The offseason heading into the 2022-23 NBA season was littered with optimism from Wizards fans, centered around the key acquisition of Kristaps Porzingis.
The pairing of Porzingis and Kyle Kuzma, who's since developed into a legitimate 20-point per night type of scorer, has made clear why many within the organization felt so strongly about this group's potential. Oh yeah, and with Bradley Beal slated to come back from season-ending wrist surgery, the Wizards — in a league full of stars — suddenly had three of their own.
Wizards General Manager Tommy Sheppard and second-year head coach Wes Unseld Jr. knew heading into last offseason they needed to upgrade at point guard. Insert Monte Morris and Delon Wright, who were acquired via trade and free agency, and all of a sudden the Wizards had the ingredients to consider themselves among the top six teams in the Eastern Conference.
After 64 games this season, Washington is 30-34, holds the 10th seed in the east and sits six games back of Brooklyn for the sixth seed with 18 games remaining. Considering the Wizards enduring a 10-game losing streak in December and they've had key guys in and out of the lineup all season (Beal, 22 games missed; Wright, 29), being in control of their own playoff fate by March is a sign of the team's mental fortitude.
It would have been easy for this group to pack it in and consider this season an utter disaster, but this locker room cares about one another too much to ever display that kind of behavior. The difference in locker room culture is a welcome change from the first year under Unseld. Despite battling through major adversity for a large stretch of the year, the guys in the locker room never turned their backs on one another. Last year, it was very apparent that not everyone in the locker room was totally feeling one another, so much so that when asked about the difference between this and last year's team in October, Kuzma answered bluntly.
"I think this is the year we have a pretty solid team,” explained Kuzma after Washington's Oct. win over Chicago. "Just because we like each other. Last year partly couldn't say that."
That was very apparent at halftime of one game in particular last season when, sources say, former Wizard Montrezl Harrell became upset with teammate Kentavious Caldwell-Pope for not passing him the ball on a play before the buzzer. The two started jawing back and forth on the walk to the locker room and, as they exchanged words, Harrell and Caldwell-Pope took swings at each other — with neither connecting — and had to be separated by teammates. That moment was just the tip of the iceberg.
As last season played out, we heard more and more about chemistry issues within the locker room, leading some to question whether Unseld had already lost the pulse of the locker room in his first year. Things got worse before getting better.
At the trade deadline, the team announced it was shutting down Beal and opting for season-ending wrist surgery. As Beal was on the operating table, the future of the team looked grim. Guys weren't getting along in the locker room, the team struggled to stay healthy and the losses began to pile up. In the final moments before the deadline, Sheppard once again took a big-time swing, shipping away disgruntled vet Spencer Dinwiddie to the Mavericks in exchange for Porzingis.
It was a big gamble on an oft-injured former All-Star, but it was that move that helped shape the foundation we currently see taking shape in Washington. Porzingis and the Wizards were a match made in heaven.
Porzingis hoped a change of scenery would help him regain his All-Star form, while the Wiz were looking to add more firepower to the duo of Beal and Kuzma. Porzingis quickly proved the Wizards right with his play on the floor. In 17 games with the Wizards in 2021-22, he showed flashes of why he is nicknamed 'The Unicorn,' averaging 22.1 points, 8.8 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.5 blocks per game in just 28.2 minutes per night.
The flashes from KP, Kuzma morphing into a bonafide 20-point-per-game scorer and Beal returning to good health left fans excited about the potential of the group moving forward. More importantly, in a star-studded league, the Wizards felt like they finally had their own 'Big 3.'
Fast-forward to this season. Beal, Kuzma and Porzingis are the only trio in the NBA averaging 21 or more points per game. Major credit goes to WUJ for getting them to buy in and share the basketball with each other. Beal is shooting his best from three-point range since 2017 and is shooting a career high 55% on two-point field goals. Porzingis is closing in on the highest point total of his career and he’s posting the best field goal percentage of his career. On top of his stellar offensive output, he's also been one of the best rim protectors in the NBA . And Kuzma continues to grow his game as well. Since arriving in D.C., it's clear Kuzma has shaped himself into an effortless scorer. At 6-foot-10, his ability to create instant offense for himself has been a nightmare for teams to guard.
The major issue with this group has been health. Anyone who's watched these Wizards knows they are a completely different team when their 'Big 3' is on the floor together. Despite not playing a ton of games together, Beal, Kuzma and Porzingis have set the tone for what this team wants to accomplish. For Unseld, that core three has helped establish the identity and culture this team wants to go by.
"It's still a work in progress, we haven't had everyone in the fold, but it is what it is," Unseld said after the team's 117-111 loss to the Bucks on Sunday. "We're still trying to get everyone on the same page. From a cultural standpoint, we are where we want to be. We have great character guys, it's a work culture. The guys understand what our demands are, how we wanna play and the shots we value. Defensively it's a priority, our guys understand for us to win consistently, we must be able to defend at a high level."
What makes this culture work for all parties involved is the fact that the head coach understands that, just like the team has to continue to grow and develop to advance the culture, so does he.
"I'm still learning," Unseld said. "It's gonna take a while. As a coach you never want to stop learning. We're always looking for best practices, whether it's schematically, day-to-day operations of the program or relationship-building. All those areas I must continue to grow in no matter how many years I have under my belt."
One thing that is certain: the team has definitely bought in defensively. The Wizards have improved in every defensive category in year two under Unseld, a much-needed development for this team to reach some of its goals. As for the $250 million dollar man, Beal understands with more money comes more responsibility.
"I just wanna continue to be the voice after Wes," Beal said after Sunday's loss. "From how he wants us to practice, how he wants us to execute on offense and defense, down to how he wants us to approach the daily grind, film session, taking care of our bodies, all the little things. I just wanna continue to reiterate what he's looking for and how important those things are. I just wanna continue to support him."
In the NBA, success is defined by wins and losses. But for the 2022-23 Wizards, that may not necessarily be the case. Success for them may be measured by a few other things: the ability to overcome adversity, staying together as a team no matter the circumstances, setting the foundation and culture for years to come.
Through 64 games, I strongly believe that foundation is in place with Kuzma, Beal and Porzingis, but patience and health will be key.
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