Building an Identity

It is two hours before tipoff of a regular season Wizards’ home game and Kevin Grevey and Bobby Dandridge can be found in the Dewar’s Club at Verizon Center visiting with season ticket holders. The two members of the 1978 Washington Bullets championship team were joined by Wizards’ owner Ted Leonsis in a discussion about the current season and the future.

In this pre-game gathering part of the Wizards identity comes to life. The Washington Wizards are a team with a rich history and a commitment to improvement, very much supported by loyal and passionate fans. Leonsis has been open and honest about his rebuilding plan. Grevey and Dandridge offer support of that plan and serve as examples of the level of excellence the Wizards are trying to reach.

The involvement of former players like Grevey and Dandridge is important to the fabric of the Wizards’ culture and identity. The banners on the walls of the Wizards’ practice court featuring the retired numbers of Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes, Earl Monroe, and Gus Johnson also represent what this team is about and wants to be.

Now the challenge for the Wizards is to take the clearly articulated plan and create an on court identity. The Wizards know where they have been and what they are all about, but who are they going to be on the floor when games are played?

It is early in that discovery period for the Wizards. The selection of John Wall and Trevor Booker in the 2010 NBA Draft started Leonsis’ plan to identify and develop younger players. Still, the transition from the Wizards’ team that made the playoffs four straight seasons from 2005-2008 was not complete until late last season.

“I think we are trying to find an identity and who we are and what kind of team we are,” said Wizards’ President Ernie Grunfeld. “I think we are playing much harder and are taking advantage of the resources we have including speed, length, and athleticism. We have a point-guard that likes to get up and down the floor and we need players that can play with John.”

In his first two seasons, John Wall has been a part of the NBA’s All-Star weekend. Wall has played in the games showcasing first and second year NBA players, but has also demonstrated the style and skill that one day will likely have him appearing in the All-Star game. In the meantime, Wall is working hard to develop as player and a team leader.

Wall is the centerpiece of the Wizards developing identity. The Wizards are at their best when they play in transition and Wall leads the charge. After a slow start to the 2011/2012 season, Wall settled into comfortably running the break. Wall has also showed a greater ability to play at different speeds and has improved his mid-range jumper.

“John Wall is definitely a piece of the core, but you still have to have the right players around him,” noted Wizards’ radio analyst Glenn Consor. “Right now, the identity of the Washington Wizards really is the future. While laying down the foundation, the Wizards will need to acquire the right mix of youth and “closer” free agents who will be coachable with an unparralled work ethic.”

The building of the 1978 championship team really started with the 1968 NBA Draft. That’s when the Baltimore Bullets selected Wes Unseld with the second overall pick. The results were immediate with the Bullets going from 36-46 the previous season, the year they drafted Earl Monroe, to 57-25 and the top of the Eastern Division. It was a different NBA then with only 14 teams.

Like the Wizards are looking to build around Wall, the Bullets built around Unseld. Draft picks and free agents were added to the Bullets and finally the ultimate goal was achieved in 1978. The times have changed, but the need to create an identity that is clearly understood by the players and then executed remains essential to success in the NBA.

“We felt like we had the best forward line in the league and maybe the best forward line ever with Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes and Bobby Dandrige in the starting lineup and then Greg Ballard and Mitch Kupchak off the bench, Grevey recalled of the ’78 championship team’s identity. “We approached the game like an off-tackle three-yards and a cloud of dust football team.”

Grevey says the physical identity of the 1978 championship team was directed by head coach Dick Motta. The offense started down low with the likes of Unseld and Hayes and then other players understood their roles and that opened opportunities for everyone. Grevey actually remembers it being easier to make shots in games than in practice.

“Identity is something that comes with repetition through games and practice time,” Grevey emphasized. “Right now the Wizards are a group of free flowing colts out there. They need to stay with their strengths. Summer is important. Players need to play together in summer league. They need to talk about it, breathe it, play it, and believe in one another.”

“We want to play the game the right way,” Grunfeld added. “That’s making the extra pass, helping out on the defensive end, rebounding the basketball, and playing with high energy and high intensity at all times. We have seen a lot of that, but when you have young players you are going to be inconsistent. Still those young payers are getting valuable minutes at an NBA level and that will be helpful over time.”

Time is what the Wizards need. The Wizards’ collection of young players has not yet played a full season together. Consistency is what the Wizards are looking for and that often follows the development of true team chemistry. Words like chemistry in sports can be cliché, but its importance cannot be denied.

“It’s a beautiful thing when I was missing shots, but my teammates stayed with me and encouraged me,” Grevey remembers. “They would tell me the next play is for you, and I would think why? Then Wes Unseld would set a jarring pick, I would find a seam, and make a shot like I was shooting in my backyard.

The Wizards are putting in the hard work now with the hope that one day it will come together like it did for Grevey and others who are part of this team’s successful past and still linked with its future.