If you have the stomach for it, pick a night when the Washington Wizards have a game at the same time as another game between pretty much any two other NBA teams, even really shitty ones like the Phoenix Suns or New York Knicks, and spend some time toggling back and forth between the two every few minutes. The effect is jarring. The Wizards are bad, but they aren’t only bad. They’re engaged in some miserable activity categorically different from what’s happening in that other game. Whatever that activity is, they hate it, visibly and unmistakably, and you’ll hate it, and then you’ll hate them, too, but probably not as much as they hate each other.
I want to describe for you what a typical Wizards possession is like, this season, but I fear words won’t do it justice, and this is why I want you to just flip back and forth from their game to some other game. The thing with which you must be familiar is the constant background awareness you have, watching that other game, that all kinds of basketball stuff is happening, away from the ball, all the time. Even if you are not paying attention to that stuff, you are aware that it is happening; you’re registering, at some level, the whirl and churn of movement, of players—even shitty ones!—doing basketball stuff and competing very hard. Somebody is setting a screen, and somebody else is darting around it, and their defenders are calling out switches and fighting for position and moving their feet and trying to put their arms into possible passing lanes. In the far corner, someone is bouncing on the balls of his feet, waiting for his defender to look away so that he can cut along the baseline; that defender, too, is bouncing on the balls of his feet, swiveling his head this way and that, preparing for the moment when he will have to either dart toward the paint to provide help or dash back out to the corner to contest a shot, or one and then the other. Each player, offense or defense, is doing something; in some way, direct or not, he is engaged in the effort to win that possession, to make something good happen for the side he’s on. On the good teams those individual engagements will be linked together systematically, so that they facilitate each other, but even on the shitty teams, each guy is trying to accomplish something, while he is out there, and so there’s always lots of stuff going on.
None of that is true when you are watching the Wizards. It might take you a minute to register that what you’re seeing isn’t just the odd inert isolation possession but rather an entire poisoned way of being; it’s the only thing that links them together, in fact. When the action directly implicates an individual Wizard, at either end of the floor, he jolts to sluggish half-attention for a few seconds; when the ball moves away, he reverts to flat-footed stasis immediately, as though unplugged from a wall socket. The pattern holds as you pull farther back, too: Eventually, because they’re playing like this, the Wizards will fall behind by some grotesque number, as they’ve done in nearly every one of their games, and then every individual Wizard will rev to life, seemingly animated by shame and embarrassment. They still won’t come close to playing together in any meaningful, holistic sense, but each man will work hard on defense for a few minutes, and John Wall and Bradley Beal might team up for a few buckets. The deficit will shrink to some tolerable number, a normal, not attention-grabbing amount by which to lose. And then, vindicated, gotten off the hook, each Wizard individually will unplug again, happily passing along the rest of the mess to whoever subs in for him next. All of this happens in an eerie, toxic silence, and not just because the fans are bored. The Wizards aren’t talking to each other. Ever.
One difference between the two games, I have come to recognize (and one difference between the two teams in the Wizards game) is this: On the other teams, even the shitty ones, somebody feels that the results—of a possession, and of the game, and of the season—reflect on him personally. If his teams wins he will be a winner; if they lose he will be a loser. Ideally everyone feels that way, but even if it’s just, for example, LeBron James, and everybody else just wants to be on LeBron’s good side, that’s broadly enough to keep the Lakers playing recognizably competitive basketball night after night. LeBron feels accountable for the results, and everybody else feels accountable to LeBron, and that basically works. Somebody might fuck up; some member of the rotation might just not be good enough to avoid making shit worse every time he comes in the game; but everybody is at least lending their imperfect efforts to the same project.
Possibly somebody on the Wizards feels this way, or maybe nobody does, but what’s made screechingly apparent every time they take the court is that even if anybody does feel that way, whoever he is, he does not have the credibility to make anybody else give a shit. (Probably not unrelated: 10 of the 16 players currently under contract will be free agents next summer—hilariously, they still won’t have any significant space under the salary cap—in another anti-cohesion masterwork by the team’s intractable personnel honcho, Ernie Grunfeld.)
There are a bunch of teams with worse records than the Wizards’ 5-11 mark, but there are none half as poisoned, as visibly radioactive, as obviously in need of some kind of major change. They’ve had a solid run, or what counts as one for perhaps the NBA’s most pitiful franchise: A half-decade in which they routinely fell short of some of the most optimistic ideas of what they could accomplish, but made the playoffs four times, won three series, and at least provided a few fleeting moments when it seemed plausible they could do more. That’s fine; I’ll take it. But it sure looks like it’s all the way over.
ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported this morning that “the franchise has started to deliver teams an impression that every player on their roster ... is available for discussion in trade scenarios.” That’s fine as a message; as a practical matter whoever put out that message is talking about Beal whether they know it or not. Wall and Otto Porter are all but immovable thanks to the yawning gaps between their pay and their play, and there’s no earthly reason why any team would want to trade for literally any other players on the Wizards. They certainly have to fire Scott Brooks, too, if not out of a cannon into the side of a mountain then certainly from his job as the comically ineffectual coach of their team. In a sane world Grunfeld would be an arena beer vendor; in a sane world he would have been ejected permanently from the world of professional sports front-office management whole entire years prior to Kelly Oubre Jr.’s birth; if this isn’t the year owner Ted Leonsis finally replaces him, then it’s time to accept that he’ll be running the team’s basketball operations for all the rest of eternity.
No plausible set of moves seems likely to make the Wizards’ roster much better any time soon; the front office has made commitments that even a much smarter operator than Grunfeld couldn’t get it out of. It’s a mess. But there’s better and then there’s better, you know? Any group of five doofuses can lose an NBA game by lots of points; for however many Wizards fans there are left, surely some of them would rather root for a team that at least seemed like it would prefer to win.