The Washington Wizards say this is the season they are going to make the NBA playoffs.
If that sounds like a broken record, it’s because it is. The Wizards have been warbling the same tune since 2008, the last time the team qualified for the postseason.
But before writing off this year’s proclamation as misguided optimism, Washington — which opens the 2013-14 season Wednesday night in Detroit — has hope and health on its side, and the Wizards aren’t shy about stating their playoff aspirations.
“It would be the biggest disappointment I think I would have since I’ve been in the NBA,” guard John Wall said about a healthy Wizards team not making the postseason this year. “It would be a waste of a season, to be honest.”
Wall remains the key to making the Wizards go. Without the speedy point guard in the lineup last year, Washington was an abysmal 5-28. When he returned, the Wizards went 24-25. Thus, the team locked him up to a max contract worth $80 million over five years.
Now the guard, who averaged a career-high 18.5 points last year, has to prove he’s worth the money. Wizards owner Ted Leonsis says he’s “tired of losing,” which means it’s up to Wall and Co. to start winning.
“Everyone expects more from me — the pressure is a lot more,” Wall said. “I embrace it. I love pressure. There’s nothing to hide from. If you hide from it, you don’t need to be playing.”
Wall won’t be alone in the playoff quest, with fellow young guns Bradley Beal and this year’s No. 3 draft pick Otto Porter Jr. providing offensive support.
Beal struggled early in his rookie campaign but, like the rest of the Wizards, he came on strong when Wall returned. Beal finished the season averaging 13.9 points. He also struggled to stay healthy, missing 26 games with a variety of maladies because of his aggressive style.
“The playoffs are our ultimate goal,” Beal said. “It’s something that we’re striving for. I have to stop being hardheaded and realize it’s a long season, and stay calm and poised.”
With an injury to center Emeka Okafor threatening to derail the season before its start, embattled general manager Ernie Grunfeld swung a deal with the Phoenix Suns, sending Okafor away for versatile big man Marcin Gortat.
“Marcin’s ability to rebound, defend and score will allow us to continue where we left off last season and pushes us further toward our goal of becoming a playoff team,” Grunfeld said after the deal was reached.
Sixth-man revelation Martell Webster returns, and the Wizards added Eric Maynor to be the backup point guard. But with a thin bench, Washington is a misstep away from another unfulfilled promise, and one veteran Wizards player isn’t guaranteeing anything.
“I don’t like to work with my mouth,” Nene said. “I work with my action. … There is still 82 games to play. If you say something before that happens, you need to prove, you need to own your words. We have a great team. We have a good team, a competitive team, but still must work hard to deserve that position.”
Battle for No. 8
These four teams could be the biggest obstacles to Washington making the playoffs:
1. Cleveland Cavaliers: The young Cavs, led by superstar guard Kyrie Irving, labored mightily on the defensive end last season, forcing the team to bring back a familiar face. No, not LeBron, but former coach Mike Brown, a defensive tactician. If the Cavs can get anything out of oft-injured Andrew Bynum, it will be a plus, and surprise No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett remains something of a mystery.
2. Detroit Pistons: Former Georgetown star Greg Monroe and second-year pro Andre Drummond are a force in the paint, but the Pistons were such a terrible offensive team that they brought back the ancient Chauncey Billups to open up the floor. Josh Smith also arrives from Atlanta, and if he puts up the kind of numbers he tallied with the Hawks, the Pistons could be dangerous.
3. Toronto Raptors: If being honest, the Raptors would love to tank this season and get in prime position to draft Ontario native Andrew Wiggins with the No. 1 pick. Center Jonas Valanciunas was the Summer League MVP, and he’ll pair with Rudy Gay to create an inside-outside combo that most teams will envy.
4. Milwaukee Bucks: After shipping out prolific scorer Brandon Jennings and bringing in a host of new faces, including coach Larry Drew, the Bucks figure to struggle with chemistry early on. But if newcomers O.J. Mayo and Caron Butler can work with emerging big man Larry Sanders, Milwaukee can make some noise.