The Washington Wizards still lack a vision

On Fan Appreciation Night during the last home game of the 2021-2022 season, the Washington Wizards were in a giving mood. Pretty much anything that was not nailed down — a Thomas Bryant bobblehead, tons of free T-shirts, the lead guard spot in the starting lineup — the Wizards decided to give away. The lucky and loyal fans, who showed up on a Friday night when there surely must have been better things to do than bid farewell to a lottery team, reaped a bonanza of freebies.

A row of fans sitting in the upper deck won Bluetooth speakers. On the court, a young man shot basketballs into large bins placed at various distances and picked up a 55-inch television when he hit the farthest target. A random duo who danced long enough for the camera to spot them took a spin of the “prize wheel” and earned a pair of Beats headphones. The night felt like the first Christmas inside the home of a divorced parent overcompensating to buy a child’s love. The Wizards gave away so much — everything except a clear vision for next season.

Forget the excuses about lineup disruption, chemistry issues brought on by the massive trade-deadline makeover and Bradley Beal’s season-ending injury. The Wizards took a step back this year.

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They will not finish within the top 10 of the Eastern Conference, unlike a year ago when they at least earned a participation reward for making the play-in tournament. They will finish as a worse defensive team than the 2020-21 Wizards, although last offseason they hired a defensive-minded coach in Wes Unseld Jr. expressly to correct those bad habits. And they have returned to the same spot they were in 2019: searching for a starting point guard after cutting loose the one, Spencer Dinwiddie, they thought they had found during last summer’s free agency.

Many question marks cloud the future, so how could there be reasonable expectations that next year will be better than this one?

When this fun and feisty team started 10-3 and forced us to sit up and pay attention, I begged forgiveness for my preseason prognosis. But who knew the Wizards would peak in November and “meh” would be their ceiling?

The season went fully off the rails in early February when Beal, 28, opted to have season-ending surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left wrist. When he first started to miss games because of the injury, the Wizards were 23-26. They have won only a dozen games since, with only Sunday’s season finale in Charlotte remaining. However, there were reasons to worry even before Beal’s injured wrist offered an easy excuse for the team’s demise.

Proving how fragile its early success had been, the team did not respond well to the first evidence of adversity. In December, the Wizards tumbled to 26th overall in defensive rating after they had been among the top 12 during their sizzling start to the season. They will end the season among the bottom six teams of the league, and surely becoming a good defensive team does not happen overnight.

“It can take a while, obviously, but there are a lot of things in play,” Unseld said Friday, mentioning the midstream defensive changes he had to make when the team changed.

Even so, around the time when the foundation of the defense cracked, Washington also struggled to find any chemistry. The starting backcourt, Beal and Dinwiddie, appeared less and less of a sustainable solution. Then by January, Montrezl Harrell and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, teammates who arrived from Los Angeles after the franchise-altering trade of Russell Westbrookbickered while walking off the floor during a game and needed to be separated.

Before the February trade deadline, with Beal permanently sitting, the team sent Harrell to Charlotte and Dinwiddie to Dallas. Highlighting their haul, the Wizards brought in the always-intriguing Kristaps Porzingis. However, when the Wizards conclude the season Sunday in Charlotte, most of their regular starters will be in street clothes, including Porzingis and Beal, who will make another franchise-altering decision this summer.

This being the NBA, the Wizards will repeat a mistake they should have learned from years ago after giving John Wall his crippling supermax deal, and offering Beal a contract worth roughly $245 million over five years. It’s their plight: Either commit over a third of their salary to just one star player, only to remain a middle-of-the-pack team year after year, or risk losing him and start the rebuilding process in earnest.

If you’re Beal, are you intrigued by a pairing with Porzingis, along with a starting lineup that would include former champions Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma? Have the Wizards’ last three first-round picks—Rui Hachimura, Deni Avdija and Corey Kispert—shown enough progress for Beal to latch his prime years to this core?

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Hachimura sat out for months in what should have been a season — his third in the NBA — for a young player to make a significant leap. Avdija has shown defensive promise as well as a lack of defensive awareness. (Note how many times he lost track of sharpshooter Bogdan Bogdanovic during the team’s loss in Atlanta on Wednesday.) Kispert, a rookie, has made more than 38 percent of his three-pointers since the all-star break, but he has also reflected many of the team’s struggles on the defensive end.

These were the players on the court Friday night, and in that one game, they provided the template of the 2021-22 season. The Wizards ripped off 10 straight points at the start, forcing the scoreless New York Knicks to call a timeout. By halftime, that lead was long gone after Washington allowed the Knicks to shoot 63 percent in the second quarter. Then by the third quarter, you looked up and somehow the Wizards were down by 26.

It was the season in miniature: a glimpse of promise, a costly regression and a nagging feeling that nothing much had been accomplished or learned.

The Wizards lost their final home, but they didn’t leave their fans hanging. Some lucky ones also walked away with a virtual assistant smart speaker. But with the franchise in a giving mood, there was one thing it never provided: a reason to hope the future might be better.

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