For the Washington Wizards, Tuesday morning came like a sledgehammer to the head.
“It’s always the worst,” Bradley Beal said twice in his lowest register of tenor. “I feel like I’m hung over.”
This morning-after feeling followed the sting of the loss Monday night in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Boston Celtics. Despite the Wizards’ limitations — dwindling trust in the bench, relying so much on the starters and losing defensive focus — they still came within one game of upsetting the top seed. In fact, had they patched together one solid final quarter, they might have spent Tuesday breaking down film inside a downtown Cleveland hotel conference room instead of gathering at Verizon Center for individual exit interviews with Coach Scott Brooks.
Even while spinning from the 115-105 loss, the Wizards head into summer more assured about their place in the Eastern Conference.
“We feel like we still had a chance to get to a Game 7, 50-50 chance to get to the Eastern Conference finals, one game away. Couldn’t ask for more,” John Wall said.
“I’m for sure confident in our team and I was confident we could’ve got it done and it’s unfortunate that we didn’t,” Beal lamented.
“We definitely got at least a little five-year run in us with the guys we got,” Markieff Morris boasted.
And yet, this young and established core could still face a major shake-up over the summer.
Starting center Marcin Gortat, 33, who is under contract until the end of the 2018-19 season, expressed an intent to meet with team management and figure out if the Wizards are still “the right fit.” Gortat showed agitation speaking to reporters, while defending his value as an “underappreciated” center in the NBA. He was the only Wizards player to start all 82 regular season games as well as the 13 playoff contests and took a back seat on offense as the unit’s primary screen-setter so that others could score.
“I know there’s a lot of freaking idiots looking down the columns for the points telling me that, ‘You only score four or six points, team lost because of you.’ That’s how it is, that’s how people picture that,” Gortat said. “But people that know basketball, they know what I bring to the table. At the end of the day, it is what it is.”
An even more pressing matter: Starting small forward Otto Porter Jr. enters restricted free agency after the best season of his four-year career. Porter’s production as a long and athletic 6-foot-9 forward with a knockdown three-point jumper may beckon suitors who are willing to dole out a maximum contract; the Wizards would have to match the money to keep him and the core of the starting lineup intact.
The dilemma of the summer is not lost on Wall. After second-round exits in the 2014 and 2015 playoffs, the Wizards lost major pieces at the small forward position. Now, Wall wonders if the summer of 2017 will bring more upheaval.
“Well, when we lost the first time, Trevor Ariza didn’t come back. The next year he was gone,” Wall said, referring to 2014. “Then the second time we won, Paul Pierce was here and he was gone. So we’re making adjustments and we’re kind of in that same boat: is Otto Porter going to be back?
“That’s three different small forwards — if he does go anywhere else,” Wall continued. “It’ll be a different team and different circumstance you’ve got to adjust to. Every team, we felt like we had an opportunity to get over that hump. We just fell short. Until you get over that hump, you’re going to keep saying the same thing.”
Although Porter remained true to his reticent ways — deflecting talk about his pending free agency by claiming that he hasn’t thought about it yet — his teammates campaigned on his behalf.
“I hope he gets the max,” Morris said. “He’s worth the max.”
Added Beal: “He’s part of our core. He’s part of our young group that we got. He grew up behind those guys, behind Trev, behind Paul. He was kind of being created, in a sense, to being in the role he is today. … He’s a true talent. I’m hoping to get him back.”
Last July, Beal was in a similar situation. Beal had no problems publicly revealing his desire for a max contract and on the first day of free agency, the Wizards re-signed him to a five-year, $128 million deal. Though Beal acted swiftly, he has different advice for Porter.
“Just be patient, man. At the end of the day, it’s a patient game. I understand the situation he’s in,” Beal said. “Ultimately he has to do what’s best for him. We love him here, hopefully we’ll have him back and you know it’s a business and a process at the end of the day. Otto’s my boy. He’s a Missouri boy, you know, we’ve got to stick together always. But it’s a business. If I were to tell him anything, it’s just take your time and just enjoy the process. It can be gruesome. Sometimes it might not go your way, it might not go the way you want it to, in the end it always works out.”