Monday, January 21, 2008
You Probably Haven't Noticed...
...But the Washington Wizards are a damn fine basketball team.
The Wizards defeated the Dallas Mavericks this afternoon 102-84, sweeping the season series with Big D for the first time in ten years. But more importantly, the Wizards' victory over a Western Conference powerhouse is simply business as usual lately. The Wizards aren't just HOT HOT HOT, they're proving that they're actually good.
It's common to see five or six-game winning streaks in the NBA by teams that aren't particularly talented or cohesive or well-coached. (The opposite is also true--Boston is 3-3 in its last six games.) It's simply a sport that lends itself to the occasional hot hand and lucky bounce. And for the past five seasons or so, the Wizards have become familiar with such a pattern. Gilbert Arenas might explode for 60 one night in a game with 300 combined points but shoot 3-for-20 the next night as the Wizards give up 118 in an embarrassing home loss. As Wizards fans, we put up with the schizophrenia because to us, success in any duration was an improvement over the Rod Strickland beatdowns of our childhood.
The season began unlike any other during the Gilbert Era: terribly. The Wizards lurched out of the gate to an 0-5 start, unable to put points on the board. But they righted the ship and returned to the Wizards standard of respectability--.500--in the next five games. As they looked to capture a sixth straight victory, the Wizards got the catastrophic news that Gilbert, their star, their centerpiece, their engine, would miss the next three months of the season. All hope was lost. The Wizards had nothing to look forward to but the Mike Beasley Sweepstakes in April. And that night's game against Charlotte was sure to be the first step towards Armageddon.
Except for one thing: the Wizards won. And they kept winning. And they haven't looked back since. In the eight games that Agent Zero played this season, Washington was 3-5 and discombobulated. In his absence, the Wizards have gone 19-12 and put up some very un-Wizardlike numbers.
Sixth-best scoring defense in the conference. Fifth-best defensive field goal percentage. Fifth-best in rebounds. Only Toronto and Detroit turn the ball over fewer times per game than the Wizards. And lest you pine for the days of broken scoreboards, the Wizards are still third in the conference in scoring.
Those numbers are evidence of the kind of balance that is the calling card of playoff-caliber teams across the Association.
And don't forget, they're doing it all without their superstar. Guys like Nick Young and Andray Blatche have been called upon to pick up the slack during Gilbert's injury and they have answered the call of duty most admirably. Some Wizards fans have argued that the run upon which the Wizards have embarked is not in spite of Gilbert's absence but because of it. That discussion is hyper-sensitive: How much are you willing to bruise your admittedly melodramatic star's ego to gauge his trade value? It's like defusing a bomb. There are two arguments:
-Gilbert took the Wizards back to the playoffs after a decade of Clippers East jokes and total ridicule from the rest of league and no one that the Wizards could acquire for him would match his productivity. (He's also Washington's biggest sports celebrity since Michael Jordan got kicked out of town, and even that era was more like a museum visit than a live performance.)
-Gilbert's selfish, shoot-first, ballhogging offensive mentality and poor man-to-man and help defense have only hurt the Wizards' cause. Anyone can dominate when they play one-on-one, but his style, flashy and exciting though it may be, will never translate into postseason success.
I personally lie between the two opinions. The man's talent is undeniable, and if he could grasp the team concept better he would be otherworldly, but he is what he is. He is a 215-pound wrecking ball with a sweet stroke and a mind-boggling penchant for scoring. And most importantly, I desperately want to see him win. He possesses a candor not seen in Washington, or in any sports city for that matter, since John Riggins. Gilbert always speaks his mind and never settles for the bland and generic sound bite. I will always respect him for his personality.
Obviously, Boston and Detroit are the elite teams in the Eastern Conference, and deservedly so. But the Wizards have kicked the Celtics' ass on two occasions this year and stayed close with the Pistons three weeks ago. So which Wizards team is better? The Gilbertless or the Fully Gilberted? He's not getting traded anytime soon and he's begun practicing with the team again. So we'll soon find out for ourselves.