The Washington Wizards have been so bad, for so long, that their progress in 2013-14 ought to be celebrated by their fans as an end unto itself. They increased their win total by 15, franchise cornerstone John Wall made his first All-Star team, shooting guard Bradley Beal appears destined to join him there soon, and the franchise won its first playoff series since 2004-05 (and just their second in the past 30 years). This season was an unmitigated success.
Success in the NBA can be short-lived, relative, and is often viewed (fairly or unfairly) in linear terms. If you’ve been a lottery team (as the Wizards have been since 2008-09), making it out of the lottery is the first step to being relevant. Then, it’s making the playoffs. Make the playoffs one year, and suddenly getting back there isn’t good enough. You have to win a series. Once you win a series, you have to make it to the Conference Finals. Once you’ve been a Conference Finalist, everything short of an NBA title sort of feels a little like failure – whether that’s an accurate assessment or not.
The Wizards skipped a few steps on the rough-hewn ladder to success outlined above. They were a lottery team in 2012-13, winners of just 29 games. Preseason predictions (and stated expectations from owner Ted Leonsis) for Washington to make the playoffs seemed feasible (and reasonable), but were far from a sure thing. In the end, they not only earned a postseason berth, but they defied the odds (and most expert prognostications) by beating Chicago in the first round before ultimately falling to Indiana in six during the Conference Semifinals.
Could the Wizards’ run become a double-edged sword, raising expectations for a team with a young core who achieved more than they were expected to achieve?
Answering that question is entirely dependent on what you think of their future, which is a bit cloudy, to say the least. Questions about Randy Wittman’s contract status, key members of the roster who are impending free agents and whether 2013-14 may have been a mirage will be addressed in the coming months. Taking a brief peek at each provides a glimpse of what could happen next in the nation’s capital.
The fate of Randy Wittman
Despite the Wizards’ winning season, Wittman still holds the dubious distinction of having the worst winning percentage in NBA history (among coaches with 400+ games of experience) at .339. Previous stints in Cleveland and Minnesota went poorly, and until a February run saved their 2013-14 season, his tenure in Washington was going much the same. Perception of Wittman has never been very favorable; many felt it was a matter of when, not if, he would be dismissed in favor of a more proven coach who could get Washington’s young, talented roster to the postseason.
Even though he reached that goal, it’s still possible he won’t be back (his contract is up, with no framework of an extension in place). Players have spoken out in favor of him – John Wall expressed that he’d like the entire coaching staff to return, Andre Miller stated he’s “never been better prepared” than he was this season under Wittman’s tutelage, and Al Harrington went so far as to say he “would really be upset if he’s not the coach leading this team out [of] that locker room next year.”
Time will tell if the Wizards’ success or the stated desires of their players will lead to a multiyear extension for Wittman. The players’ wishes didn’t help Mark Jackson in Golden State, and leading his team to unprecedented success didn’t save Lionel Hollins in Memphis. A question for Wizards fans to consider, though: does a coach with as checkered a track record as Wittman deserve the chance to continue building with the team’s young core based on three months of improved play? The buzzards were circling over Jackson, and whispers out of Memphis were that Hollins had fallen out of favor with the Grizzlies’ front office. The buzz out of Washington concerning Wittman is far more positive; for better or worse, it seems likely he’ll return.
Free Agency prospects of Marcin Gortat and Trevor Ariza
Ariza’s expiring 5 year, $34 million contract wasn’t much of a bargain for the majority of the deal, but the tenth-year man out of UCLA was an invaluable part of the Wizards’ success in 2013-14, averaging 14.4 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game on 46/41/77 shooting splits. He also provides a perimeter defensive presence that’s important, especially if you want to win in the Eastern Conference, where Lebron James, Paul George and other emerging wings (DeMar DeRozan, Jimmy Butler) are likely to await you in the playoffs.
It’s tough to guess what kind of contract it will take to keep him around, but after such a sensational season, Ariza’s likely to get overpaid by someone. Should that someone be the Wizards? They already have long-term money committed to Martell Webster, and retaining Ariza could hinder the development for last year’s #3 overall pick, Otto Porter. How they approach Ariza in the offseason will say a lot about whether Washington is committed to the long-term project of player development or if they’re desperate to win now.
Gortat, acquired from Phoenix prior to the season for Emeka Okafor and a 1st round pick, was a gamble that paid off for Ernie Grunfeld and the front office. He provided stability in a frontcourt that had to deal with Nene’s (sadly predictable) missed time due to injuries, playing in 81 games while averaging 13.2 points and 9.5 rebounds on 54.2% shooting. Big men don’t come cheap, and the ‘Polish Hammer’ could demand an eight-figure annual salary moving forward.
The Wizards have roughly $41.1 million in firm commitments to five players (Wall, Beal, Webster, Porter and Nene) for next season and decisions to make on a few others (Seraphin, Booker, and Andre Miller). It’s possible they’ll keep one or the other between Gortat and Ariza, but it’s unlikely both return to Washington. Based on the roster fit, I’d argue Gortat’s the most likely to remain in D.C., which would put a lot of pressure on Otto Porter to develop quickly if the Wizards are intent on surpassing this season’s run to the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Was 2013-14 a mirage?
Four of the five most important players on Washington’s roster played 73 or more games in 2013-14. The injury bug nibbled (Beal missed a bit of time with a knee issue) but never bit, save for Nene’s various leg-related maladies that cost him 29 games. The Wizards were one of the most fortunate teams in the NBA in terms of health in 2013-14, and they were still below .500 as late as February 22nd.
No one played fewer games against winning opponents than the Wizards, who somehow only faced 39 teams with .500 or better records in 2013-14 (they went 14-25). The whole “Eastern Conference is weak” narrative might be a bit stale, but Washington did seem to prey on the weaker opponents on their side of the country, going 33-19 against Eastern Conference foes and just 11-19 versus the West.
On the other hand, they were 9th in defensive rating, 4th in field goal percentage in the restricted area and in the top-10 in corner three-point attempts (and percentage), a blueprint many successful teams follow – defense, getting to the rim, and taking the right perimeter shots. Wall is finally coming into his own, Bradley Beal isn’t even old enough to drink legally, and they have yet to get significant health (and production) from last year’s 3rd-overall pick (Otto Porter). The East isn’t exactly going to improve at a rapid rate – the future is equally murky for even the top teams in the conference – who’s to say the Wizards aren’t here to stay?
This season, they’re a surprise. Next year, if they’re bounced in the first round, will we be talking about them as a failure? Would that be fair? Could a step “backwards” next season dampen the mood for a team that has talented young core locked up through at least 2016-17? Is winning ahead of schedule a blessing or a curse?
I don’t know. What I do know: accumulating young talent is the hardest thing to do in the NBA, and Washington’s got plenty of it. You could do a hell of a lot worse than building around John Wall and Bradley Beal. I know that much.