The Washington Wizards are trying to play down the significance of being one game over .500 with the same intensity that they once tried to avoid answering questions about their prior inability to reach that minor milestone.
“We haven’t accomplished anything,” Coach Randy Wittman said Tuesday, the day after the Wizards defeated Portland, 100-90, at Verizon Center to improve to 24-23 and claim a winning record for the first time in more than four years.
Certainly, Washington entered the season with larger goals than having a winning percentage of .511. But reaching that mark is no small achievement, considering the painstaking stumbles through the wilderness that the franchise had taken over the previous 1,556 days.
Since Gilbert Arenas scored 32 points to lead the Wizards to a 123-104 win over New Jersey and a 2-1 record on Oct. 31, 2009, the franchise has had 62 players suit up to contribute to a 119-236 record. Longtime owner Abe Pollin passed away and his family transferred ownership of the team to Ted Leonsis. The Wizards changed their colors to red, white and blue and the team they defeated on that night now resides in Brooklyn. Wittman has replaced Flip Saunders as coach, and John Wall is now the face of the franchise while Arenas is out of the league.
The Wizards were at or below .500 for 355 games, which is the longest dry spell in the NBA since the Los Angeles Clippers had a similar stretch for 387 games from 1996 to 2001, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. No other team in the league has come remotely close to being down for that long over the past four years. Milwaukee has now moved to first at 62 games with an even or losing record, while Boston is second with 49.
“The biggest thing for us right now is just to stay hungry. That we don’t get satisfied with anything we did,” center Marcin Gortat said. “The big picture is, we want to make playoffs and we want to make run in the playoffs. That was just one small step towards being a better team.”
Leonsis calmly shook hands with Wall as Wall headed through the tunnel toward the locker room on Monday after the duo reached a winning record for the first time together. But there were was no extra-tight hug reminiscent of Pollin’s embrace of Wes Unseld after the Bullets won the NBA title in 1978 — or even Antawn Jamison after the team snapped a seven-year postseason drought in 2005.
Confetti didn’t fall from the rafters. A small crowd applauded but didn’t start any bonfires. The locker room wasn’t covered in plastic for a champagne celebration and the mood inside was relatively ho-hum.
“It was another game that we had to get a win,” Bradley Beal said, describing the attitude of the team before it attempted to get over the .500 for the eighth time this season. “But it’s great for us to be able to get over that hump and now we can move forward and continue to get wins.”
Beal only had to wait until his second season to finally be a part of a winning team, but Wall, Kevin Seraphin and Trevor Booker had only known losing for their first three seasons in the NBA. Jan Vesely and Chris Singleton had also been on losing teams their entire careers. Rookies Otto Porter Jr. and Glen Rice Jr. have basically been spoiled.
Players who have arrived in the past two years — Nene, Trevor Ariza, Martell Webster, Garrett Temple, Gortat, Eric Maynor and Al Harrington — all have been on teams that have won at least 50 games in a season. The Wizards haven’t won more than 45 games since the 1978-79 season, so the bar for what’s deemed a success, in comparison, is quite low.
For that reason, Ariza — the only player on the team with an NBA championship ring — didn’t want to completely diminish the latest accomplishment for a franchise that was watching JaVale McGee, Andray Blatche and Nick Young founder around not too long ago.
“I’m sure it feels good for them,” Ariza said of the Wizards who had never been on a winning team. “I don’t want to take that feeling away from them. I also want them to know that you can’t be complacent and just want to stop here. It’s still a lot more out there to achieve. This team can achieve that, we just got to keep playing and not worry about we are one game over .500, if we do that, I feel like we will be okay.”
Four days after making the all-star team for the first time, Wall was able to scratch off another, much more modest goal off the list. Wall reached .500 in his 231st career game, 10 shy of the all-time mark for a No. 1 overall pick set by former Maryland standout Joe Smith. It probably would’ve happened sooner had he been able to start last season healthy. He returned from a stress injury in his left knee after the Wizards had spotted him a 5-28 record. Since he came back, the Wizards have gone 48-48.
“You give credit to the young guys that have been here for a while for how hard they work and trying to get better,” Wall said. “You give a great job to our coaching staff and our organization, the people up top for doing the right thing and trying to make this team better. It also starts with being here as a family. We all trust each other. We all hold each other accountable on the basketball court, everything we do as a team.”
With 35 games remaining, beginning on Wednesday against the San Antonio Spurs, Wittman can’t allow his players to be content with .511. “The accomplishment is where we’re at at the end of the year,” he said, “and that’s, I think, where you measure it. It’s a number. We’ve got to continue to play and understand why we have success when we’re having success and continue down that road.”