By DERON SNYDER
The Washington Wizards have presented us with so many delightful and tantalizing developments this season, deciding where to dive in is difficult. Like a scrumptious plate of paella, something delicious awaits no matter where you stick your fork.
You could start with the meat, John Wall, who’d be a bona fide MVP candidate if not for the stupendous performances from James Harden and Russell Westbrook. You might choose the seafood, Bradley Beal, whose good health has kept him on the court and justified his max contract in the new NBA economy.
You could begin with the rice, Scott Brooks, who in his first year as coach provided a foundation to withstand a 2-8 start. You can opt for the sausage, Otto Porter, who worked and worked on his broke jumper to become one of the league’s top 3-point shooters.
You might commence with the mussels, Marcin Gortat and Markieff Morris, who provide the physical presence to bother opponents on both ends of the court. Or you could start with a vegetable, the re-shaped and re-energized bench, that’s gone from glaring weakness to solid component faster than you can swallow.
The Wizards have become a veritable smorgasbord and the feast has just begun.
We’re unaccustomed to feeling this good about the Wizards, who have made fans sick to their stomachs for most of the last 38 years. Until Tuesday, that’s how long it had been since Washington won a division title. The team broke the drought and celebrated by dousing Brooks with water after beating the Los Angeles Lakers.
The feat is more symbolic than significant, considering how it has no bearing on playoff seeding. Neither does 50 wins, the next milestone on Washington’s agenda. Entering Wednesday’s contest against the L.A. Clippers, the Wizards needed to at least split their final eight games to reach the mark.
“(The division title) is a great accomplishment,” Wall told reporters Tuesday. “It’s something that hasn’t been done in a long time so it’s something to cherish. It’s great for coach to get it in his first year. But we have bigger goals and our minds set on bigger things.”
This season makes the third in four years that the Wizards have reached the playoffs. But the current vibe is drastically different than the feeling in 2013-14 and 2014-15 when Washington was middle-of-the-pack and pulled off shocking first-round upsets against the Bulls and Raptors, respectively.
These Wizards are viewed as legitimate contenders in the Eastern Conference, with starters and reserves to challenge the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers, the current top-seed Boston Celtics and the nemeses in Toronto and Atlanta. Washington won’t sneak up on anyone this year, not with the Eastern Conference’s best record since Dec. 1 and the NBA’s third-best record since Jan. 1.
And not with Wall making a case as the East’s best point guard, peaking as the playoffs approach.
Half of Wall’s top six scoring games this season occurred in March. He set his career-high in assists (20) this month and also registered two of his best four shooting percentages. Against the Lakers Tuesday he had 34 points and 14 assists, the fifth time this campaign he has eclipsed 30 and 10.
Only two other players average at least 20 points and 10 assists per game (Harden and Westbrook). No one besides those three averages at least 10 assists per game. Walls is posting career highs in scoring (23.2 points) and field-goal percentage (.450.) On two-point attempts, he’s connecting at a .483 clip, due in no small measure to his finishing ability after breakneck drives to the basket.
“I’m having a career year with numbers, scoring-wise, but the way I’m playing has been like this the last couple of years,” he told reporters. “We’re just winning and in the race for a Top 3-seed in the East. That makes a big difference. You get more recognition when your team is winning.”
Who’s a better point guard in the East? Don’t form your lips to say Isiah Thomas, Kyrie Irving or Kyle Lowry, especially if you count both ends of the floor. None of them can defend like Wall, who has more steals than them as well as more rebounds and assists. You can see his eyes light up whenever one of them tries to guard him.
There’s no stopping Wall right now and the Wizards are hard to slow. They haven’t experienced a three-game skid since dropping to 2-8 on Nov. 16. From that point forward, Washington has enjoyed eight winning streaks of three-or-more games, including five-in-a-row and seven-in-a-row.
Brooks saw similar tears with Oklahoma City when Westbrook and Kevin Durant led the Thunder deep into the playoffs. He knows it can happen here. He also knows there’s no guarantee that this carries over to next season.
“It can change with a trade,” he told NBA.com. “It can change with injuries. You have to focus on what you do this year, because every season has its own story. We have a chance to do something special.”
By DERON SNYDER
A photo made the rounds on social media last week and left a trail of scorched cyberspace. It showed more than two dozen men around a large conference table on Capitol Hill. With nary a woman in sight, they debated healthcare issues that included …
Maternity leave and birth control.
I can’t help thinking that the same preponderance of testosterone existed during another recent debate involving the fairer sex. Only a bunch of cavemen would believe that recruiting scabs was a good response to the U.S. women’s hockey team complaints about unfair treatment.
Yeah, that was a great idea. Right up there with vapor-trail pucks and the XFL.
By DERON SNYDER
There are competing theories on why former San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick remains unemployed.
One school of thought blames the lack of interest on Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem last season. The other camp claims that the free agent is unwanted based on his performance the last two years.
Both sides have a point, but one more than the other.
By DERON SNYDER
We can’t have it both ways in sports (or life), yet we insist on trying. We bounce between hard, cold truth and warm-and-fuzzy fiction, choosing whichever flag suits our purpose at a given moment.
For instance, consider the controversy over NBA teams resting superstar players.
Cleveland Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue sparked outrage by keeping LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love on the bench Saturday during a nationally televised blowout loss against the L.A. Clippers. A week earlier, Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr committed the same offense, declining to play Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala in a primetime matchup against the San Antonio Spurs.
The coaches ruined the experience that ticketholders and TV viewers expected! What a slap in the face to broadcast partner ABC and corporate sponsors! Lue and Kerr should be ashamed of themselves for disrespecting the game like that!
Announcers Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson seemed to take Cavs’ absences as a personal affront. “This is an absolute joke,” Jackson complained. “Who is protecting the fans? Who is protecting the game of basketball? Something’s gotta be done.”
Van Gundy went further. “If this was any other business, it would be a prosecutable offense – this type of bait-and-switch maneuver that the NBA allows its team to pull,” he said.
Yet, in a survey of Cavs’ and Warriors’ fans, 100 percent would agree that long-term health and rest for the postseason is more important than any single, regular-season game. Every NBA general manager would sign up to lose a game in March if it meant winning four in May. NBA coaches would unanimously choose to be short-handed for meaningless contests down the stretch opposed to win-or-go-home games in the postseason.
By DERON SNYDER
Maybe they’re just selfish and interested only in their team’s success. Maybe they’re just gullible and conditioned to side with management. Maybe they’re just envious and wish they were enjoying fortune and fame instead.
Whatever the reason, fans too often let emotions get in the way and don’t see the NFL as the cold-blooded business it is.
Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins offered a reminder this week on Adam Schefter’s ESPN podcast.
“They’ll cut you on your birthday, they’ll cut you on the day your child is born, they’ll cut you on Christmas Eve,” Cousins said in his first public remarks since Washington fired Scot McCloughan as general manager. “So you just never know what’s going to happen. I guess I’m always going to keep an open mind, so I try not to get blindsided.”
Cousins denied a report that he contacted owner Dan Snyder and demanded a trade. However, he acknowledged reaching out to Snyder and team president Bruce Allen to inquire “if there was any interest in trading me, just to try to get an understanding of their perspective,” he said. “But from what I heard in conversations, I felt very much supported and felt the owner and the president of the team want me to be the quarterback there for a long time.”
Sure they do. Unless a team blows them away with a trade offer.
Then it’s, you know, just business.
BY DERON SNYDER
Question: How can a No. 1 seed be an underdog in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament?
Answer: When it’s Gonzaga.
In the game “One of these doesn’t belong,” Gonzaga stands out compared to fellow top seeds Villanova, Kansas and North Carolina. Each of those schools has won at least two national titles. The Bulldogs – making their 19th consecutive appearance in the tournament – are looking to reach their first Final Four.
This could be their best shot, entering with a 32-1 record and a No. 2 ranking.
Then again, the same was said in 2013. The Bulldogs were ranked No. 1 and earned their first top seed but they didn’t survive the opening weekend, knocked out by Final Four-bound Wichita State.
The Shockers became just the latest mid-major bracket-buster to snatch Gonzaga’s place as America’s Cinderella. Butler reached the title game (the title game!) in 2010 and 2011. Another interloper, Virginia Commonwealth, also made it to the 2011 Final Four, five years after George Mason’s improbable run.
Gonzaga has burned so many folks in office pools, the Zags should come with a warning label.
By DERON SNYDER
Two out of three ain’t bad.
The World Baseball Classic is correct about its international nature and the sport involved. But the tournament is a long way from being a sterling standard on these shores, where our sporting attention each spring is drawn to college basketball and NFL free agency.
We’re not wired for high-stakes, competitive baseball in March, when we’re accustomed to players jogging in the outfield during exhibition games.
The WBC, held every four years by Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association, is a great idea in theory but hindered by obstacles in practice. Namely, the timing is bad and options aren’t better. Organizing a global competition with baseball’s best is problematic when six months of the year – seven if you count the postseason – are off-limits.
Team USA begins play Friday night against Colombia at Marlins Park. Saturday’s game against the Dominican Republic is sold out. The atmosphere in Miami’s Little Havana will be as raucous and festive as international athletics get.
But the passion doesn’t carry over to the event as a whole, not with so many big-name stars sitting out and so many fans supporting those decisions. Few players turn down invites and explain their reasoning as bluntly as the New York Mets’ Noah Syndergaard.
“Because I am a Met,” he told reporters last week. “Nobody made it to the Hall of Fame or won a World Series playing in the WBC.”
By DERON SNYDER
Fear of failure and fear of success are close cousins, equally devastating in their ability to paralyze individuals and institutions. Potential can’t be maximized when you’re afraid to try, afraid to extend your zone of comfort.
We can’t say for certain that Washington’s NFL team enjoys life in the rut it has occupied for two decades. However, the environment has become quite familiar and cozy, making it seem like the natural order of things.
For this franchise, it’s never “What would the Patriots do?” Or “How would the Steelers operate?” Instead, paths are picked according to “Which would the Browns take?”
Whenever a lucid, intelligent and well thought-out route is available, the Skins inevitably head in the opposite direction.
By DERON SNYDER
Some parents live through their kids and never stop bragging about them. Their son isn’t just good, he’s great. Their daughter isn’t merely smart, she’s a genius. Their children are not only talented, they’re unprecedented.
Parents like that are mostly annoying.
But they’re relatively harmless, too.
We imagine that their youngster might be a little embarrassed and resentful, might feel pressure to keep pace with the praise. Maybe it’s a turnoff that leads to burnout. That happens.
However, there also are cases where kids seem fueled by the proclamations, if not unaffected. They reach admirable heights and display impressive dedication. They clearly possess inner drive and there’s no telling how much came from their parents. Anywhere from none to all of it.
Freshman Lonzo Ball, point guard for No. 3 UCLA and a projected top-three draft pick, has a dad like that. Not just a little, either. Some of LaVar Ball’s declarations give Earl Woods and Richard Williams a run for predictions they made about Tiger, Venus and Serena.
“You can’t compare my boy to anyone,” Ball told TMZ Sports recently. “He’s gonna be better than Steph Curry in the NBA.”