Culture can be an abstract idea, and for the Washington Wizards it has often been even more nebulous. Culture, that catchall word tossed around in sports, has sounded more like something green and squirmy that grows in a Petri dish rather than a guiding principle to define the franchise.
Contrast that with the Miami Heat. Whenever it plays on national television, broadcasters can’t make it to the third quarter without mentioning the Heat’s culture, a concept that only the people in Miami can truly grasp and explain.
But there’s something genuine and sustainable growing in Washington. It looks like, feels like, the Wizards (11-5) just might have a culture now.
During their most recent win, which came after a fourth-quarter comeback against the Heat on Saturday night, that word that can be difficult to describe had its moment. When the Wizards finished the game by outscoring Miami 19-6, three players who aren’t the franchise cornerstone engineered the run. That’s because the Wizards have created a space for opportunity.
Here, castaways are given multiyear contracts. Here, the guys who appear in the second paragraph of a story about a massive trade can receive M-V-P chants. And most importantly: Here, there’s plenty of room in the galaxy for more than one star.
While Miami has a foundation that attracts hard-nosed worker bees or shapes players into that mold, preaching about getting incrementally better every single day, the Wizards are building a bedrock that welcomes just about anyone while providing a space for their on-court growth.
This culture first appeared a few seasons back for Thomas Bryant and Davis Bertans. They were afterthoughts with their original franchises but received big roles and — after playing one season in D.C. — even bigger deals to stay here.
It has continued for players such as Daniel Gafford. Last season, the Chicago Bulls sent him away at the trade deadline. But because he had performed so well in less than half a season with the Wizards, they signed him to a three-year, $40 million extension. This summer, the welcome mat was extended to Spencer Dinwiddie and the trio of Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
Dinwiddie was a free agent rehabilitating from ACL surgery, and the Wizards wanted him anyway. They also wanted the three former Lakers, who were the tertiary characters in the blockbuster trade that involved superstar Russell Westbrook. In Los Angeles, they might have been serviceable yet ultimately replaceable teammates to LeBron James. But here they are the reason behind Washington’s early-season takeoff.
“It’s very fun, obviously, from an individual standpoint,” Kuzma, a fixture in the Wizards’ starting unit and the team’s leading rebounder, said in an interview with ESPN this week. “This is kind of what I wanted, an opportunity just to not be in someone’s shadows or have that type of logjam on a roster.”
Kuzma and Caldwell-Pope, remember, are only 13 months removed from winning the 2020 NBA championship. Though they might have been in LeBron’s shadow, they still know how to win and they’ve brought that mentality to D.C. On Saturday night, Caldwell-Pope and Dinwiddie took turns hitting equalizing three-pointers late in the fourth quarter, while Kuzma, who had struggled at the foul line this season, steeled up to hit four clutch free throws.
While elucidating the difference between playing with the Lakers vs. playing with the Wizards, Caldwell-Pope made plain why they work so well here.
“You had to adapt to the culture over there and be willing to play your role,” he said. “But I feel like here it’s different. We’re players that can play. We want to show it. We want to have that opportunity, and so far, so good here.”
Before offering that explanation, Caldwell-Pope had to catch himself. He was asked whether other personalities had the space to flourish on that Lakers’ roster, inside that locker room. He offered an “umm” and then slightly laughed to himself. Words escaped him in that moment, but according to Caldwell-Pope, words had eluded Harrell throughout his lone season with the Lakers last year.
“He’s speaking a lot,” Caldwell-Pope said of Harrell in Washington. “Last year I probably heard two words from Trez on the court. Off the court, we talk a lot, but on the court, I probably didn’t hear nothing from Trez.
“Maybe because of the situation he was in. I could feel that. But here, he [has] a lot to prove. He wanted to play last year and he had an opportunity,” Caldwell-Pope continued. “Now he has the opportunity.”
With the Wizards, Harrell can be his authentic self. At the end of shoot-arounds, when he’ll curse and bang his fist against the wall if he misses a shot. On the sideline during games, where he’ll walk past the coaches to be within shouting distance of the starters. And when he checks into the action, where his motor (his mouth and his game) keeps running and has powered his candidacy for the sixth man of the year award, which would be his second in three seasons.
On some nights, however, that honor seems too puny for Wizards fans’ liking. It has been Harrell, not resident all-NBA performer Bradley Beal, who has heard more M-V-P chants inside Capital One Arena. The overzealous serenade says more about their appreciation than anything else, because while Beal may still be the best player, he doesn’t have to play like an MVP for the Wizards to win.
In different games this season, Dinwiddie has already taken the last shot in regulation without the ball even swinging Beal’s way (Oct. 22 against Indiana). Kuzma has won a game with his shooting (Nov. 10 at Cleveland). Caldwell-Pope has sealed a victory with his defense (Oct. 30 against Boston). And Harrell, who just might be the most popular player in a Wizards jersey, has collected three doubles-doubles, the most of any bench player in the NBA.
Here, these players have discovered a land of opportunity. It’s a start. At least there’s something to build upon now rather than whatever the team called “culture” during the decade before President and General Manager Tommy Sheppard’s promotion to lead basketball executive. And it’s working.