“Take me home, I’ll buy you dinner.” Lance Stephenson calls this line “one of the coolest lines in basketball” on the game show Let’s Make a Deal (originally titled Blind Date). It’s a line that Russell Westbrook repeats in a performance that stands in sharp contrast to that of teammate Victor Oladipo, who tries to suppress a smile when he calls out Stephenson for his woozy celebration:
Kevin Durant got his chance on that show, too. He would go on to win the “deal” – or more specifically, MVP – of the year after Oklahoma City Thunder fans voted Westbrook into second place in a league-wide balloting.
Stephenson is a regular “deal”maker, but even with the hype surrounding an exciting new team, the Washington Wizards have missed out on Butler’s contract year while missing too many shots. After a 13-14 start, Washington has flipped its fortunes in recent weeks and stands in the sixth spot in the Eastern Conference.
Washington is 3-1 against teams with .500 records or better. But they are still just 10-14 against the NBA’s bottom five, have lost all three games against reigning MVP James Harden, and are going into Monday’s matchup with the Milwaukee Bucks (10-13) fresh off an embarrassing loss at home to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“We took one for the team,” John Wall said after Sunday’s loss. “We can’t have teams beat us at home. What else can we do?”
Perhaps if Washington had someone playing Stephenson’s traditional scat-guard role, they’d have a better chance of staying up with Paul George, who often is the starting point guard or second finisher on every fast break. But as T.J. Ford’s name suggests, this team really is about one guy: Wall.
The Wiz have to hope they can get out to a great start in a few months and the key might be to have Wall playing like he’s his own “deal.” He’s the man who scores almost 24 points per game and easily could have won this week’s NBA Player of the Week award, but instead dropped his sixth game in eight as he knocked down just 6-of-22 shots.
He’s the number one reason the Wizards have a 7-3 record against teams with records that are .500 or better, so long as he’s not deferring his game to rookie Bradley Beal, the new top scorer in the NBA.
“I think the best part about Kevin is that he’s trying to be a leader off the court as well as on the court,” Ian Mahinmi said after Washington’s win over the Lakers on Sunday. “He’s taking the time to work on his game and help his team succeed. And I’m happy that he’s in the locker room, that everybody on the team is in the locker room working together and working on their game.”
Mahinmi is right. The best part of this Washington Wizards’ team is the fact that they have a new “deal” on the court, where Wall can take the reins and lead. It’s the new norm for big men in the NBA, like DeMarcus Cousins, but Wall may also be learning to play off his teammates.
And in the end, playing with fewer stars – meaning when Wall does score more than 30 points, the Wizards will usually take care of business – has been a huge factor in Washington’s recent success. The Wiz are 7-3 when Wall averages more than 30 points and 12-5 when he averages 35 points or more.
“Tonight we played with more pace,” John Wall said. “I think it’s something we haven’t had a lot of this year and it’s important to get back into our rhythm and get back in a rhythm that we’ve had for a long time.”
If Washington can replicate that success over a full season, and hope for sustained success with just Wall, the magic can carry over to the playoffs where the Wizards had a decent chance to make it to the second round in 2018.
There’s still work to be done on defense, and double-digit losses will have to stop, but with Wall – and maybe Oladipo – paired together and with less than three years left on their contracts, Washington may very well be the best team in the East.