There isn’t a team in the league as quickly dismissed by NBA pundits as the Washington Wizards.
Critics snicker at the Wizards’ willingness to forego modern NBA sensibilities to chase the play-in tournament, and I understand why. They offered a supermax contract (with a no-trade clause!) to Bradley Beal in the offseason, essentially giving $251 million to an injury-prone guard about to turn 30 who may not be a top-30 player in the league today. Washington seems set to lock in forward Kyle Kuzma to a big payday in the offseason, retaining a core big three (Kuzma, Beal, and Kristaps Porzingis) that has never been able to drive this team toward a top-six seed, much less a playoff series win. The less said about Johnny Davis, their first-round pick this year, the better. The ‘Zards, as presently constructed, have no shot at a championship soon. Ownership doesn’t seem particularly motivated to go all-in or tank, the two most widely-accepted methods for building a contender.
But I come to praise the Wizards, not bury them. The “ringzzz” culture has done so much to ruin the night-to-night joy of basketball. If a team only measures success by a championship, the journey feels meaningless compared to the (almost certainly negative) outcome. That’s a sad, soulless way to view the sport.
Perversely, Washington has no expectations this year, and it’s turned them into one of the most enjoyable League Pass watches in the NBA.
I can hear your skepticism, but I’ll prove it. Let’s start by examining Kristaps Porzingis because, as my toddler niece will tell you, there’s nothing more fun than unicorns.
KP has become one of the most underrated stars in the NBA. The 7’3” standout has fallen out of the national spotlight in Washington, but he’s responded with arguably his best two-way season ever. Healthier than he’s been since his rookie year, Porzingis is setting career-highs in points, FG%, FTA, and steals per game. He’s equally capable of bombing from Damian Lillard range or squashing a smaller player in the post, and he regularly takes and makes outrageously difficult fadeaways from all over the court.
Defensively, however, is where Porzingis shines. He’s allowing a lower percentage at the rim than Rudy Gobert or Anthony Davis. He forces opponents to shoot 5.4% worse than expected overall when he’s the nearest defender, stauncher than Jaren Jackson Jr. or Jarrett Allen.
KP’s closeouts, or (sometimes) strategic lack thereof, have been an increasing source of amusement as the season has developed. He dabbled with the Kornet Kontest for a bit, and now he’s barely bothering to wave a dismissive hand at shooters he deems unworthy to challenge (focus on the giant in white at the free-throw line):
It’s rare when a basketball play literally makes me laugh out loud, but that gave me a good chuckle.
Another fun Wizards wrinkle: they have gone big in a league that still likes to play small. When paired with fellow big Daniel Gafford, KP plays a surprising amount of power forward. Lineups with the twin towers are blitzing the league by +9.4 points per 100 possessions, one of the best two-man lineups in the league. Both are excellent shot-blockers, and while neither Gafford nor KP is a particularly good defensive rebounder on their own, between the two, there are more than 14 feet of Wizard to corral misses. Gafford, in particular, crashes the offensive glass like a madman.
Porzingis’ ability to space the floor lets Gafford act as the primary pick-and-roll guy. Canning 74.5% of his attempts, Gafford would league the lead in FG% this year if he qualified for the leaderboard. He runs the floor hard in transition, and has an excellent catch radius — an important factor, given the sometimes scattershot passes his teammates toss his way. Who can forget this absurd Stretch Armstrong dunk from earlier this year?
Incredible. He couldn’t even see the ball when he caught it!
Speaking of outrageous, $251 million for Bradley Beal is undoubtedly a lot of moolah. He’s not worth that money (almost nobody is!), but the handwringing about the contract has overshadowed a very nice bounce-back campaign from the homegrown star.
Playing with more offensive talent than he has since the John Wall days, Beal has taken a voluntary step back on that end. Still, he’s averaging 23 points per game and doing so with remarkable efficiency. Beal is hitting 52% of his shots (nearly unheard of for a jumper-dependent shooting guard), by far a career-high. Moreover, he’s finishing 73% of his shot attempts at the rim — just a tick below fr34king Giannis Antetokounmpo.
The ball is in Beal’s hands less than ever, and he’s corresponded with a significant improvement in defensive activity. Beal had never been a great defensive player, but he’d become one of the worst in basketball over the last few seasons. This year, there’s been a noticeable improvement on that end, and most defensive metrics that previously hated him now grade him as an average-ish defender. As a fan, there’s nothing more frustrating than watching players not give their total effort on the court. That’s no longer an issue with Beal.
Kyle Kuzma is the biggest question on the Wizards’ roster. Kuz is about to be an unrestricted free agent and needs as much money as possible to continue his trend-setting ways. Fits like this don’t come cheap:
If you’re telling me you don’t find Kuzma’s outfits entertaining, check your pants. They’re on fire.
(Since we’re talking fits, I must stop and remind you that the Wizards have the single best jerseys in the league, bar none. Just see the header image.)
The fun train doesn’t end with the stars. Deni Avdija is a fascination in NBA nerd circles — a superb defender with a soft passing touch and shaky outside shot. He has shades of Draymond Green in his game (if the Wizards would stop using him as a 3-and-D player). One of the more adorable Wiz storylines has been the development of Deni’s NBA 2K-inspired nickname, “Turbo.”
Avdija even started doing a so-corny-it’s-awesome motorcycle-revving celebration after highlight plays. As I said, adorable.
If you’re not into cuteness, enter Delon Wright. A backup guard, Wright is a hellacious on-ball defender. The Wizards are 19-10 with Wright this season and 9-20 without him.
Wright doesn’t swipe for steals, as normal defenders do. Instead, he jabs at the ball like a middleweight boxer:
Delon’s likely the league leader in snagging the ball from opposing bigs who just grabbed a rebound and are looking for the outlet pass:
He handcuffed Luka Doncic and threw away the key on two straight sideline out-of-bounds plays to win a game against Dallas in January.
Wright missed a bunch of games with injury, but if he stays healthy down the stretch, he’s almost certain to make one of my All-Defensive teams.
Jordan Goodwin is a two-way player who almost certainly will earn a standard NBA contract shortly as another defensive-minded guard — and he’s shown a little shooting ability, too. The Wizards have a crowded guard rotation, but Goodwin deserves to be on the roster.
Kendrick Nunn, an afterthought from the Lakers in the Rui Hachimura trade, has rediscovered his shot in the nation’s capital. He’s hit 40% of his triples in 11 games with the Wizards, and he’s even showcased some surprising hops:
Corey Kispert, the #15 pick in last year’s draft, has come along on offense. He’s hitting nearly 42% of his triples and 60% of his two-pointers while flashing a far more versatile dribble-drive game than he had as a rookie. Corey’s still a sieve on defense, but he’s at least big (6’6”, 225 lbs). There’s hope he can become below-average enough on that end to keep him on the floor, where his shooting should have a multiplicative effect on the ‘Zards halfcourt offense.
OK, look, I know that’s not a list of sexy names (and we didn’t even mention Monte Morris — you have to be a special kind of fr34ky to talk assist-to-turnover ratios). Everyone on this team is about one role in the pecking order too high, and they have a lot of guys who will sometimes take head-scratching shots (looking at you, Kuzma! And not because of your newest jumpsuit).
So no, this team isn’t a championship contender. But they have something many teams lack: fun night-in and night-out players. The teammates seem to like each other, and they’re playing free without the pressure of expectations. Half the league will be bitterly disappointed with their season if they can’t make at least a second-round playoff series; the Wiz will be happy with a first-round berth.
Sometimes, muted expectations are the key to happiness. Without worrying about the destination, it’s so much easier to stop and smell the cherry blossoms.