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When an NBA trade falls apart, but the players don’t know: Wizards hit hard by deal-that-wasn’t

NEW YORK — “We gotta continue to get better, man,” Kelly Oubre said, standard fare for a player trying to stay positive after a rough game. There is absolutely nothing interesting about that quote, aside from his use of the word “we.”

Oubre said this at 10:24 p.m. in the Barclays Center visiting locker room, following the Washington Wizards‘ 125-118 loss to the Brooklyn Nets. This was 15 minutes after ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted that he had been traded to the Memphis Grizzlies in a three-team deal. Oubre emerged from the shower and had a quiet conversation with a Wizards staffer, and he huddled with a few of his (seemingly former) teammates. He silently dressed at his locker, then declined to discuss the reported trade. 

“Really I don’t have a comment on it or any reaction,” Oubre said. “It’s not official yet, so I just gotta pretty much play it by ear.”

This non-comment led to a question about the Wizards, which led to him referring to them as “we” despite the fact he had apparently been moved. Twenty-nine minutes after that, Wojnarowski tweeted that the deal was in jeopardy. Forty minutes after Oubre’s brief media availability, NBC Sports’ Tom Haberstroh tweeted that the deal was dead. This was the result of an incredible miscommunication: Phoenix thought it was getting Dillon Brooks from the Grizzlies, who thought they were sending away Marshon Brooks. The three sides could not immediately resolve this, so the trade appears to be off

Washington guard Austin Rivers, reported to be headed to the Phoenix Suns, was more forthcoming. He thought the team would have more time to get its act together and make a playoff push, and was not expecting to change teams less than six months after the Wizards acquired him from the Los Angeles Clippers. When he headed to his locker, he said to nobody in particular, “Everybody’s asking me, what’s going on, man!” The room was uncomfortably silent.

“I only had a year left on my deal anyway,” Rivers said. “It’s more so you just want things to work. You know what I mean? They traded for me for a reason. You’d like to see it work out. We’ll see what happens. I don’t even know where I’m headed to, exactly. I’ve had people tell me different things. Wherever I go, I’ll have an impact.”

Rivers said he got out of the shower and a “reliable source” told him his time in Washington was up, but he had not even checked his phone yet. He was most concerned about his family — in the summer, he relocated from Los Angeles to D.C., and he and his fiancée welcomed their first child. 

“I’m trying to figure out my life right now,” Rivers said. “I just moved.”

In this respect, perhaps Rivers can breathe a sigh of relief, as long as he can get past the awkwardness of the fact that the front office was ready to trade him. He made it clear that, despite the fact his first couple of months with Wizards had not been nearly as successful as he hoped they’d be, he hadn’t given up on the season. In fact, he called the reported trade “disappointing” because he was still thinking about contributing in the playoffs. 

“Coming into this situation, I was like, ‘Man, I really do think I can be a difference-maker,'” he said. “I still believe that to this day, even though it didn’t work out for the best. I do believe I could have made a difference here, especially if we would have made it to the postseason. I know I could’ve turnt up then because I’ve done that time and time again.”

Rivers is known for being candid, but he did not feel like doing a lot of reflection. He said D.C. had been “nothing but great to me, my family,” and, while he knew there was a possibility that management would make another trade, he had been trying to keep his head down and do his job. 

“I have a lot to say, but I don’t want to say it, you know what I mean?” Rivers said. “I want to make sure I say everything the right way. I don’t want to be misinterpreted in any way, so I’m not sure what you guys really want me to tell you: I just played a game and I just got traded.”

After his scrum, a subdued Rivers said his goodbyes to various Wizards employees, with no idea that the deal was about to break down. It is unclear where the team goes from here, but it looks like those short conversations were premature. Washington is scheduled to have practice Saturday and host the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday (6 p.m. ET, watch on fuboTV with the NBA League Pass extension). If general manager Ernie Grunfeld doesn’t find another deal, then Oubre and Rivers will presumably be in the lineup, trying to end a four-game losing streak, trying to put their emotions aside and get past what just (almost) happened. On their flight back to Washington, though, you have to wonder if the Wizards will really feel like “we” to them. 

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