- The Washington Times
Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Kyle Kuzma could only mouth “Oh my God” to himself as he walked back to the locker room, still digesting what just happened. Bradley Beal followed behind him, sticking out his hand to slowly high-five the fans on the railing out of courtesy before shaking his head in utter disbelief. When Wes Unseld Jr. arrived for his post-game press conference, the Wizards coach took off his mask, glanced at the box score on the table and then set the mask on top of it to cover the horror that it described. 

Every Wizard had their own way to process Tuesday’s unfathomable 116-115 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers — a loss that saw Washington blow a 35-point lead, marking the second-largest collapse in the NBA’s play-by-play era (1996-97). 

The meltdown was capped off with a four-point play in which Clippers guard Luke Kennard made the game-winning 3-pointer and free throw with 1.9 seconds left. But for the Wizards, the defeat was also the latest sign of a season gone off the rails. 

With two weeks until the NBA’s trade deadline on Feb. 10, the Wizards are far removed from the hot 10-3 start that caught the league by surprise. Instead, they now sit at 23-25, clinging to the last spot in the NBA’s play-in tournament as the 10th seed entering Wednesday’s action. Washington has lost four straight, five of the last six and now faces a daunting road trip with six contenders on tap. 

Past the halfway mark of the season, the Wizards find themselves lost — desperately searching for answers. 

“Something’s got to change, I don’t know,” Kuzma said. “It’s pretty comical at this point.” 

“We’ve got to fix some things,” Beal said. “For sure.” 

“These types of games can linger,” Unseld said. “There are things that just can’t happen.”

Losses like Tuesday’s only further suggest those changes should come by remaking the roster at the deadline. The Wizards underwent a dramatic overhaul this offseason when it traded Russell Westbrook for Kuzma, guard Spencer Dinwiddie and three others. But the collection of role players hasn’t led to significant improvement. After the Wizards ranked top five in defense over their strong start, the group has cratered back to 22nd. Their 22nd-ranked offense is also pedestrian. 

Washington’s depth was supposed to be a strength. Lately, it appears to be its greatest hindrance. Unseld, a first-year coach, has struggled to find the right combination of lineups as the Wizards get back to full strength with Rui Hachimura and Thomas Bryant now available. 

Some nights Unseld has resorted to deploying a rare 11-man rotation, and even when he stuck to 10 players on Tuesday, there were still curious decisions — such as keeping center Daniel Gafford (12 points in 12 minutes) on the bench in favor of Montrezl Harrell.

Unseld has defended his choices — he didn’t like Gafford’s start to the third quarter, he said — but that hasn’t stopped others from questioning them.

“We’re still trying to fit multiple guys into the rotation,” Kuzma said. “We’re still trying to figure out roles after 40, 50 games. … You would think, by now, as a collective group we would have our roles figured out, but we don’t. Rotation-wise, same thing.” 

When the Wizards made the Westbrook trade, general manager Tommy Sheppard noted the flexibility his team now had — not just in the players that they got back, but also in their contracts. If the Wizards want to make a deal, they have a slew of contracts that are seen as palatable for other teams. 

Kuzma, for instance, is on a three-year, $39 million deal with a player option for the third year (‘23-24). Harrell ($9.7 million) and center Thomas Bryant ($8 million) are on expiring contracts, while swingman Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s deal expires in 2023 ($14 million). The contracts give Sheppard the option of bundling them together for an overall bigger deal or shipping them off for spare parts. 

Any move that’s made will likely be done with Beal in mind. Beal’s future will undoubtedly come up over the next few weeks, as it did with reporters after the loss. Beal can opt out of his deal next summer and be eligible to sign a five-year, $242 million contract if offered. 

Sheppard has consistently maintained that the Wizards will do whatever it takes to make their star player happy — shooting down other teams’ interest in the three-time All-Star. And Beal, likewise, hasn’t backed off the notion that Washington is where he wants to be in the long run. 

Beal said ultimately he just wants to win. He admitted the toll that the deadline — and the rumor mill that comes with it — could be having on teammates, noting “we’ve got guys fighting for survival.” That’s tough on a team, he said. 

But after the Wizards’ latest loss — the second straight which Beal used the word “embarrassing” to describe it — Beal questioned what his team is actually trying to achieve. 

“What type of team are we trying to be?” Beal said. “That’s my biggest question to all of us as a unit. Who are we trying to be? It’s either we want to be a winning team or we don’t. … It doesn’t stop.”

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

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