Sometimes it feels like I’ve been writing a different version of the same three columns for five years. Those topics: Why the Nats still stink and how they can improve; why the Wizards will never, ever, compete for an NBA title with their current configuration; and why the Redskins will invariably find a way to disappoint their fans year after year? And you know what? It is really sad that those three topics are still on target four years after I started writing this column. And here I had thought “change” had come to Washington.
So what gives? Why have these clubs struggled to break from their disappointing ways while the Capitals have emerged as Stanley Cup contenders? This week I thought I’d take a quick look at causation. Let’s see if we can pin down exactly why each of these teams has plateaued well shy of a championship caliber.
In the Nats’ case, I’m going to heap that blame directly on former GM Jim Bowden. Yes, I know Major League Baseball and then-GM Omar Minaya burned the crops and salted the earth while the Nats were still ownerless in Montreal, but Bowden’s attempts to better the team resulted in the team’s win total decreasing every year except one since it came to D.C. That despite claims from ownership that it would invest heavily in the farm system (at least in players not named Aaron Crow) and free agency. Instead, Nats fans watched the team throw away money on extensions for Ronnie Belliard and Dmitri Young while attempting to revitalize pitchers who were long past their expiration date.
The farm system? Aside from Ryan Zimmerman, John Lannan and Jordan Zimmerman, I’m pressed to think of a minor leaguer from Bowden’s term who looks like a fixture in the majors. Even more than the scandals in the Dominican Republic, the false age – and identity – of a touted prospect and questionable signings of marginal free agents, it was his failure to capitalize on the draft has left this team still searching for a nucleus four years after coming to Washington.
Moving slightly up the misery index we find the Wizards. Year after year, the Wiz have found themselves in the worst place in the world in the NBA making the playoffs only to lose in the first or second round. While fans do get some benefit from watching their team win during the regular season, the team gets stuck with a mediocre draft pick, year in and year out. Given it’s often easier to calculate the next digit of Pi than pull off a trade in the NBA, the Wiz roster hasn’t seen much added star power in the last four years. But the Wizards already had a talented trio in place: Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler. Only problem is that they’re infrequently on the court together.
The Wiz has seen more injuries in the last four years than the E.R. on “Grey’s Anatomy.” One of their three stars has missed considerable time in every season, derailing any serious hopes for an NBA title. But that’s not particularly revelatory, so here’s my beef with the franchise: Despite the health woes that have become as predictable as the tides, the Wizards front office continued to bet on this core of players.
To that end, the team has traded away draft picks, like this year, and continued to channel its free agent dollars, like last year, into a failed product. Arenas, Jamison and Butler have never proven, in four years, that they can stay on the court and away from the scalpel. All are great players, and everyone loves Arenas’s charming personality, but similar to the lotto, you can’t win if they don’t play. The NBA is a star-based league and you can’t succeed if your star is having massive surgery every season. Until this core is broken up, I have little confidence this pattern will change too much for the Wizards.
That leaves the Redskins. I don’t have much room left to discuss what has sabotaged the ‘Skins, but I don’t think I need it. Just two words would really suffice: Daniel Snyder.
Snyder thought he was too rich to waste time with the draft, so he overspent on skill players in free agency (where players are often past their prime), and traded draft picks for more star power. As a result, the veterans have underperformed and there are too few young players to pick up the slack. Without that depth, injuries – particularly to the offensive line – have often undercut the ‘Skins’ progress. The only thing that has changed have been the coaches and quarterbacks blamed for the team’s failures. I tend to think that blame goes a little higher.