I first visited Atlantic City was I was 19 years old. My perception of the city was driven completely by Donald Trump, blockbuster boxing matches, and embellished stories about rapid paths to riches. To me, nothing outside these aspects of the city existed.
When I arrived, however, I noticed the seldom discussed part of Atlantic City. There was a part of the populace – the actual inhabitants of the city – that weren’t enjoying the fruits of free-wheeling gambling or exorbitant ticket sales. They weren’t necessarily poverty-stricken or discontent with their day-to-day lives.
They were just there.
Overlooked in the dichotomy.
The NBA season tipped off Tuesday night with an abundance of new story lines and excitement. Lebron James would be receiving his first ring; Ray Allen would have to endure the public scrutiny of being shunned by his former teammate, Kevin Garnett; and Oklahoma City would be doing what seemed to be the improbable, preparing to start the season without James Harden. There was a lot to talk about.
But outside of the opening night glow, the Washington Wizards were prepared to start their season, hobbled, against a team that, while once its peer in rebuilding, has seemingly surpassed them in getting back on track.
Analysts treated this game as an afterthought – a punch line. There was more discussion surrounding the omissions in Washington’s starting line-up than the guys that actually took the floor. And everyone knew, but we didn’t want these glaring issues to temper our enthusiasm. We were, once again, just there.
This isn’t the year.
Not this one.
The Wizards were dealt disappointing news before the season started, learning that the face of its franchise, John Wall, would be out of action for at least eight weeks with an ailing knee. The story gave us all pause because it immediately brought to mind a lot of fears that fans carry:
Did Wall overwork himself during the summer?
This was supposed to be his break-out season. I mean, he needs to have it, right?
Did his reckless, basket-attacking prowess finally catch up with him?
It was street ball, wasn’t it? I saw all the YouTube videos.
Equally troubling was the fact that Nene, the team’s prized trade acquisition from last season, would also be starting the season in street clothes, dealing with a protracted plantar fasciitis recovery. If you’re a Washington basketball fan, plantar fasciitis makes you cringe. It’s the same ailment that extinguished the final run of Mark Price’s career when he was traded to Washington from Cleveland. When you’re placing promise in arguably the most talented front court player in Washington since Gheorghe Muresan (think about that), and one who’s owed $52 million over the next four seasons, you struggle to be optimistic.
But Washington’s roster is more talented that it has been since Arenas, Butler, and Jamison were split. Gone are the players in which we invested lots of promise, and replacing them are those who’ve proven something over the course of their careers. The Wizards can finally tout “veteran leadership” as a team presence and not struggle to actually define it. The team landed Bradley Beal, a rookie that best fits a skill set the team has struggled to fill for several years. And the crop of Vesely, Booker, and Seraphin will not be leaned on as heavily this season for production. Emeka Okafor, Trevor Ariza, and Martell Webster should provide a more significant punch, allowing the younger guys to be brought along at a slower, more reasonable pace.
We still believe in Ted Leonsis. We believe that while we’re currently among the lower rungs of true competitors in the NBA, that he has a tried plan that will guide the Wizards back into the discussion of Washington sports teams. We believe he’s seen something promising in Ernie Grunfeld, a general manager whose decisions, while sometimes nebulous and abstract, has yielded incremental success.
But for now, the Washington Wizards just are. While we can hope for certain moments this year (increased team chemistry, player consistency, the development of an exciting back court), but a deep playoff run frankly isn’t in the realm of possibility.
And that’s okay.