The Wizards, Nets And Hope In The Land Of The Hopeless

If the NBA's in the midst of an era of "haves" and "have-nots", then Monday night's season opener between the Wizards and Nets was what it looks like to watch the "nots."

It's only one game, you think. But it was opening night. It's true, too: The Wizards looked okay for half the game on Monday night. But God they looked awful for the other half. It's too early to write off the season, yes, but when Andray Blatche wandered onto the court before the game to address the crowd as the team captain, we probably should have tempered our expectations right off the bat. Welcome to life as a Wizards fan!

Most night's it's hilarious, but opening night stung a little bit. Any fan is entitled to a little bit of irrational optimism on opening night. It's when even the most jaded cynics can't help but feel a twinge of curiosity. The team and the management are no different. You never know what you exactly have until you put it all out there.

I was at the Verizon Center with my brother for Monday's Wizards opener against the New Jersey Nets, and among other things, we were treated to a) new uniforms!, b) a free red t-shirt advertising the Wizards' 2012 slogan ("New Traditions"), and c) the same, sorry basketball we've all gotten used to over the past three years.

It really wouldn't have been that bad if they'd just been awful from the outset. Instead, the Wizards fooled everyone by jumping out to a 36-16 lead early in the second quarter. This gave us a taste of what it's like to root for a winner, right before they reminded us what we get instead.

The Nets were part of the problem. Even as the Wizards jumped out to that 20-point lead, my brother turned to me and said, "The Wizards don't look that good, the Nets just look awful." Indeed. If not for Deron Williams, Monday's Nets roster could've passed for a D-League team. (If someone asked you whether Damion James plays in the NBA or D-League, what would you guess?)

But even to D-League players, you can only give up so many wide open looks and second chances (Kris Humphries had seven offensive rebounds alone) before it starts costing you. As the D-League Nets woke up, the 20-point lead was whittled to eight by halftime, and a tie early in the third.

Meanwhile, the crisp Wizards offense that caught fans off guard in the first quarter regressed to Jordan Crawford and Andray Blatche settling for 20-foot jumpers in the second. No spacing, hurried shots, no movement. The Wizards are like a video game team -- full of pieces that don't quite fit together -- being run by a 13-year-old who sucks at video games. We should have understood as much when the hype video for 2012 co-starred the dance team.

This isn't the depressing part, though. I'm pretty sure every player in the Wizards starting lineup had at least one airball, but that was actually its own kind of entertainment. Same with the Nets -- just because 60 percent of their roster belongs with the Springfield Armor doesn't mean we can't enjoy the hilarity of watching Johan Petro shoot pull-up jumpers as part of the actual New Jersey offense. The past few years have taught me to enjoy NBA absurdity.

No, what made Monday hard to watch was how Deron Williams would lull the Wizards to sleep with crossovers, roll over screens and bury threes in John Wall's face. He owns the floor on offense, and can do pretty much whatever he wants. When he needs to get in the lane, he's in the lane. When he wants space for a three, he's wide open a few seconds later.

Likewise, you could see John Wall blitz ahead of everyone for easy lay-ins. When Wall runs the break, or even sometimes in the halfcourt, he has a gear that turns the court into ice. Guys slip and fall all over themselves trying to keep up with the kid gliding past everyone. It happens before you know it and then he's at the rim. He has no peers here.

The problem is, Wall wasn't finishing. And when he got fouled, he wasn't hitting foul shots. On the other side, Deron Williams was better (23 points, 8 assists, 8 rebounds), but never looked like one of the three best point guards in the league. For every dead-eye jumper, there were lazy pull-ups that clanked off the back rim. We got glimmers of what greatness looks like, but next to everything else, it all fades to this blur of mediocrity. This is what can happen to great players on terrible teams. And THAT is the depressing part.

Last season you could watch John Wall and say, "Once he gets some better teammates ..." This year he has the same teammates, and now he looks like part of the problem, as incomplete as everyone else. The best player on the Wizards Monday night was probably a rookie, Chris Singleton from Florida State.

For the Nets, the best player was Kris Humphries, somehow the NBA's biggest villain, and the robotic power forward whose skills are so basic (rebounding rebounding and rebounding) that even 48 minutes of boos and the most dysfunctional offense on Earth can't mute his impact.

There's something bizarre about watching two teams with legitimate stars and glowing about the two most blue-collar players instead. But it's inevitable. Surrounded by spare parts, the superstars will never be able to do enough, and will usually come off looking a little bit helpless. At that point, you take solace in the handful of guys making simple plays.

And if the NBA's in the midst of an era of "haves" and "have-nots" then Monday night is what it looks like to watch the "nots." If not for the context we could have just forgotten it altogether. But this was opening night, so everyone paid a little extra attention.

As a Wizards fan, that was actually the greatest gift from Monday's opener. After that game, there's no way to spin this roster's future anymore. No more irrational optimism or even curiosity. Now, it'll force them to change. The writing's on the wall on Twitter. This is not a good team.

The Nets are just as bad, of course. Watching New Jersey in warmups, I saw a team that's treading water with a unit comprised of trade pieces and D-League pick-ups. Except that as bad as it seems, I thought, "Dwight Howard could transform that team overnight." Watching the Wizards over the next 48 minutes, I realized that D.C.'s no different. Or they shouldn't be. Hear me out for a second.

[/deep breath]

Even if D.C. isn't on Dwight Howard's list of trade destinations, why not make a play at the trade deadline? What's to lose if you're already losing 20-point leads to the Nets on opening night?

Because you're already laughing, here's the proposal:

  • Javale McGee
  • 2012, 2013 first round picks
  • Rashard Lewis' expiring contract (partially guaranteed in '12-'13)
  • Jan Vesley (no. 6 overall)
  • Jordan Crawford
  • Andray Blatche

That gives the Magic Javale McGee -- a better prospect than Brook Lopez and maybe Andrew Bynum, depending on how you feel about Bynum's knees -- plus two first round picks, a lottery pick from 2011, a first-rounder in 2010 (Crawford) and $20 million of salary relief when Rashard Lewis gets bought out after this year. Not a bad haul, all things considered.

In exchange, the Wizards get Dwight Howard and the chance to pay him a lot of money this summer, they take back J.J. Redick's contract, Hedo Turkoglu (the Turkish Andray Blatche) and his massive deal, and Big Baby, whose experiment in Orlando arrives at a merciful end a few months earlier than expected. The salaries all match up and the trade works here.

Why not roll the dice and hope a) Orlando can't get a better offer and b) Howard sees John Wall and the D.C. market, and decides to stay put. Washington could amnesty Turkish Blatche and they'd have plenty of cap room to build around Howard and Wall next summer. For Orlando, they'd have a few new pieces and plenty of picks and cap room to press the reset button.

This logic all made sense to me during the fourth quarter Monday night, and even if it's completely ridiculous a day later, it kept me sane while Kris Humphries was destroying my favorite team.

So after weekend in the league that lasts forever, full of spectacular games and teams, the day-after-Christmas offered a lesson on what it's like to be the other guys in the NBA's modern era. For the Nets and Wizards and 20 other teams without a prayer today, it may look like a nightmare ...

... but the pipe dream is only a trade away.

112993952_medium (And that's how a Wizards-Nets game taught me what it's like to be a Knicks fan.)

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