How The Wizards Discovered Their Identity as the Most Unlikable Team in the NBA

How The Wizards Discovered Their Identity as the Most Unlikable Team in the NBA

Tracking the NBA off-season as a Wizards fan is a horrible way to waste the summer. While fans of rival teams get to debate whether they won the big trade and brag about their marquee signings, the high points of our summer are borderline satirical press conferences introducing players that haven’t moved the needle for three-plus years.

Considering the low benchmark set over summers past, most Wizards fans weren’t too surprised by this off-season’s underwhelming moves – we’ve come to grips with the fact that Ernie will only ever acquire a key piece if a no-brainer draft pick falls in his lap. What was curious, however, was that our personnel moves seemingly failed to add one thing that’s been glaringly missing from this squad: an identity.

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Every team with title aspirations plays with an understanding of what they do well and what their approach to winning will be. The Rockets fire up either a layup or a three in 7 seconds or less, the Celtics are stocked with lengthy wing defenders, and the Warriors start five All-NBA players. The Wizards, on the other hand, slogged through last season unsure of who they were and how they wanted to attack. Are they a bad good team or a good bad team? Great question. Are they three-point shooters? No. A fast-break team? Not really. Hard-nosed defenders? F*** no!

The Road to Self-Discovery

So, while on paper the team should improve by replacing Gortat with the center he used to come off the bench for, and substituting Jodie Meeks with literally anybody, it was disappointing that those additions didn’t readily clarify the team’s strategy going forward. What transformational skill-sets do Austin Rivers and Dwight Howard provide other than making fans feel icky about rooting for the players on their team? What new dimension was added aside from the looming possibility that these fiery personalities will combust an already-volatile locker room? The short and obvious answer is … nothing.

Aside from some new window dressing, the Wizards executives are running it back with more or less the same team that underperformed all last year – at least at first glance. When you take a step back, however, you’ll see that these personnel decisions add up to more than a simple cosmetic cover-up. Instead, they fit a well-established pattern, one that has become so entrenched in how this organization does business that it’s time to admit it’s become a core element of how this franchise operates. The Wizards didn’t find their next great superstar this summer, but they did discover their one true identity: the most unlikable team in the NBA.

Soul Searching – How Did We Get This Way?

Culture is established at the upper echelons of an organization, from where it filters down through the ranks. Where the head goes, the body follows. Near the top of the Wizards organization is Ernie Grunfeld, the most irredeemable and unapologetically incompetent figure in Washington sports. The only man above him on the executive ladder is Ted Leonsis, whose NBA resume includes entire sections dedicated to trolling bloggers, endlessly raising ticket prices, and refusing to fire Ernie Grunfeld. Together, this tandem has frustrated their fans for years. If you were required to describe the pair in a single word, you’d be hard pressed to find a better adjective than “unlikeable.” Is it any surprise, then, that after a decade-plus under Ted and Ernie’s stewardship, that this franchise has been exactly that?

The evidence suggests that if the players have established a collective reputation as being loathsome, it’s because they’re taking cues from their leaders. The owner and GM trumpet their own mediocrity, the team does the same. The owner and GM rebuff accountability, the players do the same. The owner and GM lose focus over the course of the season, – you get it by now. And now, with the addition of a couple fan least-favorites, the team is doubling down on being the NBA grouches.

If the Roster Fits.. 

Perhaps it’s a bit harsh to our players to label them as the most undesirable collection of talent in the league. It’s pretty incredible though, once you start to think about the team in this context, how well this roster lends itself to such a scheme. Suddenly, everybody’s role makes sense in a way that it never quite has before. Don’t believe it? Take a look for yourself:

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John Wall – John is the preeminent disgruntled All-Star. Who else grumbles as much about what other guys are getting paid, or the fact that he doesn’t get billboards, or that his 2K rating doesn’t meet his expectations? This mean-mugging, gang-sign throwing, spoon-feeding Point God is the anti-Kyrie; the star that hasn’t received his due and isn’t afraid to let everyone know it.

Bradley Beal – With the divisive Wall taking so much flack by himself, you’d think Beal would be universally revered. Instead, he’s taken his fair share of heat for bold comments, poor leadership, and selfish late game play. Then, with John out, he showed he could take the lead on starting drama by starting the “Everybody eats” controversy.

Markieff Morris – Kief, already one of the most T-ed up players in the league, says he needs to add even more “bully ball” to his game. What more needs to be said here?

Otto Porter – Otto is somehow simultaneously the quietest person on team and the most unliked by the team’s stars. With his huge contract, he also creates more disagreement among fans than anyone else on the squad.

Dwight Howard – Dwight is, without doubt, the most hated player in the NBA. Playing on his sixth team in eight years, is there anyone in the league – players, coaches, media, refs – with something good to say about this locker room cancer? Not to mention, Dwight led the league in technical fouls by a wide margin. This addition is the one that pushes the Wizards to the extreme on the unlikability scale.

Austin Rivers – First Rivers incited the entire Houston Rockets to hunt him down in the underbelly of the Staples Center. Then, his own father gave up on him and shipped him out of town. Ouch, this guy must suck to be around.

Kelly Oubre Jr. – Kelly went up against the notoriously dirty Kelly Olynyk in the 2017 playoffs and somehow managed to come out as the less-likable Kelly O.

Tomas Santoransky – It was hard to find much to fault Tomas for last season. He made key contributions and always had a great attitude. In fact, he might’ve been the most likable guy on the team. Maybe that explains why he dropped out of the rotation come playoff time.

Ian Mahinmi – Mahinmi actually seems like a really nice guy – he’s always flashing his big smile, he gives back to the community, he dresses well. Regardless of all this, he’ll always be hated by Wizards fans for suckering Ernie into giving him the worst contract in Wizards history.

Jason Smith – Jason is constantly heralded as one of the best teammates in the NBA. Obviously, he therefore never plays.

Be Who You Are and Be It Well

Having established that Wizards are ready to be the most unlikable team in the NBA, is this transformation something we as fans should actually be rooting for? If the alternative is to continue slogging on as a faceless and toothless underachiever, then yes, absolutely.

The Wizards had a maddeningly uneven year last season – overperforming when they should’ve been overmatched, but then dropping countless games to inferior opponents. A big portion of that inconsistency can be attributed to the team’s identity crisis. The squad’s approach and source of motivation changed from game to game and consequently their intensity level and production fluctuated as well. A commitment to being unlikable may not be the tactic that yields the most feel-good storylines or aesthetically-pleasing basketball, but at least it is a defined tactic.

The Wizards’ record should be markedly better this year simply by virtue of eliminating the emotional instability and role confusion that sprouted from a lack of self-awareness and led to many of last season’s worst losses. From there, it’s not too hard to envision how this newfound identity will translate to a team mentality and style of play that generates more wins:

  1. The Wizards won’t be the most prolific offensive team nor the stingiest defensive one, but they will surely be one of the most physical teams. We’ll see a lot of hard fouls, a good deal of technical fouls, and a fair number of scuffles as this team looks to get in peoples’ faces and under their skin. While that strategy may make for some ugly basketball, it will also keep our team engaged and focused – a consistent problem in years past – for four quarters a game and 82 games a season.
  2. The Wizards are going to talk a lot of trash (per usual) and will hopefully finally back it up for the first time (this would be new).
  3. Like last year, they’re going to be gunning for all the teams anointed as better (i.e. Celtics, Sixers, Warriors) than them and will show up to those high-profile games ready to play.
  4. Unlike last year, they’ll have extra motivation to fuel them to play angry against typical trap opponents (Hawks, Hornets, Suns). Almost a quarter of the schedule will be revenge games for Dwight against his former teams.

In all likelihood, there was nothing strategic or deliberate about the front office assembling the repugnant cast of characters into a team. Still, they appear to recognize what they’ve stumbled upon and are excited about how it will play out for the upcoming season.

On the other hand, it remains to be seen whether the fan base will get behind this new-attitude team. There’s a very real chance that this experiment goes south quickly. That being said, if the Wizards fully embody this identity of being the most unlikable team in the league, they’ll surely give the fans something to like.

How Can We Build Up the Wizards Fan Base?

As a huge Wizards fan, I was quite discouraged to hear that one of the reasons Kevin Durant never considered DC as a viable free agency destination was that he felt the team lacked fan support.  Of course, there is a very obvious person to blame for the team’s failures in the free agency market.  Still, KD’s reported sentiments strike an insecurity that all true Wizards fans have: that our fanbase is pretty weak.  The Verizon Center is routinely half-empty, our franchise player is chronically underappreciated, and the fans themselves are often regrettably apathetic.  It seems you can’t go to a game and cheer for the Wizards without having to yell over a contingency of fans from the road team.  Nights like Kobe’s final game in DC highlight this unfortunate reality, and the home record speaks to the lack of any realized home-court advantage.

As tempting as it may be, nothing will get solved by wallowing in self-pity or hunting for a culprit to blame.  Instead, we should be productive and proactive in rebuilding the culture around being a Wizards fan.  We have to take it upon ourselves to foster the growth of this fanbase into one that free agents want to play for and opponents are scared to play against.  In that spirit, here are some strategies that Ted Leonsis and the core group of passionate Wizards fans can employ to build a stronger fanbase:

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Appropriate Season Ticket Prices: Okay, so this one is squarely on Ted.  Perhaps the most important variable in determining how many Wizards fans fill the arena is the price of season tickets.  And recently, season tickets prices have risen to levels that are clearly above market value.  After my first season as a ticket holder, I saw that the price increases following the 2015 season resulted in many of my fellow Section-117 plan holders opting not to renew.  After the most recent price hikes, even I couldn’t justify buying a season’s worth of tickets from Monumental when I could get individual game tickets on secondary markets for a fraction of cost.  Based on how many times Monumental extended my renewal deadline, I have a hunch that there will be a more dramatic drop in season ticket holders this upcoming season. Obviously, this attrition means that many of the most tenured and ardent fans are going to be replaced with more empty seats, or worse, bandwagoners in Cavs or Warriors jerseys.

Of course, Ted is running a business and he has to make money.  The marginal success the team has experienced over the past few years and the growing popularity of the league overall certainly justify some increase in ticket prices.   But prices above market value are hard to justify, especially when they come at the cost of lower attendance by the team’s most enthusiastic fans.  Ted, who has a vested interest in maintaining a base of loyal, repeat customers, should meet season ticket holders halfway.  Fair prices will allow more devoted Wizards fans to come more games, creating a better atmosphere in the stadium.  This will help develop a home-court advantage that results in a better team, which will drive fan interest, which will ultimately yield more demand for Wizards tickets.  In the end everyone benefits: Leonsis, the players, and the fans.  But it all starts with Ted setting the season ticket prices back at an appropriate level.

Special Cheering Group/Sections:  One of my biggest gripes against Wizards fans is that as a group we’re very subdued.  John Wall infamously commented that the fans seem to get more excited about free chicken sandwiches than they do about a win.  And if you are somebody who likes to cheer loudly and heckle the opposing team (me), quite often you’ll find yourself the recipient of reproaching glances from your neighbors.  We need to redefine the code of etiquette for attending a Wizards basketball game.  To do that, I propose starting a Designated Cheering Section.

This idea is not all unique; it comes from supporters of the University of Maryland Men’s Soccer team who started a fan club called The Crew.  The club started in 2003 with a small group of students who would sit behind the goal, loudly heckling the opposing goalie and raucously cheering on the home team.  The group quickly grew in size and sophistication, coordinating outfits and organizing chants.  The result has been a spike in interest in the team and a long standing reputation for one of the best home field advantages in college soccer.

We should bring this idea to the Verizon Center in the form of a few sections, preferably behind the basket, where fans are encouraged to cheer, yell, and heckle opposing players.  Obviously, fans are encouraged to do this all throughout the arena, but these sections would be reserved for the loudest, rowdiest, and most energetic fans.  Putting all these fans in the same section will allow them to feed off of each other’s energy, and also to coordinate chants and jeers.  These sections of boisterous fans will lead the rest of the arena in rooting for the team while teaching casual fans the proper way to cheer.

The Cheering Section would start small, but it will grow quickly as other fans see how much fun it is.  Passion is a contagious thing.  And once fans have yelled and screamed their support for the WizKids, they’ll probably find themselves more invested in the success of the team.  As the group of cheerleaders grows, signature chants, norms, and traditions are sure to develop and embed themselves in the culture of the team. Hopefully the end result is a more lively and intimidating home crowd and a few more Wizards wins at the Verizon Center.

Own the Wizard: I, like many of my fellow fans, think that “Wizards” is pretty silly moniker for a collection of world class athletes.  But I figure that if we’re not going to change the name back to the Bullets, then we might as well take ownership of the name that we do have.  That’s why my friend and I went to last season’s home opener on Halloween dressed as Wizards.  As in actual wizards; with hats and beards and a staff that got confiscated by security.  It was incredibly silly, but it was one of the best times I’ve had at a game.  I think the team should encourage more things like that.  We have a weird mascot, so let’s have fun with it.

For starts, every year the game that falls on or closest to Halloween has to be costume night, where everyone comes dressed up as their favorite Wizards.  This past year I was Gandalf, but let’s fill the stands with some Harry Potters and Hermione Grangers and Merlins, etc.  Bonus points for wearing a jersey over your costume.  Next, we should build out G-Wiz’s backstory.  He must be some sort of wizard, but what kind of powers does he have, what kind of quests has he been on, what the hell species is he?  Someone needs to answer these questions.  And one more suggestion: Since the NBA is making new alternate jerseys each year, can we get something wizard inspired?  Like maybe the team can warm up in hooded cloaks for a couple games.

Bandwagon Shaming: Among the worse symptoms of the Wizard’s underachievement this past decade is that we have a lot of bandwagon fans in DC.   It’s easy enough to understand where they’re coming from: they haven’t had a home team to root for in the NBA playoffs so they pick another team to support.  Still, it’s pretty lame when they just pick the best team to root for, and even more shameful when they’re rooting for those teams against the home squad.  We need to call these fugazi’s out.  We need to remind everyone that the only fans that get respect are loyal fans.  We need to shame the bandwagon fans clogging up the Verizon Center.

The Wizards were one of the first teams to get into bandwagon shaming, with the Bandwagon Cam on the jumbotron a few years ago.  I say let’s take this a step farther.  Let’s rig the nightly seat upgrade promotion so that a Warriors groupie wins, but then let’s upgrade them to the last row in the 400 section.   Let’s raise the stake on the Bandwagon Cam and show losers in Cavs jerseys on the jumbotron with the nerdy Snapchat filter.  Let’s send G-Wiz out into the stands to prank clowns wearing LA Clippers gear.  Or we can give a kid in a KD jersey a chance to play someone 1-on-1 for a prize, but then have him faceoff against one of our D-League players.  This may sound like a harsh way to treat these confused fans, but the truth is that we’ll be doing it for their own good.

Bonus Thoughts:

-A Wizards branded sports bar near the Verizon Center that fans have a place to come for road games or before and after home games to kick it with other fans.  Maybe they can set it up so that every now and then players will roll through after the game to interact with fans.

-Let people send SnapChats to the team and pick a few of the best ones to display on the jumbotron or the CSN broadcast.

Bring back G-Man.

-Fire Ernie Grunfeld!

 

What have they done with G-Man? #freeGMan

At the Verizon Center for a recent Wizards game, I found it odd that G-Wiz was leading the crowd in the “De-fense” chant in the fourth quarter.  Not only because G-Wiz was horribly offbeat as he banged the drum, but also because that job is usually reserved for G-Man, the more serious Wizards mascot.  When I thought about it, I couldn’t remember the last time I saw G-Man, though I’ve been to at least 12 games this season.  Something is definitely up.

Missing

Looking through G-Wiz’s social media accounts, which he officially shares with G-Man, G-Man is surprisingly absent.  He last tweeted from the account before the season and he’s not in any pictures since then.  I remember seeing him at the arena on opening night, but I haven’t seen him at any games since then.  It’s also peculiar that G-Wiz has taken over his chant-leading duties, and that the Secret Service Dunkers are now performing without their leader.

G-Man is the perfect complement to the goofy G-Wiz.  While G-Wiz dresses up silly and picks fights with Robin Lopez, G-Man is all about business.  His toned physique reveals his discipline, and he must be one of only a few mascots that can do flip dunks.  Just two years ago, G-Man reached peak awareness, when he helped John Wall take home the Dunk Contest trophy.  And now he’s nowhere to found.

What’s behind this? Is G-Man being phased out of the organization?   Is he beefing with G-Wiz?  Is he in Randy Wittman’s doghouse?  Is in Oklahoma actively recruiting Kevin Durant? Is Robin Lopez holding him hostage? Is Ted Leonsis refusing to pay his salary? We need to start asking these questions before it’s too late and we never see G-Man again.  #freeGMan