May 20, 2014

Draft Lottery? Who Cares!

If you are a conspiracy theorist (and those of you who are know who I am talking about), the Los Angeles Lakers will win tonight's NBA Draft Lottery. The Draft Lottery, the results of which will be broadcast this evening at 8 p.m. on ESPN, is the annual event that determines which of the biggest losers in the NBA gets to pick first, second and third in this June's NBA Draft.

Conspiracy and NBA Draft Lottery is nothing new. Claims of the NBA rigging the event to meet its own needs go back all the way to the first Lottery in 1985, when then commissioner David Stern felt around for the envelope with the bent corner or the hot envelope (microwaved before the event, maybe?) and plucked the New York Knicks card out of the bin and awarded them the right to pick Patrick Ewing first in that year's draft, thus restoring basketball glory to the city of New York. Wow, that sentence was long. I think it worked, though.

More recently, folks have decried the Lottery as fixed almost annually. In 2011, the Washington Wizards won to compensate the franchise for their owner dying. The next year, the Cleveland Cavalier snagged the top spot so owner Dan Gilbert would feel better about losing LeBron to the Miami Heat. And two years ago, the New Orleans Pelicans getting the right to select Anthony Davis first overall was seen as a reward for Tom Benson taking the Pels (then the Hornets) off the NBA's hands for a tidy $338 million the previous year.

There's always someone there to see the dark side of every event. So tonight, there's no more obvious team to be awarded the number one overall pick on June 26 than the Lakers. The most popular team in the NBA has had a miserable last 15 months. Two leg injuries to top star Kobe Bryant sandwiched around a first round playoff sweep last year and a franchise record for losses this past season. Surely, this can't go on and new commissioner Adam Silver is just the guy to fix it by granting the Lakers, who have nobody but themselves to blame for their current woes, the number one pick. Perfect, right? Never mind the Milwaukee Bucks, who lost more than any other team this year, or the Philadelphia 76ers, who lost 26 in a row this year. The Lakers fix has to be in, right? At least a top three pick, right?

You know what? If the Lakers win it, I don't care. I don't care who wins. I've sat on the edge of my Eames Chair ottoman for the last several years begging the basketball gods to give the first overall pick (or at least a top three pick) to the Wizards. But tonight I just don't care because for the first time since 2008, the Washington Wizards have no chance of winning the NBA Draft Lottery. Zero. None. Zilch. Not a chance at all.

Last year the Wizards were the biggest lottery winner out there, moving up from eighth to third to ultimately snag Otto Porter with the number three pick on draft night. But this year, there’s no shot at all. And that’s because we mercifully are no longer involved in this desperation exercise as a playoff team. And it feels really good.

Sure, it won’t feel good on draft night, when future stars (or busts) are being picked by the lottery teams and we're sitting idly by waiting our turn.  In fact it won’t feel good on draft night when we get out of the lottery (or top 14) picks because the Wizards don’t own a single first round pick at all, having traded our pick this year to acquire Marcin Gortat before the start of the 2013-2014 season, a move that will either lock up a quality starting center for years to come or amount to a one year rental. Ball’s in Ernie Grunfeld’s court on that one.

But tonight, when the results of the lottery are announced on ESPN, there will be no anguish or joy for me at all and honestly, I’m perfectly fine with that. I’m actually perfectly fine never sitting through this process again. I’d love to just keep making the playoffs every year. Although I do think it would be funny if the Lakers win. We'll know in about two hours.

May 19, 2014

That's The End Of That

Game four: Wiz up 17 in the second. It all looked so good then.
It's always tough for me when we get to the end of the Wizards version of the NBA season and we got there at the end of the night last Thursday with a game six loss to the Indiana Pacers at home. Oddly enough, that finish wrapped up the most successful Washington pro basketball season since 1979 and the most successful season ever as the Wizards so I have to feel good about that despite the sting of losing. Over the last five years or so, the season has been effectively over three weeks or more before the end of the regular season. I'm proud of what the team accomplished this year; this team supplants the 2005-2006 squad as the most successful team since I've been a season ticket holder, despite the one fewer regular season victory when compared to the 05-06 group.

Just a couple of weeks ago, it seemed like the whole city of Washington was riding high on the Wizards' run. It seemed like we took care of the Chicago Bulls handily and with a second round matchup against what seemed like a wounded Pacers team, there was more talk about how many games we could win against the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals than there was about the team standing in our way to the first Conference Finals appearance in 35 years. Turns out we should have been paying attention to our second round opponent. It all came crashing down pretty quickly after our game one victory in Indy. Oh well, I didn't really expect much more than we got this year, despite the momentary glimmer of extreme possibilities.

So because I wrapped up round one against the Bulls with a six pack of thoughts (and because really amazing things usually come in six packs), here's my take on the last basketball the Wizards played in the 2013-2014 season.

David West's scrunchy face in game five. Every foul that's called on him gets this look.
1. Let Sleeping Dogs Lie
The Indiana Pacers started the 2013-2014 NBA season with 16 wins against a single defeat, the best start in their franchise history. At the halfway point of the season they were 33-8 and pushed their record to a season high 33 games above .500 with a victory against the Utah Jazz on March 2. The Pacers began this season with the self-proclaimed goal of finishing with the number one seed in the Eastern Conference so they would have home court advantage in game seven in a presumptive Eastern Conference Finals against the Miami Heat. Assuming they got that far.

But after that March 2 game, something happened to the Pacers. Maybe they were thrown off by the introduction of Evan Turner at the trade deadline or by the signing of Andrew Bynum shortly thereafter or maybe they just got bored or forgot about their home court advantage dream. Whatever it was, they stumbled to a 8-9 record to finish the regular season, losing as many in their last 17 games as they lost in their first 44. They even managed to yield their top conference spot to the Miami Heat in the last couple of weeks of the season before the Heat, equally bored it seems, handed it right back to the Pacers.

The first round of the playoffs looked like more of the same for the Pacers, especially when they found themselves down with three minutes to go in what could have been a deciding game six in Atlanta for the hometown Hawks. Their play in round one was listless, bored and lacked urgency. They made Jeff Teague look like an All-Star night after night. But they squeaked by. Game one against the Wizards was a similar story. Roy Hibbert, who disappeared entirely in the series against Atlanta, had zero points, zero rebounds and five fouls in the Pacers' game one loss to Washington at Banker's Life Fieldhouse.

But suddenly the Pacers awoke and realized they actually knew how to play good basketball and from there it was not much of a contest. Hibbert went for 28 in game two. Paul George followed that up with 23 in game three and 39 in game four, both victories for the Pacers in D.C. Then in game six, also in Washington, David West finished us off with 29. But despite getting big games from their bigs in each second round win, what impressed me most of all was how they got back on defense. The Wizards' ability to score quick and easy points off the fast break was totally negated by Indiana's D. Even off missed field goals with long rebounds, they always got three or even four guys back quickly to their end of the court in position to defend. When they played that way, it wasn't much of a series.

It's difficult for me to hate the Pacers the way I hated the 2005 Heat or the 2006-2008 Cavaliers who beat us in the playoffs in my season ticket holder tenure. I need them to beat Miami too badly to hate here so I'll confine my displeasure to Lance Stephenson and the whiny way David West and Roy Hibbert complain any time a foul is called on one of them. For the record, I wanted the Hawks in round two.

2. Not Quite Ready for Primetime
For all the success this season brought for the Wizards, when the Pacers set their minds to it, they could have beaten us on any given night. I think we were just fortunate that they didn't set their minds to it most nights. Our game three 63 points, the lowest scoring output in franchise playoff history, proved that in spades. Having said that, if some calls had gone our way, if we had hit a few more free throws or if we had not blown a 19 point lead at home in game four, we might very well have found ourselves in the Eastern Conference Finals this week. 

You have to start somewhere and this is really how it works in the NBA: teams on the rise get to the first or second round a couple of times and lose before making some sort of jump spurred on by playoff success and challenging for a Finals berth or even a championship itself. Hopefully, this year was the Wizards' start to such a journey. Our inexperience (and the Pacers' defense I guess) really showed through inconsistent play. Over the six games of the series, we had one 30 point scorer (Marcin Gortat in game five with 31). All five of our starters except Bradley Beal had at least one game with fewer than 10 points (Ariza and Gortat had two!). And John Wall failed to hand out 10 assists in all six contests. Not that offensive statistics tell the whole story, especially a series played at the pace of this one, but there are some telling numbers in there.

Overall, we failed (or Indiana didn't let us) to provide a consistent source of offense out of our starting five. Beal had a nice series, averaging 18.7 points but other than game one, when he scored 25, he never really dominated. Our bench collectively scored more than 15 points only twice and only scored more than 20 once, allowing the team to stretch a small  game three early second quarter lead into 17 at the half before the post halftime collapse.

I hope we learned a thing or two from this series with the Pacers, and I hope our bench is far more prepared next year. That's going to take work over the summer but with Wall and Beal emerging as our best players, we better be prepared to do it.

Lady Gaga performing Bad Romance, if memory serves.
3. The Curse of Lady Gaga
When the Indiana Pacers finally put away the Atlanta Hawks and sealed their second round matchup against the Wizards, the NBA finalized the second round schedule for both teams. Game six, scheduled in Washington, was announced on Thursday, May 15. That seemed like a mistake to me because about six months earlier I'd bought tickets to see Lady Gaga in the same building on that night. They had to move the game, right?

Friday seemed like a good candidate for game six. The Mystics had a game scheduled on that day but game seven of our series wasn't taking place until the Sunday. Surely they could slide the Mystics game to a day game and have the Wiz play at night on Friday, right? I mean after all, there had to be more people going to see Lady Gaga than like four or five Mystics games, right?

Apparently not. Instead of moving any sort of basketball, Verizon Center and Lady Gaga agreed to switch the Gaga concert in D.C. with the one in Philadelphia, meaning Lady Gaga would now play the Verizon Center on Monday, May 12. From the reaction on Twitter, you would have thought it was the end of the world. Some fans even pronounced curses on the Wizards for their transgression. Surely there are no such things as curses right?

Let's see…the Wizards won game one in Indiana on May 5. The very next day, the Verizon Center announced the Gaga concert reschedule and the Wizards lost game two in Indy on May 7 and then games three and four at home on May 9 and 11. What the hell was going on? 

I made it a point to wear one of my Wizards shirts to the Lady Gaga concert on the 12th and the very next day, the Wizards won. Curse broken right? Maybe. Maybe not. The next game at Verizon Center was a loss. 0-3 at home since the rescheduled concert. Uh-oh!

4. Bandwagonners, Where You Are?
Is bandwagonners a word? I guess it is now. I'm sure I'm not the first person to use it.

I've had Wizards season tickets for 14 years now. Over the years, I've offered a number of people the opportunity to go see a Wizards game for free, either with me or with whomever they chose when I had two extra tickets I couldn't get rid of by selling (and believe me that's happened a lot). Some have accepted; some have not. Some have asked who are the Wizards playing? Like I'm trying to ditch a game against an historically popular team (read: a winning team). Some have even thought the notion of spending a couple of hours of their precious time watching a team they don't care about was preposterous. The team they don't care about is the Wizards, in case that wasn't clear. Throughout all of that, I have kept the faith, that someday, I'd be watching my team win more than most others.

So imagine my surprise when people came out of the woodwork during our first round against Chicago asking if I could get them some tickets. I had at least three people who I know for a fact have not attended a single Wizards game this entire year ask me if they could buy in to the ticket presale offered to season ticket holders, either in the first or second round. All of a sudden everyone wanted to go see the Wizards play ball. And it wasn't just people I knew. Jose Andres (complete with John Wall jersey), DeSean Jackson and Robert Griffin III (both Redskins) all showed their faces for game three of the Indiana series. Where are these people during the regular season on a Tuesday night against Milwaukee? At least Wale (who showed up for game six of the Indy series) shows up once or twice a year. I've often heard over the last 14 years that Washington is a basketball town. I'm thinking now it's a fair weather fan town. Try struggling through 35 plus games a year for over a decade.

Sadly, as fast as the bandwagonners jumped on the train, they got off even faster. Once the Pacers beat us in game three, it seemed like nobody wanted to have anything to do with the Wizards. All of  sudden, everyone was concerned about how gorgeous the weather was this spring. Game six of the Indy series wasn't even sold out. Are you kidding me? I believe in karma. I hope Ted Leonsis remembers the true fans who soldiered through the lean years when we get really good.

5. Ticket Greed
Speaking of Ted Leonsis…

Thanks to the bandwagonners and I guess to the Capitals for sitting the postseason out this year (not their choice exactly), tickets for Wizards playoff games were about the hottest ticket in town the last few weeks. The secondary market literally exploded. I keep an eye on prices of secondary market tickets and I was astonished to see upper deck tickets posted for north of $150. I realize POSTING tickets for that price is not the same as SELLING them for that price, but I checked back often enough to feel pretty confident that someone somewhere paid that price for 400 level tickets.

If I was astonished, I think the Wizards were too. The first season ticket holder presale for games one and two of the Chicago series featured upper deck center tickets for $32 per seat. Based on the secondary market (in my opinion), the team upped the price for game six (which never happened) to $60 for the same seat. When we ousted the Bulls and got ready to welcome the Pacers for round two, the presale price for the same tickets went up to $75. The secondary market remained as hot as ever so the team went for broke seemingly during the game six presale, offering upper deck tickets for $129. In about two weeks, the team had raised the price from $32 to $129. I know I'm oversimplifying but that's what happened in a nutshell.

Game six of the Indiana series, the most important home professional basketball in Verizon Center EVER, was not sold out. And I believe the ticket prices had a whole lot to do with it. For those couple of weeks when Wizards fever was high, it seemed like people would give their right arm to see a game. But when we lost game three to the Pacers, the bubble burst. I don't think it's a stretch to blame the non-sellout in game six on ticket prices being just too darned high. And I think the team has to take the blame for some of that. Note: it's rare that I blame ownership for anything in this blog. I just feel strongly about this one.

My biggest fear about my season tickets is that I will be priced out of my comfort zone one day and be forced to surrender my seats to a fair weather fan who doesn't care one iota about this team unless they are super successful. I'm making a plea here for ownership to make a place for fans like me in the future. It's not the first time and it for sure won't be the last. I see the playoff pricing this spring as a sign of things to come. And I don't like it.

0.0 left in game six. Season over!
6. Game Six
Despite the heartbreak of the series loss to the Pacers, especially after the euphoria of game one, game six was the most exciting game of basketball I have ever attended. Sure we didn't win and it probably wasn't as satisfying as the 2008 Soulja Boy playoff game, but it was still the best I've been to because of the sense of hope in the building and the genuine realization surrounded by fellow fans (some probably bandwagonners, admittedly) that this sort of thing could be an annual occurrence.

The game didn't look so good in the first half. It looked like another one of those games that Indiana would just be too strong and we'd wilt and hopefully come back stronger the next year. The Pacers were up 12 at the half and despite a reasonably competitive third quarter it seemed like the game was lost. There were a number of calls that hadn't gone our way (Paul George drawing the charge / just blatantly falling down against Trevor Ariza comes to mind) and the Pacers were once again whining (David West again!) and flopping (Luis Scola with the Oscar please) their way to an easy clinching win.

But the fourth quarter changed all that and made this game the best I have ever seen. If I sat down for five minutes in that quarter I'd be surprised. Nobody else around me was either. At the end of the quarter we were standing and cheering in appreciation of a special season (don't dispute me please, it's the Wizards remember) but earlier we were on our feet because the Wizards showed one last time how well they can play. I can't remember a sequence more amazing than Bradley Beal pulling the defensive rebound out of 7'-2" Roy Hibbert's hands and coming down to our end of the court seconds later to hit a long three to put the Wizards up 74-73. The place went crazy! That's what I can't wait to see next year and it will keep me going through Summer League until then.

After Beal hit his three, the Pacers killed us, ending the game on a 20-6 run and taking the game by 13. Game over! Season over! Best season since '79. Next year!