Since 1980, the story of the Washington Wizards is one of persistent mediocrity splashed with periods of abject ineptitude. Since the team's last Finals trip in 1979, Washington hasn't finished with a record better than 45-37 and has only been .500 or better in 10 of the 35 seasons. The club's won two playoff series in 35 years. Every decade, the Wizards look alright for a few years — never great, but good enough to make the playoffs and get hopes of revival up around the District — and then crash back down to normalcy, with that normalcy being irrelevance in the grander NBA scene.
The Wizards are on one of those upswings right now. After making the playoffs with a 44-38 record, Washington took a stunning 2-0 lead over the Bulls in Chicago on Tuesday. With three of the next five games (if needed) in D.C., the Wizards are overwhelming favorites to move on. In the second round, they'll face either the underwhelming Pacers or the 38-win Hawks. There's a chance that the Wizards could win as many playoff series this season has they have in the past three decades combined.
Five years ago, at the franchise's lowest point in almost a decade, the Wizards didn't think it would take this long to bounce back. How the team slowly turned things around and got into this fortuitous spot is worth looking at closer.
The Wizards had a really awful 2008-09. In the second season of his $111 million contract, injury-ridden Gilbert Arenas played a total of two games. Unlike in 2007-08, when the Wizards survived Arenas' absence to make the playoffs, the team was toast from the start. Washington got out to a 1-10 start and Eddie Jordan got canned. A front office guy, Ed Tapscott, took over, and the Wizards trudged off to a 19-63 finish. That ended up tying for the second worst record in the league.
Things could have gone two ways from that point. The Wizards could have traded 32-year-old Antawn Jamison, who'd just been signed to a four-year, $50 million contract before the season. Washington could have considered trading 28-year-old Caron Butler a year before free agency as well. Arenas wasn't tradable for assets or flexibility by that point, and things would get worse with the infamous gun incident with Javaris Crittenton the following season.
The lottery didn't go well for Washington. The Clippers, who were the other 19-63 club, won the No. 1 pick and Blake Griffin. The Wizards slipped down to No. 5. So, GM Ernie Grunfeld went in the opposite direction of a rebuild: he traded the pick, which became Ricky Rubio, for veterans Randy Foye and Mike Miller. The team replaced Tapscott with a proven, expensive coach: Flip Saunders. The Wizards bet that Arenas could get healthy, Jamison could stay healthy and the new vets could help Butler and crew get over the hump.
Keys to victory
That ... did not happen. By New Year's, the Wizards were 10-20 and basically out of the playoff race. A couple of weeks later, Arenas got himself suspended for the rest of the season with the gun incident. The team conceded that a rebuild would be necessary about seven months too late and traded Jamison, Butler and Brendan Haywood before the deadline. The team ended up at 26-56, another horrid season and a forced realization that the run of moderate success was officially over.
The team's lottery luck changed dramatically, though. In 2010, the Wizards leaped a few teams to claim the No. 1 pick and point guard John Wall. Wall didn't have the transformational impact as a rookie some thought he would and conceded Rookie of the Year to Griffin. But he showed plenty of promise, enough that the Wizards knew they could build around him.
They stuck with the remaining youth of the club for a while, but the McGee and Young hijinks and Blatche off-court drama eventually wore thin. Grunfeld continued to waste some draft picks and the franchise floundered around Wall. Saunders was let go for being too breezy to snap the young team into line. Eventually Grunfeld won another lottery victory, landing Bradley Beal at No. 3 in 2012. At that point, with salary flexibility on the horizon, the Wizards began another attempt at adding some veterans and pushing for respectability.
This time, it worked. Blatche got bought out, Young was jettisoned and McGee was swapped for a rich new Nene, who had just signed a massive extension in Denver. The Brazilian has battled numerous injuries over the years, but Washington rolled the dice on him. As the Chicago series has shown, it worked. This season, the Wizards were more than three points per 100 possessions better than opponents while Nene was on the court. When he's not, the Wizards play about even. He's the difference between a winning team and a same old mediocre .500 team.
Other veteran additions — Trevor Ariza, Martell Webster — have worked, too. More draft picks (Otto Porter, another No. 3 pick) haven't. But the general blueprint Grunfeld employed is pretty mundane: pick up a young star or two, roll the dice to pick up a high-priced veterans, add appropriate role players and hope for the best. It's the same blueprint employed in 2009, when everything went wrong. Back then, Grunfeld and the Wizards bet on the wrong young star (Arenas). When he imploded, the whole thing fell apart.
Wall and Nene look like the right bets at this point, but things can change. Nene is now 31 and struggled with injuries down the stretch. Without him checking Joakim Noah and putting pressure on the vaunted Chicago defense, the Wizards aren't up 2-0. There's a sincere concern that in any given season, Nene could find himself on the shelf and the Wizards could trudge back below .500. But the alternative was for the Wizards to do nothing, count on McGee (who has proven horribly unreliable in Denver and missed about 60 more games than Nene this year) or roll the dice in an equally or more risky way.
You can't sit back and wait for excellence to happen forever. Credit Grunfeld for trying to veteran up in 2009 and failing miserably, then trying the same thing a few years later and succeeding. And credit owner Ted Leonsis for sticking with the plan over the long run.
The question going forward is whether this core — Wall, Nene and Beal, but also Porter and to a lesser extent the role players like Webster and free-agents-to-be Marcin Gortat and Ariza — can not only stay around 44 wins and make the playoffs in each of the next few seasons, but break the long reign of mediocrity in D.C. and become truly excellent, a relevant franchise in the greater NBA landscape.
The question is whether this stunning, budding playoff run is the just the first note in the typical once-every-decade short stretch of decency or whether it is the moment the phrase "Wizards Basketball" ceased to be a punchline.