A year ago, the NBA unveiled a regular season schedule that featured the Washington Wizards on national television once . A second-round playoff run later, the expectations and exposure have been multiplied tenfold.
The Wizards will play on national television 10 times — nine on ESPN and their first appearance on TNT since Thanksgiving 2010 — during the upcoming 2014-15 season. The slate includes a noon Christmas Day contest at Madison Square Garden against the Knicks — their first Christmas game since 2008 — and another five games on NBA TV.
The magnified visibility is evidence of the franchise’s rising national profile after it advanced to the second round of the playoffs last season for the first time since 2005 with one of the sport’s best back courts in John Wall and Bradley Beal.
“I don’t think this is like a risk or a reach by any stretch by the networks,” former NBA coach and current ESPN analyst P.J. Carlesimo said in a telephone interview. “It’s just recognition for what the team did last year in particular.”
The schedule, officially released Wednesday, begins with a trip to Miami to face the LeBron James-less Heat on Oct. 29. After a visit to Orlando on Oct. 30 to complete a two-game Florida swing, the Wizards will hold their home opener against the Milwaukee Bucks on Nov. 1.
Washington’s national television lineup begins at Verizon Center on NoJv. 5 on ESPN opposite a Pacers squad that will be without injured all-star Paul George for the entire campaign and lost Lance Stephenson in free agency.
The Wizards’ next national television date, also on ESPN, is Nov. 21, when they welcome James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Cleveland returns for another ESPN encounter Feb. 20. The Wizards travel to Cleveland on Nov. 26 and April 15 to conclude their regular season.
The other Eastern Conference favorites, the Chicago Bulls, whom the Wizards defeated in the first round of the playoffs last season, visit Washington on Dec.23 and Jan.9. The Wizards are in Chicago on Jan. 14 and March 3. The defending champion Spurs visit Verizon Center on Jan. 13. Kevin Durant, already rumored to be a potential free agent signing for the Wizards in 2016, will come with the Thunder to Verizon Center on Jan. 21.
Carlesimo echoed the consensus that the Cavaliers, who signed James and are expected to trade for Kevin Love, and Bulls, who are expected to feature a healthy Derrick Rose and free agent acquisition Pau Gasol, are the Eastern Conference front-runners. But he emphasized the Wizards, the fifth seed in the East with a 44-38 record last season, are emerging as contenders.
“Have they arrived? Are they going to be playing in May or June?” said Carlesimo, who praised the Wizards’ patient approach to contention. “Maybe not. Maybe they’re not ready for that next step yet. But they’re right there now. They’re in the conversation.”
The NBA’s decision to schedule the Wizards on Christmas Day — the league’s marquee day in the regular season — is the league’s clearest acknowledgment of Washington’s ascent. The Wizards’ last Christmas appearance came during a disastrous 2008-09 season, when they lost to the first installment of James’s Cavaliers and dropped their record to 4-23.
“It means the NBA thinks that you’re going to be a really successful team that people want to watch this year,” said veteran big man Kris Humphries, who was traded to the Wizards last month. “It’s one of those things that, yeah you’re being recognized, but also you’re on everyone’s radar now and you have to take that approach. Almost every year you got to be better than the last year to even stay the same. My mentality going in is you got to be a lot better than last year.”
Carlesimo insisted the increased exposure will benefit the Wizards — and that the Wizards will be prepared for it.
“TV is not in the business of doing nice things for teams,” Carlesimo said. “They’re not trying to do Washington a favor. They’re trying to make sure that they got the best matchups and the best teams and the best individual players. So I think all of the stuff is happening at a very good time for Washington.”