Wizards’ Ernie Grunfeld: “Our goal for next year is to make the playoffs”

I think we are moving in the right direction. (Photo by Tracy A. Woodward/The Washington Post)

Ernie Grunfeld had to wait until the 34rd game of the season to finally get the team that he envisioned last offseason on the floor together. John Wall made his season debut on Jan. 12 and led the Wizards to a win over the Atlanta Hawks and the team proved to be competitive against some of the top teams in the league for the rest of the season.

With Wall as the engine, the pieces that Grunfeld assembled last offseason started to fall into place. Bradley Beal, Martell Webster and Trevor Ariza found more open looks. Emeka Okafor and Nene had more space inside. And the Wizards went 25-25 over their final 50 games, with Wall playing 49.

“I think it always helps to have all your players, and that was what we were hoping for last summer,” Grunfeld said while discussing the season during a news conference on Tuesday at Verizon Center. “John was obviously a catalyst when he came back, but I think simultaneously the game before, we had Trevor Ariza come back and A.J. Price came back and [Trevor] Booker came back right around the same time. So the whole group was much healthier at that time, but obviously John was the catalyst. We tried to put a lot of pieces around him, to complement his game, in the offseason. Unfortunately, we didn’t have him in the beginning of the season.”

Injuries contributed mightily to the Wizards finishing in the lottery for the fifth straight season. Wall, Beal and Nene played 22 games together but actually started just eight games, with the Wizards going 6-2 over that stretch. In a 30-minute session with reporters, Grunfeld discussed several topics, including plans to retain Wall and Webster, the struggles of their young forwards and the performance of Coach Randy Wittman.

Here are the highlights:

On if lottery will unacceptable next season:  Nobody is happy about that. We’re all competitive people. We all want to do as well as possible. If you’re realistic and see what happened and when we had our team, we had a team that could compete with anyone if had our pieces for the whole year – which we didn’t. There are no excuses. That’s a part of the game. We got off to that slow, slow start. It was hard to recover from that. Obviously, our goal for next year is to not be in that type of position and to put a team out there that can make the playoffs.

On giving John Wall the max: I think John had a very good year, and he showed that he makes a difference on the team. There’s no question about that, and he’s eligible for an extension. July 1 is the first day we can talk about that, and we’ll have conversations with him, his representatives, to see if we can work something out… Obviously, we’ve said all along that we’re building this team around John and with John. We want to have him here long term.

On Randy Wittman performance: “I think Randy did a very good job for us this season. He kept the ship afloat. Kept the guys motivated. Kept them competitive on a nightly basis. We improved on the defensive end and that’s one area we really wanted to work on, because we feel if we’re going to be a solid team moving forward, you have to have a foundation and the foundation starts on the defensive end. And that’s something you have to build on and you have to continue to work on, but Randy did a very nice job of putting the defensive concepts in there. The players bought into it and we fought hard on a nightly basis. He had the players competitive, even when things weren’t going well for us. We played hard and when you play hard, even when you lose some games, it gives you hope, moving down the road and I think Randy kept the ship moving forward and when we got all of our pieces together, we showed that we can compete on a good level with just about anybody. Especially at home.”

On bringing back Martell Webster: “I think Martell played very well for us. He had a very good year. He was a free agent, and he was very good value for us, but not only was he valuable on the court, he was one of the better 3-point shooters, he stretches the defense, and it complements John and Nene both. But he’s also a good presence in the locker room, and he had nice leadership to him. obviously, he’s a free agent, and at the appropriate time, we’ll sit down with his representatives to see if we can work out something that works for him and works for us.”

On the regression of young forwards Jan Vesely, Trevor Booker, Kevin Seraphin and Chris Singleton: “I think this is a big summer for all of them. They all need to improve, they all need to work hard. They all have a plan this summer, they will all be doing different things. Obviously, we did add six new players and those players got significant playing time. Consequently, those players didn’t play as much as they did the year before because we probably had better players this time at those positions and more experienced at this time.”

On trading the draft pick to add more veterans: “We can get an old player any time, but if the old player doesn’t help you on the court. That’s not the kind of situation we want to get into.”

On the effect injuries had on the season: “Look, that’s part of the game. You have to be able to deal with that, and we had to deal with it, obviously. I don’t think our players ever complained about that. But when you don’t have all your pieces together, you’re asking different players to play different roles, and I think that was the case in the first part of the season. Players that we brought in to do certain things had to take on different roles because we didn’t have all of our pieces, and the players were still trying to learn the system and learning what each of them can do. It’s an awkward situation at times for some of the players, but I think our players were very professional about it. they never complained about it, and when you get off to the tough start like we got off to, they could’ve quit. They could’ve just laid down, and they didn’t. We were in every game. We were competitive, and it’s no fun when you’re losing those close games. But I think we learned a lot from that. We learned that we have guys with good character.”

On offseason priorities: “I think that the number one thing is that we need to get our players’ health right. We have to rest up this summer, get our health right, and come back next year with all our players, and then there’ll be some additions in the offseason, and those additions will be determined in the next 2-3 weeks…I think we have a fairly deep roster. We have 8-9 guys coming back. We’ll have six free agents on the roster, some of them might be back, some might not be back, and it will also depend on what players are available. I think we have most of our positions covered at this time, but of course you always want to improve. We’re going to explore all our options, and see how we can be a better team next year.

Michael Lee is the national basketball writer for The Washington Post.



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Michael Lee · April 20, 2013