The way DeMar DeRozan dribbled down the clock in the closing seconds of Friday’s game, then pulled back to launch a three — it gave Washington Wizards forward Kyle Kuzma flashbacks.
Back to a time when a glossy start only masked deeper problems such as roster chemistry that produced six months of uninspiring basketball. Back to the bad, ol’ days of the 2021-22 Wizards.
“Last year,” Kuzma declared when asked what was he thinking when the Chicago Bulls all-star attempted a game-winning three-pointer that would’ve spoiled Washington’s home opener at Capital One Arena.
If we’ve learned anything from the extremely small sample size of the Wizards’ 2-0 start, it’s that this isn’t last year.
It’s too early to paint Washington as a reformed contender for the Eastern Conference play-in tournament or even a playoff spot; everyone’s optimistic in October, and a pair of wins over the Victor Wembanyama-or-bust Pacers and the Zach LaVine- and Lonzo Ball-less Bulls reveal only how the Wizards can do what’s necessary to survive the teams they should beat.
Over the past 20 seasons, the Wizards have started 2-0 only six times (including this season). Of those previous five seasons, they advanced to the postseason three times. Missing from that list would be the 2021-22 campaign when the Wizards not only won their first pair but opened the season 10-3 — then finished two spots out of the play-in tournament.
Still, it’s not too early for the Wizards themselves to recognize the major difference between this team and last season’s.
This time around, they like each other.
There has been an attitude adjustment for the players in red, white and blue — or the throwback blue and bronze they wore Friday night. Coach Wes Unseld Jr. subtly hinted at it before the season.
“The biggest thing for me is the fit. The talent is one thing, and I think just — there’s a better fit,” Unseld said last month. “That does help that competitive spirit, that connectivity we talk about. When it fits and guys get [the] big picture. What’s the most important thing? That’s winning. That mind-set seems to be more a collective within the group than we’ve seen in the past.”
Where Unseld chose delicacy in dancing around the problems that plagued last year, Kuzma showed no filter. After the Wizards’ 102-100 win over the Bulls, Kuzma offered three times — unprompted, mind you — that guys in the locker room can tolerate one another this year.
“I mean, we’re all just playing the right way. We have a veteran team, we have a team where we all like each other, and I mean that’s the biggest thing. We can tell we all like each other,” Kuzma said, taking an opportunity to drop this eyebrow-raising quote when the actual question was just about the team’s 26 assists against the Bulls.
Of course, Kuzma, of all the players from last season, can say that. He’s now starting alongside Monte Morris, his childhood friend from Flint, Mich. And he also has reunited with Delon Wright, his former college teammate at Utah. So maybe Kuzma is just happier because he’s around his buddies. Still, I wanted to see if other teammates felt the same. Looking around Washington’s locker room filled with new faces, I found center Daniel Gafford, one of the few holdovers from years past.
Gafford told me how the chemistry, even among a reshaped roster, has helped the Wizards through wins against Indiana and Chicago. Each game, the Wizards built a sizable lead only to watch it dwindle before timely stops and clutch baskets beat back the threats. And just like Kuzma’s, Gafford’s response went to an unexpected place: the comparison between this season and last.
“We kind of hold our composure at the end of games now,” Gafford said. “Any other time we would have been in that position, we kind of folded. But this year we’re just something different.”
Naturally, all this talk about fit, connectivity, we all like each other (!) and we’re … something different makes one wonder what kind of real housewives drama was happening behind the scenes a year ago.
The 2021-22 fit looked just fine through November. Even after they sprinkled in a couple of two-game losing streaks, by Nov. 27 the Wizards were still 13-7 and standing third in the Eastern Conference. But by then, there were already hints of locker room friction.
Spencer Dinwiddie, the Wizards’ big free agent signing from the summer of ’21, never quite meshed alongside Beal. In December, he gave long answers that never got around to explaining why it wasn’t working. By the next month, Dinwiddie confessed how his input as a leader “wasn’t necessarily welcomed” in the locker room. Then in February, the Wizards traded Dinwiddie to Dallas for Kristaps Porzingis.
Since then, Dinwiddie has pushed back on any narrative that he was the reason the Wizards sunk. Lest we forget the dust-up between Montrezl Harrell and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope during a game in January. Still, it’s telling that at the trade deadline the Wizards moved two players — Dinwiddie and Harrell — who created the perception of locker room dissent.
So back to the conversation with Gafford. After Friday’s feel-good win, we’re talking about guys liking each other, and as I start my question, Gafford takes over.
“Last year, on the outside, we would have thought the team —” I said.
“— has issues, for sure,” he finished.
“But all in all, yeah, I would say that is true,” Gafford continued. “The key point is the relationships and stuff are wanted more. Everybody’s not seeking individual goals; it’s a full-out team goal. We all want to win. We all want to play in the postseason, and that takes being together and playing as a unit. Being there for each other and taking constructive criticism. If somebody gets on your tail, you take that and use it to be able to progress in the game.”
Beal, for his part, didn’t agree that last year’s Wizards had a locker room full of cliques.
“That’s a little extra. … We liked each other last year, too,” Beal said when asked about Kuzma’s comments.
Even so, Beal mentioned a similar buy-in Gafford has noticed. He believes there’s less friction, more harmony.
“It was just, we have guys who all buy in to what Wes wants. It’s not a lot of … pushback on what we want. It’s getting what he wants done first, and then if we need to make adjustments, make adjustments later. We’re not questioning his, I guess, methods in a way,” Beal said. “We’re all accepting, we’re all accepting the criticism, one through 15. That’s the biggest thing about it, man. It’s just pure joy when we’re out there. … Everybody’s bought in to that, that’s been the beauty of it.”
On Friday night, when DeRozan gave Kuzma those bad vibes — on New Year’s Day 2022, he hit the game-winning three-pointer from the corner that beat the buzzer and broke the Wizards’ hearts — the memories of a lost season came rushing back.
“I was just, like: ‘This is going to happen again. This is going to happen again,’ ” Kuzma recalled. “But it rimmed out though. It was close. And thank God.”
Further proof this isn’t last year.