBA. Re-signing him is the top priority for the team this offseason, as NBC Sports Washington has reported, now they just have to get it done.

Will Scott Brooks be back?

This isn't really much of a question, barring something unforeseen. But it is worth addressing solely because Brooks only has one year left on his contract and that can often force decisions to be made with coaches. The overwhelmingly safe bet is for Brooks to enter the final year of his deal and for both sides to play it by ear. If they reach expectations next season, or exceed them, maybe he sticks around beyond 2020-21. If they don't, both sides can part without calling it a firing.

Back before the pandemic hit, like right when it hit, I was working on a story involving Brooks' contract where I interviewed his agent, Warren LeGarie. The world has changed quite a bit since then, but LeGarie made some interesting points at the time. One is that Brooks has been down this road before, coaching out the final year of a contract. He did that in Oklahoma City once. LeGarie, who has also represented Sheppard, called Brooks "re-energized" by the team's youth movement and "all-in" on their future. He said they would "be open" to continuing the partnership beyond next season if that's where things went. Basically, both sides seem ready to keep it rolling at least into next year and see what happens.

Who will they draft?

If they do re-sign Bertans, they will not have a ton of money left to spend in free agency thanks to the max deal for Beal and the supermax contract for Wall. That leaves trades and the draft as the best way for the team to make significant improvements to their roster. And because they missed the playoffs, the Wizards will have a high first round draft pick, which will give them a chance to add another blue chip young player on a cheap contract.

They have the ninth-best odds in the lottery, which gives them a high possibility of selecting in the top-10 and a 20.2 percent chance of picking in the top-four. If they pick around 10th, then it could be tough for that player to contribute right away, unless they find another Rui Hachimura-type, whom they got at No. 9 last summer. But if they move up closer to the top, they could land an instant impact player like Anthony Edwards of Georgia or James Wiseman of Memphis. Given his position, athleticism and shot-blocking ability, Wiseman seems like the obvious best fit for the team in a dream scenario. There are also some intriguing options like LaMelo Ball, Killian Hayes, Obi Toppin and Tyrese Haliburton who could be in the mix at the top.

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Who starts at forward?

The Wizards have some parts of their roster that are settled going into next year. We know what their backcourt will look like and, unless something shocking happens, we know Hachimura and Thomas Bryant will likely be in the frontcourt. Now, Troy Brown Jr. or Isaac Bonga or even Bertans could fill that fifth spot, but for several reasons it appears to be the most likely area they could find an upgrade.

Brown and Bonga are young players who could be best placed on the bench. Bertans also fits well there given his ability to change games as a microwave scorer and the defensive concerns you would have with him and the rest of the starting lineup. So, if the Wizards do want to use the rest of their money on a free agent, or target something significant in a trade, forward is the place to look. Whether that's a three or a four depends on how they view the short-term future of Hachimura. One name my colleague Chris Miller has thrown out there that makes a lot of sense is Jerami Grant of the Nuggets. He defends multiple positions and defense is a major need for the Wizards. His brother, Jerian, also happens to already be on the team.

Will they swing big or stay measured?

We know the timeline is going to speed up for the Wizards considerably this offseason with Wall coming back and Beal entering another year of his prime. They can't take the longview like they did a year ago. They want to win and that will dictate how they operate this offseason, which means veterans will likely be favored over young players to an extent. But to what extent, we don't know. What the Wizards have to balance is the possibility Wall and Beal do not work out once they reunite. And if things ever did go south, you wouldn't want to leave yourself in a position where you mortgaged the future and are left with nothing to show for it.

Also, when it comes to making win-now moves, there are different degrees of that. There is the method of putting together an experienced, playoffs-worthy bench. And then there is the method of thinking much bigger and trying to obtain another star on the level of Wall or Beal, or one that is even better. That, of course, is easier said than done, but the Wizards do have some options now with all the young players they have and the high draft pick they are set to receive. They have some trade assets to to work with. Stranger things have happened.

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Kendrick Perkins believes Giannis Antetokounmpo got star treatment in suspension for headbutt

Kendrick Perkins believes Giannis Antetokounmpo got star treatment in suspension for headbutt

Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo received a one-game suspension for his headbutt of Wizards forward Moe Wagner during the teams' matchup on Tuesday.

Though the suspension itself was not a true surprise, the length of the punishment was. For a move that could have seriously put another player in danger, Antetokounmpo was only forced to miss the final seeding game in Orlando, which did not matter for his team and many expected him not to play in anyways.

On ESPN's The Jump, ESPN senior writer Zach Lowe explained how he was not shocked by terms of the suspension, as it is on par for what the league has done in the past.

"I think the precedent is, one game is typical," Lowe said. "Giannis wasn’t playing this game anyway."

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Former NBA player and current ESPN analyst Kendrick Perkins had a very different opinion on the matter.

Stemming from the fact that Antetokounmpo wasn't even planning to play in the game he missed, Perkins viewed the treatment as a weak slap on the wrist by the NBA. He felt as if the star's reputation impacted the punishment and that it sets a bad example for the rest of the league.

"Yes, it was unfair. This is not MMA, this is basketball. You cannot be headbutting people," Perkins said. "Giannis got star treatment because anybody else would have at least got two-to-three games, right? One game suspension for headbutting somebody? This is professional basketball. I do not think it's fair. One game."

Perkins makes a reasonable point, as Antetokounmpo could have easily caused a lot of harm to either his head or Wagner's, and trauma to that area can have serious consequences. Still, it is interesting to see Perkins take that stance when one considers his past experiences in the NBA. Host Rachel Nichols recalled an incident with Tyreke Evans in 2015 in which Perkins appeared to headbutt Evans.

Perkins explained that was different, as he was not deliberately trying to headbutt him. If he had, he says the outcome would have been a lot different.

"My headbutt wasn’t, uh, I didn’t put that into it. We kinda just bumped heads," Perkins said. "You're talking about me and Tyreke Evans. I remember that because I was trying to protest that that wasn’t a headbutt, I didn’t deliberately throw a blow."

"If I woulda headbutted Tyreke I woulda knocked him out!" Perkins said. 

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