For the better part of the last decade, the Washington Wizards have been a walking NBA representation of Murphy's Law. From Gilbert Arenas and his guns, to the Andray Blatche/Javale McGee/Swaggy P chaos, the Wiz have offered fans and writers a unique concoction. As hopeless and unfocused as they were on the court, they were impossibly entertaining off of it.
The nadir of the franchise came in 2010, when Blatche and McGee, smack dab in the middle of another 60-loss season, started a brawl with each other at a Washington, D.C. nightclub just hours before they were supposed to play. For those familiar with D.C. nightlife at the time, the only surprising thing about this incident was that it made the national news. The Wizards were a mess in all areas with no hope in sight.
Flash forward to April 2014: The Wizards have the league's best young backcourt in John Wall and Bradley Beal, an international, physically punishing big man duo, and a crew of veteran role players that have made big play after big play. This crew, sparked by swingman Trevor Ariza on Sunday, has pushed the Chicago Bulls to the brink of elimination in the first round of the playoffs.
Sunday's 98-89 win, that wasn't as close as the score suggests, was a microcosm for Washington's success. Ariza, unheralded coming into the game, pumped in six threes and 30 points. Wall and Beal combined for 33, with only three turnovers between them. Most importantly, every time the Bulls made a run, the Wizards had an answer. The younger team played like the cocky big brother, toying with their opponent while remaining in control.
Head coach Randy Wittman attributed the team's emotional growth off the court as a major factor in their success. "In two-and-a-half years we've developed the intangibles that we've needed to get to this point," Wittman said. "There are certain ways to carry yourself. Being a professional. Doing things the right way off the court as well as on."
While the Wiz has made a substantial jump in the standings this year, winning 44 games after winning only 49 the previous two seasons combined, their 3-1 jump over the Bulls is surprising. Without Derrick Rose and Luol Deng, the Bulls have a significant talent disadvantage, but they are a gritty, playoff-tested group that thrives on adversity. Chicago and their maestro Tom Thibodeau make every possession on both ends a physical grind. In the past, it's this type of tough opponent that has destroyed Washington. When the going got tough, the Wizards would take their ball and run home. Not this year.
Taj Gibson, the one Bull who has exceeded expectations so far, was surprised and a bit stunned at the Wizards composure after the game Sunday. "They keep hitting us in the mouth first," Gibson said. "We're on our feet from the jump, in big holes early." Gibson, one of the league's most physical players, was visibly impressed with the resolve of the young Wizards team noting that "this doesn't feel like the same team we played earlier in the season."
It would be simplistic to attribute the Wizards stunning jump to an Eastern Conference contender as simply a result of increased maturity. Lots of great teams and players enjoy themselves off the court (see Jordan, Michael) and lots of bad teams have hard working professionals sprinkled throughout their rosters.
The Wizards have made a jump this year partly because Wall and Beal have turned into one of the league's great pairings, but more because they've become adept at overcoming adversity. In Games 1 and 2 they fought through double-digit deficits and severe foul trouble to win twice on the road. In Game 4, they were missing their Brazilian road-grader center Nene, and blitzed the Bulls from the jump, with a 14-0 start.
The Wizards have the physical edge in the series, but to get past a team like Chicago and a coach like Thibodeau, you need the mental edge as well. So far they have it. For those who've followed Washington basketball over the last decade, that's what's most surprising.