Wizards are taking their medicine, but can they tolerate the side effects?

SALT LAKE CITY — Ever since injuries derailed John Wall’s career, the Washington Wizards organization suffered from an underlying illness.

The team followed a roster-construction plan that was flawed to begin with and also poorly executed. The front office tried to build around Bradley Beal, a very good but not great player. With Beal as its solitary cornerstone, the franchise was never good enough to contend for a title and never bad enough to win a top draft pick in the NBA Draft Lottery. When the Wizards had chances to draft a franchise-changing player — Tyrese Haliburton in 2020 — they whiffed.

What is occurring during this miserable season should be seen through the context of that recent past. New executives Michael Winger and Will Dawkins have made an abrupt course correction. By trading Beal and Kristaps Porziņģis last summer, the new front office effectively ended the days of making moves to chase meaningless wins in the short term. The days of mediocrity are over. (To be clear, the Wizards had no choice with Porziņģis other than to trade him because he intended to become an unrestricted free agent last July and sign elsewhere.)

The Wizards are taking their medicine, but everyone should expect the medicine to cause unpleasant side effects. Those side effects may become so noxious over the next few years that people will wonder whether the cure is worse than the disease.

The team, and its fans, already are getting a taste of those doubts.

The Wizards lost their 15th consecutive game when they fell Monday night to the Utah Jazz 127-115 at the Delta Center. With a defeat Wednesday night at home, Washington would tie the record for the longest losing streak in franchise history.

“I feel like we’re learning from every game,” forward Deni Avdija said after the Wizards’ dreadful fourth quarter and the shot-making of Jazz sixth man Jordan Clarkson broke open a tight game. “You know, it’s tough right now, I’ll be honest. It’s not fun. It’s not fun to lose those games. But I know we’re gonna grow from it.”

This is a painful time, no doubt about it. Losing this much brings the players, coaches and team staff no joy. It also agonizes the Wizards’ long-suffering fans, many of whom are sick and tired of seeing their favorite NBA team serve as a national punchline. The longer the streak lasts, the more relentless the ridicule from sports-talk radio and TV shows like “First Take” and “Pardon the Interruption” will become.

For Landry Shamet and his Wizards teammates, their 15-game losing streak cannot end soon enough. (Christopher Creveling / USA Today)

But at a moment like this, wretched though it is, it’s apropos to note that moving off the hamster wheel of mediocrity is what many Wizards fans said they wanted during the 2021-22 and 2022-23 seasons, if not before.

One of the most interesting questions Winger has been asked during his tenure was posed in late September when a reporter asked if re-signing Kyle Kuzma in free agency and having other accomplished players on the roster such as Tyus Jones and Jordan Poole invited the danger of remaining mediocre.

Winger’s response provided clear insight into his thinking. He said: “When you are trying to … tunnel for a little bit with the expectation that there’s going to be this era of contention down the line, well, how are you getting to that era of contention down the line? You certainly can’t do it by just being mediocre, mediocre, mediocre.

“But we’re not trying to be mediocre. What we are trying to do is instill competitiveness, intelligent basketball and raise young players while at the same time winning basketball games. What we don’t believe in is we don’t believe in a player-development mindset where you can breed a lot of good habits through intentional losing.”

Even though Winger and Dawkins intentionally moved Washington off the hamster wheel, they did not expect that the 2023-24 Wizards would be this bad. Indeed, the new executives thought the team would lose a lot but wouldn’t be as inept and lifeless as it’s been. That explains why, on Jan. 25, with a 7-36 record and ranking next to last in the league in defensive efficiency and dead last in defensive-rebounding percentage, they removed Wes Unseld Jr. as coach despite the roster flaws Unseld faced. There wasn’t much accountability, and blowout losses were regular occurrences.

Washington has lost 16 of its 18 games since the coaching change with the only two victories coming against the equally atrocious Detroit Pistons and San Antonio Spurs.

“You’ve got to have a short-term memory and you have to just have faith at the end of the day,” Kuzma said. “Those two things keep me being positive in my life: being patient and having faith.”

But the Wizards have played better recently than they did earlier in the season. Over those 18 games, they rank 26th in defensive efficiency and 22nd in defensive-rebounding percentage. Those are modest gains relative to an admittedly low bar, but they’re still gains. Better yet, the team has shown fight on most nights, as it did in an overtime loss to the Lakers in Los Angeles on Thursday and during Monday’s loss to the Jazz.

At 9-52, the Wizards own the league’s worst record. If the current standings hold, Washington would fare no worse in the lottery than receiving the fifth pick in the upcoming draft.

In most years, there would be value to that. But while this draft is said to have solid depth in the first round, it’s generally believed to lack a potential franchise-changing cornerstone at the top. Not only is there no one along the lines of once-in-a-generation prospect Victor Wembanyama, but there also may not be anyone comparable to last year’s No. 2 pick Brandon Miller or last year’s No. 3 pick Scoot Henderson.

The 2024 and ’25 drafts will be worth bottoming out for, not this year’s. The 2025 draft is thought to have at least one cornerstone-level player: forward Cooper Flagg, who will be a freshman at Duke during the 2024-25 college season. The 2026 draft should be stocked with more high-level prospects.

The danger in all of this is that the Wizards will need luck to nab the best players in those drafts. Even with the worst overall record, a team would have only a 14.0 percent chance of winning the top pick, a 13.4 percent likelihood of receiving the second pick and a 12.7 percent probability of drawing the third pick.

So, while moving off the hamster wheel may cure the roster’s problems, it is not a foolproof strategy.

More misery could be in store for the Wizards. Just how much agony would team owner Ted Leonsis be willing to accept if the lottery’s ping-pong balls don’t cooperate over the next several years?

That’s a valid question.

But for a jolt of hope, the Wizards need to look no further than the Spurs. After three consecutive seasons with win totals in the low 30s, San Antonio finally bottomed out last season, going 22-60. That Spurs team suffered through a losing streak that lasted 16 consecutive games. Then, the Spurs won the lottery, allowing them to draft Wembanyama.

It’s safe to say that no one within the Spurs organization bemoans that 16-game losing streak now.

(Top photo of Kyle Kuzma: Christopher Creveling / USA Today)

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