By DERON SNYDER
As the NBA season tips off Tuesday, the Washington Wizards find themselves in an uncommon position: They’re expected to be pretty good, a playoff team at the very least and potentially an Eastern Conference finalist.
Eighty-two regular-season games and two rounds of playoffs must be negotiated in order to reach that point, which would be their deepest postseason trip since 1978-79. But the ability to mention it with a straight face shows the franchise’s strides since making John Wall the No. 1 overall pick in 2010.
Two, distinct contingents have transformed the Wizards from laughable losers to formidable foes. First you have the oldheads, whose ranks were bolstered by the acquisition of veteran Paul Pierce, who turned 37 this month. Along with fellow 30-somethings Andre Miller (38), Drew Gooden (33), Nene (32) and Marcin Gortat (30), Pierce gives Washington a wealth of invaluable experience, especially come playoff time.
However, those geezers can’t go far without significant contributions from the young guns.
Everyone in the NBA talks about Wall (24) and his running mate Bradley Beal (21), who form one of the league’s best backcourts.
But a portion of Washington’s success could hinge on the development of another fresh-faced duo, Otto Porter Jr. (21) and Glen Rice Jr. (23).
If their play in the regular season is anything like their play in the NBA summer league, Porter and Rice will give Washington incredible depth and flexibility. Rice was MVP, averaging a league-high 25 points per game and nearly eight rebounds, while Porter was a first-team selection, averaging 19 points per game and nearly six rebounds.
By DERON SNYDER
Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III surely looked forward to Wednesday’s practice with great anticipation. The last time he practiced and was expected to play in the next game was nearly six weeks ago.
Now, he has progressed to the possibility of playing. Not that he needs extra motivation – or has room for any – but the next game just happens to be Dallas on Monday Night Football.
The national stage, the famed rivalry, the return to Texas where he starred at Baylor University … it paints an incredibly tempting scenario in RG3’s mind, envisioning the perfect setting to return from the dislocated left ankle he suffered in Week 2.
History shows that he recovers from injury faster than expected.
It also shows that he hurries back faster than what’s good for him.
Here’s hoping Griffin heard Kevin Durant on Tuesday when the Oklahoma Thunder star addressed the media for the first time since being diagnosed with a “Jones fracture” in his right foot and undergoing surgery last week.
Durant loves hooping as much as anyone. He rarely forgoes opportunities to play in summer leagues, charity events and the like, which made his withdrawal from the U.S. national team so stunning last summer (notwithstanding Paul George’s gruesome broken leg).
Players with Durant’s injury, which usually occurs 3/4 of an inch from the base of the pinkie toe, typically recover in six to eight weeks. The notion that a gym rat like Durant would try to beat that timetable was squashed in his news conference.
“I’m not going to rush it at all,” Durant said. “That’s one thing I’m not going to do. I’m sure I’ll feel better in two or three weeks. But I definitely don’t want to rush it and wind up hurting it even more.”
That’s from a guy who previously experienced nothing more serious than a sprained ankle.
RG3 has suffered three major injuries in the last six years.
By DERON SNYDER
Here’s an idea for a great Hollywood story:
Colt McCoy, the former Texas Longhorns star, returns home for Monday Night Football and leads Washington to victory against archrival Dallas, snapping the Cowboys’ six-game winning streak and putting a frown on Jerry Jones’ overexposed face.
If that project isn’t green-lighted, another script has some potential:
Washington turns to its other quarterback who played college football in The Lone Star State and Robert Griffin III displays his remarkable recuperative powers again, shaking off the rust and recapturing enough old magic to vanquish the despised Cowboys.
There’s also a chance that Jay Gruden resurrects the fantasy tale he shut down Sunday:
Bouncing back from his benching, Kirk Cousins shows a national TV audience that he can indeed eliminate turnovers and post the plump stats that make observers swoon, as Washington wins its second consecutive game with him as the starter.
None of the aforementioned plots are likely to play out as written, where Washington gets the W at the end. Dallas opened as 10-point favorites and the spread might grow higher.
The real suspense is which of Washington’s three quarterbacks will start the game, though the intrigue won’t end there.
No matter the results after Gruden names a starter for Monday night, his team will continue to seek long-term answers to its pressing questions at football’s most-important position.
Pickings are slim. There’s a maybe (RG3), a probably not (Cousins) and a definitely not (McCoy).
By DERON SNYDER
The Kirk Cousins Experiment, which took off with so much hope and promise, crashed and burned Sunday afternoon.
It’s too early to tell the full extent of damage that Cousins suffered, but he undoubtedly limps away with a scarred psyche and bruised ego at minimum.
Instead of stating his case to be Washington’s starting quarterback after Robert Griffin III returns, Cousins has sputtered and backfired.
On Sunday, he faltered to the point that Colt McCoy – Washington’s third-stringer who failed to fill Cleveland’s long-running black under center – was inserted at halftime and engineered a 19-17 victory against the visiting Tennessee Titans.
We still refer to Cousins as a “young” quarterback, because he’s in his third season and has yet to reach double-figures in starts. But NFL types don’t need much time before designating players as starter-material or career backup.
Cousins has made their decision easy since taking over for RG3 in Week 2, entering Sunday’s game with eight interceptions in five contests. Two picks in the first half sent him to the bench after intermission.
If his confidence is shaken, that’s something he’ll have to deal with, because it unlikely that the league’s talent evaluators care.
By DERON SNYDER
Just in case you remained unconvinced, just in case a touch of delusion still lingered, just in case traces of denial were evident, it’s time to face reality:
Washington absolutely, positively is one of “those” NFL teams.
There really should be no doubt after last-place finishes in seven of the last 10 seasons, including five in the last six. But acceptance is difficult for diehards, who always look for glimmers of hope and reasons to refute the obvious.
They thought they found some when coach Mike Shanahan arrived and quarterback Robert Griffin III soon followed. But the glow of a 10-6 record two seasons ago has long since faded and Washington has resumed what constitutes normalcy around here.
“All the players are having their share of good plays,” coach Jay Gruden said Monday during his media session. “But over the course of the game, everybody sprinkles in a little bit of poor play and that results in 1-6.”
“Or 1-5. What are we, 1-5? I’m losing track.”
Keeping up can be difficult when losses pile up like dirty laundry. Sunday’s defeat against Arizona dropped Washington to 1-13 in its last 14 games.
That type of mark inspires confidence in opponents, no matter how dreadful they might be themselves. When they see “Washington” on the schedule, they circle the date and believe that’s the game when they’ll fix whatever ails them.
Because it’s a game against their own kind.
By DERON SNYDER
The victors get to write history.
The vanquished get to lament it.
The Washington Nationals, arguably baseball’s best team this season, begin their winter vacation much earlier than they expected, much sooner than predicted.
Instead of advancing to the National League Championship Series to settle a two-year-old score with the St. Louis Cardinals, the Nats are left to ponder what happened at Nationals Park and AT&T Park over the course of three losses in five days.
They will look back on their blown opportunities and untimely miscues. They will reflect on their failure to execute in critical situations. They will recall their inability to produce when production was a must.
They will rewind key moments of Games 1, 2 and 4 – the crucial at-bats, pressure-packed pitches and split-second fielding plays – and they will wince.
What they could have done will provide no solace. What they would have done will offer no relief. What they should have done will ease no pain.
They will keep coming back to what they actually did, losing the National League Division Series for the second time in three seasons. And they will hurt all over again.
There is no shame in dropping three, one-run games in the NLDS against a San Francisco team with championship DNA. But that does not make defeat sting any less.
“I told them I’m proud of their effort,” manager Matt Williams said in the interview session after the Giants’ 3-2 victory ended Washington’s season Tuesday night. “We established a way to go about this game in spring training and we accomplished that goal. We played the way we wanted to play and did a lot of things right.
“So, you know, it’s tender and it’s bitter and all of those things, but I’m proud of them. I’m proud of the way they went about it.”
Williams had a fine season as a rookie skipper and he should garner many votes for NL Manager of the Year. He was no stranger to postseason baseball during his 17-year playing career, especially toward the end. He reached the playoffs four times between 1997-2003 and participated in the World Series with Arizona and Cleveland.
His counterpart, San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy, didn’t have nearly the same playing career, lasting just nine seasons and reaching the playoffs twice. But Bochy is in his 20th season as a skipper, with three pennants and two World Series titles on his resume.
To say the Giants had an advantage in the dugout is stating the obvious. Bochy has first-hand knowledge about the required shift in mentality once the regular season ends and the postseason begins.
That’s a lesson that Williams just learned the hard way.
By DERON SNYDER
For the first time in seven years, LeBron James will not be featured on opening night when the NBA season commences in three weeks.
Don’t get it twisted, though: All eyes will be on James this season, again, like they have since he was drafted in 2003. His exceptional combination of skill, size, speed and strength, along with his record of single-handedly shifting the league’s balance of power – twice – makes him a most uncommon hoops commodity.
It’s no surprise that the Cleveland Cavaliers, with their new Big 3 of James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, are tied with Oklahoma City and the Los Angeles Clippers for the most national TV appearances (not counting games on NBATV) on the upcoming season’s schedule.
More incentive is unnecessary. But there’s another reason to keep tabs on Cleveland this year; they might speed up the revolution that San Antonio has struggled to pull off alone.
Everyone raved about the beauty of Gregg Popovich’s offense as it sliced and diced James’ Miami Heat in the NBA Finals last season. The ball moved, the players cut and the Spurs’ shots ranged from good to great to unbelievable. It was downright embarrassing at times for the bewildered Heat.
In scooping David Blatt from Europe and installing him as head coach – before anyone knew for certain that LeBron was headed back – the Cavs took a step toward spreading that style of play.
The league should send a thank-you note.
By DERON SNYDER
For all the winning they have enjoyed since 2012, the Washington Nationals entered October with just two postseason victories.
They are still very much neophytes at this playoff-baseball thing, especially as it concerns coming out ahead. With their loss Friday in Game 1 of the National League Division Series, the Nats had twice as many postseason defeats as wins.
They fell even further below the .500 mark on Saturday, in historic, frustrating and excruciating fashion. The San Francisco Giants’ 2-1 victory in 18 innings – MLB’s longest postseason game in terms of time (six hours and 23 minutes) – was another painful postseason lesson for the Nats.
They are learning that experience can be a cruel teacher and substitutes are not allowed.
At least Washington is being schooled by the best, San Francisco this year and St. Louis in 2012. Thanks to Brandon Belt’s solo homer leading off the 18th inning, the Giants won their 10th consecutive playoff game. But they did so in atypical fashion, failing time and again to capitalize on opportunities in extra innings and beat the Nats with fundamentals.
Yet, the Giants prevailed, which is all that matters this time of year.
Winning a lot during the regular season and being close to winning or tying a series, matters not at all.
However, the cusp of victory has become an unwelcome pattern for the home team. The Nats were one pitch away from knotting the NLDS against the Giants, just like they were one pitch away from advancing to the National League Championship Series against the Cardinals.
By DERON SNYDER
Once again, it’s time to check off some items on my “TIDU List” – Things I Don’t Understand:
*How Buck Showalter kept Baltimore on track.
Their BW Parkway rivals had lots of injuries, too, but the Orioles took “next man up” to a new level. All-Stars catcher Matt Wieters and Manny Machado were lost for the season in May and August, respectively. GM Dan Duquette deserves credit for providing capable reserves and trading for others, but Showalter has pulled all the right strings.
Having won AL Manager of the Year in 1994 and 2004, he’s due again.
*Why the Nationals shouldn’t be favored to win the pennant.
Things didn’t work out last season when Washington was a popular World Series pick. But the team is back in that position. ESPN’s Jayson Stark polled 15 baseball executives; a dozen picked the Nats as NL champs and 11 picked them as Series champs. Folks struggle to identify a real area of weakness.
If the Nats play to their ability under postseason pressure, D.C. has a parade in store.
*How a 29-year drought could have a wilder, happier ending.
The Royals didn’t clinch a playoff spot until the season’s final weekend. Then they played 12 innings in nearly five hours Tuesday before allowing their fans to go crazy again. Kansas City’s walk-off, comeback victory against Oakland was quite the thriller for everyone in attendance and viewers who didn’t turn off the TV and turn in.
Regardless of what happens next, the Royals have atoned for missing the playoffs since 1985.