The Washington Wizards are better than their record

The Post Sports Live crew debates whether the Wizards would be better off falling to the No.7 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs and facing the reeling Pacers in the first round. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)
Mike Wise
Columnist April 1

A mini-celebration of sorts should take place Wednesday night at Verizon Center. The Wizards are playing the Celtics , and the Celtics are just a cut above the 76ers, Bucks and Magic as bad Eastern Conference teams go.

John Wall, Bradley Beal and their old-head friends should run, pass and shoot circles around Boston — or at least go up by 25 and win by one. And by the end of the night Washington will have officially returned to the NBA playoffs for the first time in six years.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

And then what?

Be guaranteed at least two more home dates in April? Bow out after a six-game series to Toronto or Chicago? Or go down in five games or less to Indiana or Miami because the Wizards didn’t have the mental toughness to become at least a six seed and avoid one of the best two conference teams in the first round?

This franchise should acknowledge its ascent from irrelevancy and dysfunction in 2009 to a winning record, a postseason berth and at least the hope of a better future. But that’s all it is, hope. Gauging from their implosion against Charlotte on Monday night, the Wizards have much work to do before anyone rubber-stamps this rebuild a genuine success.

Of course it starts with the point guard and the coach.

It’s no secret I am a big John Wall backer, someone who has always believed in his competitive desire and character. But sometimes I don’t know if Wall realizes he needs to bring his game every night, whether he realizes that being up 16 on the Bobcats isn’t the same as when Kentucky is up 16 on Fairfield.

You can’t coast through quarters in the NBA. You can’t lose concentration for long stretches and stop moving the basketball. You don’t get props for crossing over Chris Paul or shutting down Ty Lawson if Aaron Brooks is going to drop big numbers on you.

Randy Wittman wants to say all those things publicly, I’m sure. He’s almost said those things by not saying those things. “When we dribble, dribble, dribble, we’re not winning games,” the Wizards coach has often said. Given Wall has more touches than any player in the NBA (7,036, meaning he gets his hands on the ball an average of 96.4 times per game) and his dominating the ball is important to Washington’s success, it’s safe to say Wittman is talking about his all-star point guard.

Wittman won’t go further because he is coaching like a man who wants to coach this team next season instead of offend a guy who actually lobbied for Wittman to return two years ago when interviewed by Ted Leonsis. The team’s owner said endorsements by Wall and Nene helped cement his decision to bring Wittman back.

I don’t want to say Wittman is coaching scared and panicked, that people upstairs might not see a future leader on the bench in him beyond this season. But I would say he needs to be himself, however long he’s here. Heck, if I were Witt, I’d call a team meeting and address some real problems camouflaged when everyone is making a big deal about your team being decent for the first time in a while.

I’d cut to the chase: This team should be better than 38-36. It probably should be at least 44-30 with eight games left to play. The Wizards have the talent but they don’t act like they have the talent.

I would also have a frank conversation with Wall and tell him without you, there are no playoffs. And then I would tell him he’s got to lead from start to finish, that he’s a target now.

And Wittman needs to own up to these blown leads. I don’t care that he has the worst winning percentage of a coach with his length of tenure in NBA history; lots of good coaches inherit bad jobs. I do care that this team is not following his orders this late in the season.

According to John McCarthy, the research director at the Elias Sports Bureau, the Wizards have lost 11 games this season in which they had a lead of at least 10 points. That is tied with several teams for third most in the league. The Pelicans have the most with 14 and Pistons are second with 13. The Pistons and Pelicans are not going to the playoffs.

Blown big leads don’t just rattle confidence; they prevent a green, No. 3 draft pick like Otto Porter Jr. from getting into the game and developing. Porter should probably have played in 10 more games this season. But when the rotation players let the Lakers back into a game they were completely outclassed in last month, well, the big guns have to stay in. The byproduct is also a tired, physically ailing team entering the playoffs instead of a rested one.

In this proposed team meeting, it should be said exactly who and what they feel is responsible for this kind of malaise. Whether it’s Wittman’s inability to get through to his players or Wall and others going one on five, or lack of boxing out or whatever.

In the last few weeks Marcin Gortat and Al Harrington have used “young” and “inexperienced” a lot. That, to me, means Wall. So why not have that conversation straight-up with your teammate? While you’re at it, ask Beal why he occasionally sulks because he thinks he’s not getting the ball enough.

Veteran pickups like Andre Miller, Drew Gooden and Harrington have been a godsend, but the Wizards now have five players over 30 and just two players in the rotation under 23. This isn’t a young team anymore.

This is a team waiting for John Wall to completely mature as a player and waiting to see whether Randy Wittman is the right guy for the foreseeable future.

On the night they hope to break a six-year playoff drought, they deserve to celebrate their accomplishment. But they also ought to know the truth before they go any further:

There is a lack of buzz about this team right now. It’s because the Wizards are better than 38-36. And if they truly want to enrapture a sleeping giant of a basketball town again they better start playing like they’re as good as much of the league believes they are.

Otherwise, going back to the playoffs in a weakened East is going to end up being more of a hollow accomplishment than some franchise milestone.

For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.

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