Marcin Gortat let it slip so nonchalantly, then grinned sheepishly when he saw the stunned reaction of those around him. While discussing the Wizards’ rapid climb from the bottom to the third-best record in the Eastern Conference after Monday’s 98-80 victory over the Orlando Magic, Gortat wanted to make sure that everyone in the locker room understood that the team will only get better if it can welcome back some of its injured players – Bradley Beal, Otto Porter and Al Harrington – and stay healthy.
“We should be really good,” Gortat said. “Maybe at the end – maybe at the end – I will be the guy who is going to laugh, from some of the people here that we won 50 games.”
Too startled to ask a follow-up question, reporters moved on to get his thoughts on playing nine games in 14 days. After all, Gortat was especially pumped up the night of his comment because Ryszard Schnepf, the newly-appointed ambassador of Poland to the United States, watched him play for the first time and later hung out in the locker room. Maybe he just got caught up in emotion.
Two days later, Gortat was asked if he was serious about the 50-win talk. He meant what he said.
“I believe. I really do believe we can win 50 games with this team,” Gortat said. “There’s not too many people that believe this. It might sound crazy. I know how it sounds. But I really do believe. It would be stupid to say, ‘Hey, I came here to lose 50 games. I’ll be excited if we win 30.’ It’s better to say you’re going to win 50 than lose 50. I really do believe we can win it. Got to continue to play together, move the ball. Try to play for 48 minutes and don’t get excited about easy wins. Focus on the big games and make sure we win the games at home. And we should be fine.”
The Wizards (9-9) haven’t reached the playoffs in five years, had a winning record in December since 2007 or won more than 45 games in the past 34 years. In the franchise’s 52-year history, the Packers/Zephyrs/Bullets/Wizards have only won at least 50 games four times.
Gortat comes to Washington with a different perspective on success. In Gortat’s first three seasons in Orlando, the Magic never won fewer than 52 games and even advanced to the NBA Finals.
The Bullets won 54 games in 1978-79, when the franchise made its last NBA Finals appearance. Since then, the organization has won just two playoff series. The Wizards are .500 for the first time in four years, but Coach Randy Wittman doesn’t want to diminish his players’ confidence.
“I wish I could predict things and if he does predict these things, then we need to put him in a different position than he is right now,” Wittman said with a laugh. “I want to hear them believe in themselves, absolutely. That’s what it’s all about. That’s always a good thing. But the bottom line is we got to continue doing what we’re doing. Results is what matter. We can talk all we want. I want to see results. But I like belief in yourself and your teammates, and that means something, too.”
Before the season began, Las Vegas odds had the over/under for Wizards victories at 42, but even owner Ted Leonsis – who wants his team to reach the playoffs – wanted to avoid making any prediction.
“I’ve been around enough now to know no one knows nothing. This team hasn’t won 50 games. That’s obviously the long-term hope and plan that we would be a really good team. Fifty wins is kind of a demarcation of a team that is a legitimate contender,” Leonsis said. “We haven’t won 40 games in a long, long time. Now we’ve had huge improvements. You have to remember when I bought the team, we won 19 games. And so, 42 games, that would be terrific. But we shouldn’t make any forecast, because that’s a lot of wins.”
The Wizards were able to hit their stride by racking up wins against struggling teams in the East. They are 7-6 against conference opponents, including an 0-2 record against Miami and Indiana, the only two teams with winning records.
“It’s good for us, from the beginning,” Wittman said of the struggles within the conference. “We were one of those teams and now we’re winning some games. I’m glad there wasn’t a lot of guys that came out of the gate fast. I’m not going to complain about that. I hope a lot of them stay down there. It usually evens itself out as time goes on.”
Gortat is certainly thrilled with the recent run. “Trust me, I kind of know how it is to lose 60 games in a season. I lost 60 games last year. These guys lost a lot of games last year,” Gortat said. “If you’re winning, nobody is talking about the small problems, nobody is talking about the little screw ups. Obviously, it’s a great feeling. We want to continue to do this. At the same time, we can’t get excited. We have a lot of work in front of us.”