My friend and colleague Thom Loverro opened his column in Monday’s Washington Times with this quote:
“The Wizards may be entering that no-man’s land that defined this franchise in the 1980’s – winning 40-plus games a season, always making the playoffs, but never being quite good enough to be elite, or quite bad enough to be in position to get the next young star to take them to that level.”
That quote came from Thom Loverro – last year. Yes, he was quoting himself about the Wizards prospects as they prepared to face the Indiana Pacers in the second round of the playoffs. In fact, the Wizards lost the series in six games and ten months later, they appear to be in that “no-man’s land” that Thom wrote about.
Saturday the Wizards beat Detroit to get to 34-26, but they blew a 21-point before putting away the Pistons late. And the win followed a six-game losing streak, which included back-to-back losses to Minnesota and Philadelphia, two teams that are a combined 26-91!
Thom wonders if the Wizards over the last two years resemble the Gilbert Arenas teams that, “never won more than 45 games, made four consecutive playoff appearances from 2004 to 2008 and made it past the first round once.”
Actually from an age standpoint, these Wizards may be more like those 80’s teams, who were then the Bullets. In the 1970’s, the Bullets made the finals four times – the last three with Elvin Hayes teaming up with Wes Unseld. But following the 1980-81 season, the most successful era in franchise history was clearly over. Unseld retired and Hayes was traded to Houston. Bullets General Manager Bob Ferry told owner Abe Pollin that the only way to get good again was to have some down years and load up with high draft picks. Abe wouldn’t have it and told Ferry to keep a competitive team on the floor.
Ferry did. Over a seven-season period between 1981 and 1988, the Bullets made the playoffs six times, but won only one playoff series – a best-of-three gamer against New Jersey in ’82. And check the names they did it with:
Player Seasons Age in Last Year
Spencer Haywood 1981-83 33
Jim Chones 1981-82 32
Kevin Porter 1979-83 32
Tom McMillen 1983-86 33
Gus Williams 1984-86 32
Dan Roundfield 1985-87 33
Moses Malone 1986-88 32
Bernard King 1987-91 34
Those are some great names. Malone is one of the best of all time, but all had left their best years behind by the time they came to Washington. Now check some of the names and ages on the current Wizards roster:
Paul Pierce, 37
Marcin Gortat, 31
Kris Humphries, 30
Rasual Butler, 35
Drew Gooden, 34
Pierce, Nene, Gortat and Humphries either start or play significant minutes and Butler was a key contributor when things were going well at the beginning of the season.
And it’s not just age that’s led to this post-All Star Game swoon. Thom points to the loss of Trevor Ariza to Houston, where he signed a $32 million free agent deal and assistant Sam Cassell splitting for a job with the Clippers as problems. Ariza’s 3-point shooting and defense have been missed and Cassell has been credited with developing John Wall and Bradley Beal.
We can all sit and hope that Kevin Durant will come home when his contract with the Thunder runs out at the end of next season. Of the thirtysomethings, only Gortat and Humphries are likely to still be here. But if it doesn’t happen, if KD doesn’t show up, are we just in the middle of another era in “no-man’s land”?