The celebration was barely underway Wednesday night at Verizon Center when the Washington Wizards’ best player made yet another great move. As the final seconds ticked off during the Wizards’ 118-92 playoff-clinching victory over the Boston Celtics, John Wall found Coach Randy Wittman on the bench and embraced him the way people do after accomplishing a monumental task. Leading the Wizards back to the postseason qualifies.
From the depths of the NBA, the Wizards have reached heights they haven’t experienced in six years. They overcame obstacles — most of their own making — to finally provide what owner Ted Leonsis wanted: a trip to the playoffs. And Wall and Wittman were at the forefront of the Wizards’ long climb back.
So it was fitting that the Wizards’ star and the man who pushed him hard to become one shared a private moment as coaches, players and many in a crowd of 17,770 hugged and high-fived while the Wizards completed a blowout that enabled them to achieve a goal they set in training camp. And as everything swirled around them, Wall kept it simple.
“Thank you,” Wall told Wittman. “All the tough times I’ve been through . . . [he pushed] me every day to get better and become a better leader.”
The Wizards benefitted as much as Wall did from Wittman’s tough-love approach. Wall proved the doubters (I was among them) wrong as he became an all-star and the undisputed leader of a team that clearly has made major strides from his first three seasons in the league. Foremost, the Wizards (39-36) are in their best position in a long time because Wall never gave up despite being surrounded by knuckleheads, some of whom were rooting for him to fail.
There’s something to be said for perseverance — just ask Wittman. The Wizards “were in a desperate spot not too long ago,” he said. “When I took over, I just tried to keep telling, not only our guys, but Ted and [General Manager Ernie Grunfeld], ‘Let’s do this the right way . . . and one day we’re gonna get here.’ Each year we kind of kept putting a piece here and there. We kept developing, kept maturing.”
That’s obvious in how the Wizards have rebounded at times during their comeback season. The Wizards had dropped five of eight, including Monday’s dispiriting loss to the Charlotte Bobcats during a game in which they held a 16-point lead in the third quarter. But as often has been the case, the Wizards held it together again and breezed to an easy win over the rebuilding Celtics (23-52) as Wall sat out the entire fourth quarter.
No surprise, center Martin Gortat said. The Wizards “have some talent,” he said. “Each one of us [has] fought hard for the whole season to be in this situation where we are right now.”
The Wizards deserve the success they’ve earned. You just wonder how long it will last.
Of the 15 players on the Wizards’ roster, only Wall, Bradley Beal, Nene, Andre Miller, Otto Porter Jr. and Martell Webster are currently under contract for the 2014-15 season. The Wizards potentially could have nine free agents, including starters Gortat and Trevor Ariza — pillars of their resurgence — and valuable reserve Drew Gooden. That’s not an ideal situation.
There’s so much unclear about their roster, it’s impossible to evaluate the Wizards beyond this season. Is the team on track for long-term success? Or will the Wizards just be another one-hit wonder?
Except for Wall and Beal, who were considered can’t-miss prospects, the Wizards’ other first-round picks have not developed as management hoped. Among NBA executives, Grunfeld is second to none at cleaning up his mistakes, and he acquired Nene and Miller in trades that included former Wizards top picks JaVale McGee and Jan Vesely.
Although there’s no question Nene and Miller have helped the Wizards, replacing young players with old ones is a recipe for roster turnover. After this season, the Wizards must decide whether to retain Kevin Seraphin and Trevor Booker, who have only impressed in spurts and would be owed more than $3.8 million and $3.4 million, respectively, to return on one-year contracts. That’s a lot of money to pay unproven players who are already in their fourth seasons.
Gortat and Ariza have nothing left to prove.
Gortat, acquired in a trade with the Phoenix Suns shortly before the season tipped off, has been a productive scorer and rebounder. The Wizards have relied on his consistency in the low post, especially since they’re often without the talented-but-brittle Nene, who hasn’t returned from a knee injury he suffered in late February.
Ariza has been no less important to the Wizards’ success. It would be a no-brainer for the Wizards to re-sign Ariza, their best long-range shooter and perimeter defender, except for the fact Porter has to play. He can’t do that occupying a seat on the bench.
Re-signing Gortat should be the centerpiece of the Wizards’ offseason plan, and perhaps they’ll make a run at Ariza, too, which could prove to be costly on two levels.
The Wizards already have $45.6 million committed to Wall, Beal, Nene, Miller, Porter and Webster next season. With a payroll of a little more than $70.2 million this season, the Wizards are barely below the luxury-tax threshold of $71.7 million.
It wouldn’t be surprising if Gortat and Ariza commanded big deals on the open market. Gooden could receive another payday as well. He bailed out the Wizards — and appears to have revived his career — after being a late-season addition because of Nene’s absence. Would Leonsis approve multiple moves that could make the Wizards tax payers?
Of course, those are matters for another day. The Wizards are headed back to the playoffs, which is great news for them. After the past five years, they definitely needed some.
For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.