When the boss asked me to write an NBA curtain-raiser, I quickly Googled my column from almost the exact same date a year ago — mostly to ensure I wasn’t sounding like a broken record while proclaiming, with authentic enthusiasm, Randy Wittman and the Washington Wizards have some reason for hope in 2013-2014!
Of course the headline read, “Randy Wittman, Washington Wizards have some reason for hope in 2012-2013.” Prior to a 29-win season.
Fool me once, shame on Ernie Grunfeld.
Fool me twice (or a mere five years of no NBA postseason in the District), shame on sucker-of-an-NBA-lifer me.
Shame on anyone, really, for believing the culture and talent have been altered enough to finally feel confident that John Wall , in his fourth season, will definitely play in his first NBA playoff game.
But this time, I mean it. I can feel it.
“They believe it,” Wittman said, standing in the Verizon Center corridor outside the team’s practice facility Tuesday afternoon, a day before the Wizards open on the road against the Detroit Pistons . “It’s one thing for a coach to stand up and say it. But I can truly see it in their eyes: I can see that they believe this team should be in that position. It’s easy for me with Coachspeak to stand up here and say we’re going to be in the playoffs. But I don’t play.”
Before they caught their plane to Detroit, I spoke to Wall, Wittman and Grunfeld, at least one of whom will still be here next season.
Signing a maximum, five-year contract in the offseason, Wall is the $80 million man, the face of the NBA in Washington. He’s not going anywhere. The coach and the team president/GM, though, are in the last years of both their deals.
The roster Ernie put together and Randy motivates better be a playoff team — or else owner Ted Leonsis may be forced to switch general managers for the first time and/or bring in a new coach.
It’s a switch on an old dynamic. For all the times players have rolled the dice entering contract years, Wall, Bradley Beal, Nene and their contractually secure crew are essentially going to be responsible for their direct supervisors’ longevity more than their own.
What’s more, how these Wizards perform — how many games they win, how aesthetically appeasing and entertaining they are in the open floor, how good role players such as rookie Otto Porter Jr. or veteran center Marcin Gortat are — holds the key to who their next high-profile teammates is next summer.
They’re trying to be a postseason team as much as courting their next great teammate.
The Wizards are going to be at least $16 million under the salary cap in the summer of 2014, meaning they can finally bid on a player of real renown. Forget about LeBron. He is going to: (A) stay in Miami; (B) go home to Cleveland and shed tears with Dan Gilbert or, my best guess, (C) take the torch from Kobe in L.A. and become the star of the Lakers and his own sitcom — provided Carlos Boozer or Joakim Noah do not disembowel him first.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. After so many injuries, the purging of the Arenas era, waiting for young kids to develop, the Wizards have to find a way this season. There are no alibis left.
Wall has been inscribing the word “Playoffs” on his shoes during the preseason. It beats what Chris Morris used to inscribe on his shoes while with woeful Nets in 1994: The left sneaker toe read, “Please;” the right read, “Trade Me.”
Unlike Morris, Wall wants to stay with his team. But he is growing impatient. When Comcast SportsNet’s Chris Miller asked Wall on Tuesday if it was important to start out well on the road at Detroit, Wall quipped, “That’s key because I think I haven’t probably won 20 road games since I’ve been here.”
Yep, 19-96 is not exactly a road warrior kind of team.
Think about the effect losing has psychologically on a player who lost twice at Kentucky his one college season and estimates he lost between 15 and 20 games in his life before he joined the Wizards. It has made him want to win — badly.
There’s a reason this team was 19-6 at home after Wall finally got healthy last January. Their floor leader made them flow, showing the elite point guard potential he had waited too long to show.
“We all know what our situation is, what our main goal is as a team: It’s to make the playoffs,” Wall said. “If we don’t make it, I feel like the season is a waste for us. That’s the way we’re all looking at it.”
Grunfeld gets a lot of grief, but if he pulls this off and survives, it will be because of his resourcefulness after making mistakes — really, an uncanny ability to recycle.
Wild, no, the untradeable contracts he somehow moved?
Gilbert Arenas became Rashard Lewis; Lewis became Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza; Okafor became . . . Gortat. And after everything Gortat, making around $7.5 million and enabling Nene to play his natural position, could be the most useful part of all of them to help Wall become a playoff point guard.
Gilbert Arenas at $20 million per year or Marcin Gortat for $7.5 million per year — how much of a no-brainer was that in 2008, the last year Washington had a postseason?
They go back? They go back.
The Wizards will finish 43-39, claim the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference and lose in five or six spirited games to Chicago, a series in which Wall and Derrick Rose put on a show.
It’s not enough to make LeBron come join to Washington, but after the past five years, it will be plenty good.
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.