When the Washington Wizards took the floor for their season finale, the starting lineup included John Wall, two rookie forwards, a second-year center and a shooting guard who joined the team on a 10-day contract – and they thrashed what was left of the resting-before-the-playoffs Miami Heat by 34 points.
The Wizards (20-46) proved that if you are going to tank, tank early and tank responsibly. They were able to win, end the year with confidence and exuberance, and never put their draft position at risk. They still have the second-best odds to win Kentucky big man Anthony Davis on May 30 but the lottery wasn’t a big deal to the players, who were too focused on their current situations to worry about what lies ahead.
“This was a real satisfying way to come down the stretch for this team. I thought this stretch down at the end of the year, even with a couple of losses that we had, was the best stretch that we played as a team together,” Coach Randy Wittman said after leading the Wizards to their first six-game winning streak in four seasons. “For them to come down, when you’re not really playing for anything other than tomorrow, the future, to play with this kind of intensity all the way through, I was proud of them.”
There was a gleeful finish, with players shooting out of their seats to cheer Maurice Evans as he capped his season-high 18-point night with a fast-break dunk. There was confetti, towel-waving, smiles, hugs and unity, something that was lacking when the season began. Yes, the Wizards defeated a Heat team, among the favorites to win the NBA championship, that was missing LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, but this season has been too rough for Washington to put asterisks on any victories.
“We were in disarray from the moment that I got here, from the moment I stepped off the plane and seen that we were getting blown out by Philly in the preseason. It wasn’t looking good,” said Evans, who signed with the team on the day it lost by 25 points in the preseason opener to the 76ers. “I’m happy to say that it’s the total opposite, that we finished with momentum, that we finished with a strong character team on and off the court.”
If you recall, the Wizards took the floor for the season opener with Wall, Andray Blatche, Rashard Lewis, Jordan Crawford (holding the spot until Nick Young regained his conditioning) and JaVale McGee – and they squandered a 21-point first half and lost in embarrassing fashion to the lottery-bound New Jersey Nets.
“I was furious because you saw on the court, the fans saw it. It just felt like we stopped playing,” rookie Chris Singleton said. “It just led the way to the rest of the season.”
The Wizards lost their first eight games and 15 of their first 17 before the dismissal of Flip Saunders as head coach. But they didn’t just lose, they turned into a nightly punch line, with McGee filling the highlights shows for all of the wrong reasons and bloopers abounding.
It’s not hard to find to where the shift occurred. The Wizards won just seven of the first 24 games under Wittman, but at the trade deadline, the Wizards dealt McGee and Young to Denver and the Los Angeles Clippers, respectively. Three days later, Blatche played his final game of the season – and possibly his last game with the franchise – in Memphis.
A culture shift was underway and truly unfolded when Nene made his debut a few days later in New Jersey, leading the Wizards to a decisive victory over the Nets. Though Nene would only play 11 games with the Wizards, his presence made a huge difference for the organization.
“At times it was tough because you had guys like Nick and JaVale; they wanted the ball a lot and took a lot of shots. It’s kind of tough to find what kind of team it was with them,” John Wall said, throwing his support behind the deal for Nene. “I think it was the right decision. We had a lot of jokes and stuff going around the locker room, but [now] the energy is more serious, everybody is being on time, taking things more serious, being professional about everything. We just interacting more as a team.”
The Wizards went 20-46 to finish with the second-worst record in the NBA. But check this out: They won 10 of their first 44 before Nene arrived. They won 10 of the final 22 and were 7-4 with Nene in uniform.
“For sure. That’s the reason they brought me here. To share my experience. Make this team take another step, everybody together, everybody working hard to get better this summer,” Nene said. “The plan was to finish strong and we did. We did it together. We played hard. All the players, they did an amazing job. They pushed through. Everybody is happy. Everybody enjoy. Everybody had fun.”