NEW YORK — Ted Leonsis watched the Washington Wizards clinch their first playoff berth under his watch from the owner’s suite rather than his usual courtside seat, a few spots down from Coach Randy Wittman. Leonsis let the players and coaches publicly have their moment to relish perhaps the most satisfying win in the past six seasons, with a celebration at center court that featured John Wall, the now scraggly-bearded face of the franchise, doing a short rendition of the Nae Nae dance.
Wall leaned, swayed and threw out his right arm as his teammates laughed in delight. When he made it to the locker room, Leonsis was there to privately greet his all-star point guard with a smile, a hug and some encouraging words. Leonsis didn’t address the team but spoke to a few players individually, saving his most pointed message for the longest-tenured member of a roster that has been completely overhauled from the last playoff team in 2008.
“He told me congratulations, good job and keep playing and keep fighting for it,” said Wall, who signed a five-year, $80 million contract extension in August. "Just had something special to say to me because he did pay me a lot of money and wanted me to be the leader of the team."
The Wizards drafted Wall in 2010, only a few weeks after ownership of the team transferred from the Pollin family to Leonsis and the duo has been linked ever since. Leonsis told Wall that the upcoming years would require patience and the franchise went through the gruesome process of rebuilding.
Coming out of Kentucky, where he won 35 games in his lone season, Wall had never won more than 29 games in his first three seasons with the Wizards. Washington secured its fifth playoff spot this millennium on Wednesday with their 39th victory — the most since the team won 43 six years ago.
“We knew we wanted to rebuild, but we’re all professional and we like to win games. I’m a competitive person and any drill, anything I do, I want to win.” Wall said. “I put all the pressure on me in anything we do, losing, winning, or anything like that. That's just the way I am and that’s how competitive I am, so for this, to do it with a great group of guys means a lot.”
With seven games remaining and Washington still seeking to improve its playoff seed, the Wizards (39-36) understand that the season didn’t end with their 118-92 romp of the Boston Celtics. Beginning with Friday’s game against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden, the next three games are against teams that are currently among the top eight teams in the conference and all are either jostling for position or just to make the playoffs.
But for an organization that has endured so much over the past six seasons — four coaches, 69 players, two owners — the Wizards earned the right to bask in what Leonsis called on his blog, “a modest yet very positive accomplishment.”
Leonsis put President Ernie Grunfeld and Wittman on alert before the season, when he declared that he wanted to see a “playoff-caliber team” and wasn’t willing to accept any excuses along that path. Both Grunfeld and Wittman are in the final years of their respective deals, and while their situations aren’t expected to be resolved until after the season, Leonsis also mentioned in his blog that he was proud of the “leadership of this franchise.”
Grunfeld has been with the organization since 2003 and turned the Wizards into a playoff contender in just two seasons. But after making the postseason for four straight years, Grunfeld erred in committing to a core of all-stars — Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler — beyond its expiration date. Eddie Jordan was replaced by Ed Tapscott, who was replaced by Flip Saunders, who was replaced by Wittman.
Wittman joined Saunders’s staff as an assistant in 2009-10, when the Wizards hoped to make a run back to the playoffs before the team was beset by injuries, bad chemistry and eventually a gun incident that sent the franchise spiraling. That period was followed by some bad basketball filled with youthful blunders until Grunfeld started adding more veteran pieces to surround Wall and Bradley Beal, who was drafted in 2012.
“I tell you, it feels like I’ve been here 20 years,” Wittman said. “I wouldn’t wish some of the struggles that we went through on anybody. But it also makes it nicer to see the other end of it. That’s why I’m so elated for some of these guys that have been here a number of years. They’ve heard me preach this day is coming and I’m sure they thought I was crazy at one time — and I probably was, but it’s finally gotten here.”
The Wizards started the season 2-7 but came together following a pivotal players’ only meeting in which they discussed roles and veterans Al Harrington and Trevor Ariza reminded Wall that the team would only go as far as he took it. Wall responded by silencing some who questioned the Wizards’ decision to give him the big contract, lifting the organization with the first all-star campaign of his career.
“This is bigger than that. All-star is my own separate goal and what I wanted to accomplish for myself,” Wall said. “But everything I do is for the team first. I wouldn’t be able to be an all-star and have these individual accolades without those guys and a great group of teammates. This is what everybody wanted as a group.”