Washington Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld and Coach Randy Wittman sat behind a podium Wednesday for a joint news conference to discuss an upcoming season that could either represent their final run as a tandem or the beginning of a long, sustainable franchise run as a playoff contender.
Grunfeld is entering his 11th season with the organization and Wittman is set to start his second full season with the team, but their fortunes have been tied ever since owner Ted Leonsis gave them two-year extensions in 2012. And as both enter the final year of their respective deals, they understand the pressure that comes as the Wizards attempt to make the postseason for the first time since the 2007-08 season.
“Well, that's what we want,” Wittman said when asked about the increased expectations. “We want to get to the playoffs. Do you think this is the first time I’ve been on a one-year contract? No. It doesn’t mean anything. Thirty years of being in this — and it’s just about going out and doing your job and doing it the best you can, and I feel if we do that, everything else takes care of itself.”
Grunfeld then chuckled and said: “I’ve been there 36 years, for a couple under the same circumstances. So I have him by a couple of years on that one.”
In an interview with WUSA (Channel 9) this week, Leonsis said that he is “very, very happy” with the job the front office has done since he purchased the team three years ago but added that “we live in very accountable businesses, and we’re all accountable.”
Last season, the Wizards had to temper expectations before the season started, as their two best players — John Wall and Nene — were injured when training camp began. By the time Wall made his debut in mid-January, the Wizards were already out of the playoff picture and had posted the league’s worst record at 5-28.
With training camp set to get underway on Saturday at George Mason University, the Wizards are again dealing with injuries, with starting center Emeka Okafor out indefinitely with a herniated disk in his neck and versatile reserve forward Chris Singleton out at least six to eight weeks with a broken left foot.
This time around, however, Wittman and Grunfeld believe the Wizards are better prepared to withstand the setbacks after an offseason in which the team found an upgrade at backup point guard in Eric Maynor and a forward who can stretch the floor in Al Harrington. They also drafted Otto Porter Jr. and Glen Rice Jr., bolstering the perimeter. Nene spent the entire summer getting the rest he needed to get healthy and the young players on the roster — such as Wall, Bradley Beal, Kevin Seraphin, Jan Vesely and Trevor Booker — showed varying ranges of growth.
Grunfeld was especially excited about retaining swingman Martell Webster and guard Garrett Temple, allowing the Wizards to maintain some continuity with 11 players returning from a team that went 24-25 after Wall returned. The Wizards’ 29-53 overall record was their best since Caron Butler, Antawn Jamison and Gilbert Arenas led the team to the postseason for the last time more than five years ago.
“Listen, we want to make the playoffs. I think, obviously, if we can continue to grow as a team like we did last year, when we had healthy pieces, that that should be our goal. And there's no reason why we can't,” Wittman said. “I think with what we’ve added and who we got and the players that were here and young guys being another year older, that those expectations shouldn’t change.”
Wittman said Nene, Beal and Wall are the only players who enter training camp penciled in as starters, leaving it up to Trevor Ariza and Webster to determine which player gets the nod at small forward. The presence of established veterans relieves some pressure on Porter, whom Wittman playfully described as “scared,” in the same way Beal was as a rookie last season. Webster replaced Ariza as the starter when Ariza was injured last season and held on to the spot, even after Ariza returned.
“You have an idea. But again, they’re going to determine how good my idea is and who’s warranted there,” Wittman said, adding that Ariza and Webster “really were both starters. They played basically the same amount of minutes.”
Seraphin, Vesely, Booker and Harrington will also have the chance to fill in for Okafor while he recovers, Wittman said. “That’s what October’s for. How can I answer that question? We haven’t even had a practice yet. That’s going to be determined, guys. . . . Now, we can do a lot of different things here. Now, who is going to start, opening night? Even if I knew, I ain’t going to tell you.”