From Contender to Collapse: Reliving Washington’s Quick Demise


On May 15th, 2017, the Washington Wizards found themselves in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the top-seeded Boston Celtics. As the LeBron-led Cavs awaited the winner, Isaiah Thomas and Kelly Olynyk crushed the Wizards’ championship hopes. In the series finale, an emotional Thomas scored 29 points and 12 assists while playing for his late sister. Olynyk played hero, pouring in 26 points off the bench as chants of “Kelly!” rung throughout TD Garden. Unable to overcome the Celtics’ lights-out 4th quarter, Boston defeated Washington 115-105.

This is how the Wizards’ rebuild began. So how does a team one win away from the Conference Finals become a spectacle of mockery so fast? Let’s revisit.

The Wizards went 49-33 in 2017. As a result, they earned the 4th seed in a weak Eastern Conference, where any team had a chance to win. Above all, their roster consisted of an elite backcourt in John Wall and Bradley Beal. Moreover, Otto Porter, Bojan Bogdanovic and Kelly Oubre provided a tremendous supporting cast. The fans, players and front office knew the 2017-18 Wizards had unlimited potential. Although Bogdanovic left in free agency, the front office re-signed Wall and Porter to max contracts. Along with Beal, Washington officially had their Big 3. But all that ensued was mediocrity and injury.


2017-18: Injury and Impatience

Wall only played in 41 games in the 2017-18 season. After missing nine games early in the campaign, he required left knee surgery in January of 2018, sidelining him for two months. The Wizards’ young rotation struggled, as Tomas Satoransky did not do enough to fill Wall’s role. As Marcin Gortat entered his age 33 season, his PPG, RPG and PER all regressed. Subsequently, the team finished 43-39 as the 8th seed and lost to Raptors 4-2 in the first round of the playoffs. After their exit, the Wizards traded Gortat to the Clippers for Austin Rivers. Uncertainty and frustration brewed the streets of the nation’s capital. Beal, Porter and Oubre were not developing as fast as GM Ernie Grunfeld and the front office had hoped.

2018-19: A New Team

The team relinquished hope, and the Wizards’ rebuild was in full effect. After starting the year 11-18, they traded Oubre and Rivers to the Suns for Trevor Ariza.

Two weeks later, on December 29th, 2018, Wall suffered a season-ending left heel injury. Then during surgery, Wall developed an infection that later caused him to tear his Achilles, ruling him out for at least another year. He has not played an NBA game since. Soon after, the Wizards traded Porter to the Bulls for Jabari Parker and Bobby Portis. Parker and Portis played for the remainder of the 2018-19 season before becoming unrestricted free agents and signing elsewhere. The next day, Washington traded starter Markieff Morris for Pelicans’ Wesley Johnson, who DC waived at the end of the season. Ernie Grunfeld was subsequently fired.

2019-2020: A One-Man Show

Before the season, Washington traded Dwight Howard and Tomas Satoransky. What did they receive for abandoning two proven role players? CJ Miles and two second-round picks. Washington did, however, add some crucial acquisitions that brought back some of the youth they once had. After drafting Troy Brown Jr. and Rui Hachimura in the past two drafts, the Wizards added Thomas Bryant and Mo Wagner from the Anthony Davis blockbuster trade. During the 2019-2020 season, Bryant and free-agent signing Davis Bertans brought a spark to the team. Without a sufficient point guard or any other star power on the roster, however, this season was Bradley Beal’s start to stardom. Beal’s stats from this season scream “All-NBA.” Even while averaging 30.5 PPG and 6.1 APG with the 14th-highest PER in the league, the Wizards went 24-40 prior to the suspension of the regular season.

Washington began the NBA Bubble as the 9th seed, but were without opt-outs Beal and Bertans. Without their two leading scorers, the young team finished just 1-7 in Orlando. Although the Wizards did not really deserve to play in Orlando, it gave their frontcourt of Hachimura, Brown and Bryant a chance to be primary scoring options and be leaders on the court. Each of them averaged over 15+ PPG in the eight bubble games, and made a case to be in the starting lineup next season alongside Wall and Beal.

NBA Lottery

For the second year in a row, the Wizards received the 9th pick in the NBA Draft. At the NBA Lottery, they were represented by last year’s 9th overall selection, Rui Hachimura. Although the Wizards hoped to sneak into the top four, the draft order may not be an enormous factor in picking the next NBA star as most years. The 2020 draft class is not top-heavy, as players like James Wiseman, Anthony Edwards and LaMelo Ball are not clear-cut stars like Zion Williamson or Ja Morant. With a draft class that could prove to be deep, the Wizards will be on the clock with plenty of talent remaining.

According to NBA.com, the consensus mock draft shows Isaac Okoro and Onyeka Okongwu being the two most common predictions for the Wizards. As a team with only one star, Washington will look to draft the best player available. Okoro would immediately be the best defender on a roster that desperately needs it. Okongwu, on the other hand, brings a shot-blocking big who can be an elite rebounder. Without question, there will be a wide range of possibilities for when the Wizards are on the clock. In this draft class, many players will hit or miss.

What’s Next?

Bradley Beal is an entirely different player than what he was in the 2017 playoffs. It’s difficult to imagine what the Wizards roster would look like today without Wall’s injuries or the trades of Kelly Oubre, Markieff Morris or Otto Porter. Porter is still far from being worth his four-year, $106 million deal. Unfortunately, the team was unable to retain Jabari Parker or Bobby Portis from that trade. Oubre on the other hand, took advantage of his new change of scenery in Phoenix, adding insult to injury during the seemingly pointless DC rebuild.

It seems the Wizards will wait to see how 29-year-old John Wall performs after missing 18 months before doing anything with Beal. The front office is likely to give him a chance to play alongside Beal again, as he possesses virtually no trade value. Both players are locked for the next two seasons, and help seems to be on the way. Rui Hachimura, Troy Brown Jr. and Thomas Bryant all made great strides in the past season, and the Wizards are not far from playing competitive basketball again. If Washington has learned anything from the past, they should know not to move on too soon.

About Sebastian Doppenberg

Clemson '23 // Contributor for The Lead (Wizards)

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