Wizards Are Not the NBA’s Basement Team


The Washington Wizards won a game. What went differently?

The Wizards prevailed 126-107 over the Detroit Pistons on Monday night for their first victory since Nov. 8 against the Charlotte Hornets nearly three weeks ago, snapping a series of nine-straight losses for the visitors.

Washingtonians, Detroiters and wayward NBA fans with a sick appetite for tanking teams were treated to a definitive answer to the question of who the worst NBA team was, as relieved Wizards fans watched the Pistons further spiral into a 14-game losing streak.

The result wasn’t entirely expected, as both teams entered the night sitting at 2-14 on the season, leading many to deliberate over which side held the edge in such a lowly matchup. Both teams have been blown out plenty, but the Wizards had spent the last few weeks blowing leads and losing in the final possessions, meaning they were primed to match up against a fellow basement dweller.

The desperate WizKids delivered, instantly begging the question: which aspects of the game swung their way, for a change?

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On this night, they had The Guy

The Pistons have sustained as one of the league’s most dependable bottomfeeders for years, but they employ some of the more intriguing young assets in the game. Cade Cunningham, 2021’s No. 1 overall draft pick, quickly emerged as their primary source of hope as someone capable of creating offense for himself and others.

He posted 26 points, seven assists and five boards in the effort, but Washington’s Kyle Kuzma shined as the best player on the floor. He poured 32 points on the struggling Pistons, along with 12 rebounds and eight assists. 

The forward picked the right night for one of his best outings of the season, shaking off a slow first half to score 18 points in the third quarter and help build a lead as large as 21. He capped off that active quarter with his second three of the night, a deflating three from 32’ out to put the lead back in double figures, where it would stay.

Cade’s buckets arrived slowly, more methodically, as he operated at the rim or behind the three-point line all night in shooting 10/22. Kuzma shot a tad less efficiently with success on 10-of-23 tries from the floor in scoring at all three levels, but the difference arrived at the line. 

While Cunningham merely earned four shots from the charity stripe, Kuz went 10/11 on free throws. This is just what he needs to unlock his full scoring package, as he’s shooting 47% from the field and 37% from three on over 19 shots a game and the 11th-highest usage percentage of anyone playing 30 minutes or more, according to nba.com/stats. His 23.4 points make for a clear career-high.

Despite those solid averages, he hasn’t forced the right contact to earn points at the line, where he’s only averaged 2.9 attempts per night. On this night, though, he got lucky careening into Detroit’s thick front line, aided further by their league-leading 23.2 personal fouls per game.

The whole band came to play

While Kuzma led the charge, this was no carry job. Seven different Wizards scored in double figures in the win, a mark they’d matched or exceeded only once when they hosted the Dallas Mavericks for an open shootaround of a game on Nov. 15.

While that game was uneventful by halftime, these Wizards made their shots count. Five of those scorers canned at least 50% of their shots, including Daniel Gafford, who made it work on only five attempts, Deni Avdija to go along with six boards and five assists, Landry Shamet with another two-way performance from off the bench and Danilo Gallinari with his token old-man game and three made threes.

That doesn’t even include Corey Kispert, who tore the Detroit defense to pieces with multiple well-timed cuts, or rookie Bilal Coulibaly, who recorded a block, two steals and the emphatic dunk to put the Pistons down.

Compare those shooting numbers, achieved in the heat of a three quarters-long battle for second-to-last, to their lackadaisical stats against Dallas. That time, Luka Doncic scored 26 points before bench player Tim Hardaway Jr. yawned into 31 points on 20 shots en route to another 70+-point first half for a Washington opponent. 

Washington enjoyed its turn locking someone else up for a change, holding the Pistons to 42% from the field and only eight total threes while never allowing more than 30 points in a quarter. A team win on both sides of the ball.

Contending on the glass

While the Pistons entered Monday as the No. 7 ranked rebounding team hauling in 45.9 boards a night, the dead-last Wizards averaged under 40. It had been their biggest weakness through 16 games, one of the biggest culprits for their losing ways.

They still lost in the rebounding column, but kept Detroit to a narrow 49-46 advantage. This made for an abject success thanks to their forcing 30 three-point misses out of the Pistons and asserting their will against a frontcourt deep with young talent and size. 

Opposing sophomore center Jalen Duren unsurprisingly led all horses with 14 rebounds — seven on each side of the glass — but Kuzma and Gafford contributed the night’s other standout performances. Kuzma hauled in 12, his second-highest mark of the season, and Gafford worked nine of his own, including three offensive rebounds.

Numerous members of the Wizards rotation had to exceed their season rebounding average to contend with the big Pistons, something Coach Wes Unseld Jr. can’t depend on on a night-to-night basis, but the extra effort smelt of a team sick of losing and ready to snap the ugly streak on their own terms.

About Henry J. Brown

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