- The Washington Times
Tuesday, April 9, 2019

In previous years, Bradley Beal could point to one game in the long slog of an 82-game NBA season that sparked a turnaround for the Washington Wizards. The Wizards, after all, had made a habit of getting off to slow starts, only to hit their stride around the middle of the season.

“We didn’t have that this year,” Beal said.

Instead, the Wizards started off bad, stayed bad and finished irrelevant.

Washington entered the season with a goal of 50 wins, and instead — with a 116-110 loss to the Boston Celtics on Tuesday — finished the year with 50 losses.

After firing longtime general manager Ernie Grunfeld last week, owner Ted Leonsis admitted this season was his “biggest miss” in terms of setting goals. Washington had hoped a reworked roster, along with LeBron James’ departure to the Western Conference, would make them contenders in the East. Instead, Washington went the entire season without winning more than three games in a row.

In the process, the Wizards wasted the best year of Beal’s career.

With co-star John Wall out for 50 games, the 25-year-old All-Star elevated his play to another level — averaging a career-high 25.7 points, five rebounds and 5.5 assists, all while leading the league in minutes.

“Tough season for everyone, but his numbers, his game was just a huge part for us,” guard Tomas Satoransky said of Beal. “We all know he’s the leader of this organization, and he proved it.”

Here’s how it all went wrong.

Practice meltdown

From the start of the season, the Wizards didn’t mesh. Five games in, Wall and Beal were blasting teammates’ effort against the Sacramento Kings.

Offseason acquisitions Austin Rivers and Dwight Howard failed to make an immediate difference, with Rivers struggling off the bench and Howard, who appeared in just nine games, out with a buttocks injury. On the court, the team’s defense was nonexistent as the Wizards failed to properly rotate, contain shooters or stick to assignments.

The Wizards were thrust into the national spotlight after news of a volatile early-season practice. According to the report, Wall got into a verbal spat with teammate Jeff Green, Beal exchanged words with Rivers, Wall yelled “F— you” toward coach Scott Brooks and Beal called out management, saying he was ‘sick of this.’

The practice fracas was seen throughout the league as the latest example of a perennially troubled franchise.

“It felt like we never really got to the chemistry we wanted,” reserve center Ian Mahinmi said. “We never really got to the point where it felt like, ‘Ah, we find something that we liked.’”

Trades weren’t a fix

Beal likes to refer to this season as if he played with three different teams. Twenty-five players have suited up for the Wizards this year, and Washington made five trades in an attempt to salvage the year (and trim salary).

None of the moves saved this season.

Washington’s first major move happened in mid-December, when they sent Rivers and wing Kelly Oubre to the Phoenix Suns for veteran Trevor Ariza. For the Wizards, the trade to acquire Ariza was made in order to give them a versatile defender who could help solve their defensive woes and provide another 3-point threat.

Ariza won praise for his veteran presence, but the 33-year-old shot only 32 percent from deep.

Then, in February, after realizing a re-injured Wall could miss all of next season with a torn Achilles, the Wizards broke up the core — dumping Otto Porter to the Chicago Bulls for two expiring contracts (Bobby Portis, Jabari Parker) and trading Markieff Morris to the New Orleans Pelicans for Wes Johnson.

Both trades were done to avoid paying the luxury tax for a second straight year.

Despite the shakeup and injuries, the Wizards felt they had enough talent to make the playoffs. Leonsis declared his team would “never, ever” tank, and justified firing Grunfeld because they missed the postseason.

The Wizards remained in the playoff race — usually three, four games back — but couldn’t sustain the win streak needed to gain ground. From February to March, the Wizards went just 10-17. They were officially eliminated on March 28.

After an overtime loss to the Bulls, Beal was sharply critical of his teammates, saying they “didn’t want to win.” He admitted those comments were made out of frustration, knowing the playoffs were out of reach.

“After that game, it was like, ‘Damn, we needed that one,’” Beal said. “For the most part, you never wanna think that, but mathematically you look at everybody’s schedule, you know. You gotta be realistic at the same time, too.”

Rebuilding the culture

The Wizards know they could look decidedly different next season. With only four players under contract, Washington can reshape the roster by deciding not to re-sign their restricted and unrestricted free agents. A possible coaching change could happen too, if Leonsis decides Brooks isn’t the right man for the job.

Leonsis will spend the next few weeks examining the Wizards’ organization, relying on a search firm and employee feedback to provide insight.

Players, though, have their own ideas of what needs to be fixed.

“We haven’t really competed consistently the last two years,” Satoransky said. “That needs to change. We have to compete for every game.”

Asked to assess Washington’s culture earlier this season, Beal pointed to Grunfeld, saying he tore the team apart and “created it into what we are now.” He downplayed the notion the Wizards hated each other, but the comment stood out.

Now months later, Beal will be involved with who the Wizards hire to be their next general manager. While the decision ultimately falls on Leonsis, Beal said Leonsis told him he’ll be kept “in the loop” during the process.

“Whatever direction they wanna go in, we just have to change the culture,” Beal said. “I think we just have to develop a winning culture here and I think once we do that, the rest will take care of itself.”

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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