A day after the Washington Wizards completed the longest season-ending winning streak for a non-playoff team in more than 31 years, Jordan Crawford took a moment to smile and gloat. The Wizards won six games in a row to finish with 20 wins, something Crawford stated as a target three weeks before, following a loss to Milwaukee that dropped them to 12-41.
Asked if he honestly felt that the team could make a strong rally or was simply trying to motivate his teammates, Crawford replied, “I always believe everything I say.”
The Wizards’ finish already has Crawford focused on something bigger next season, when the team will have the benefit of another high lottery pick, possible upgrades in free agency, offseason workouts and a full training camp.
“We want to be fighting for a playoff position. That’s the goal,” said Crawford, whose initial comments were rooted in the progress the team had made following a trade deadline deal that yielded a talented, veteran big man in Nene, but also a change in attitude and professionalism from a young team.
The Wizards (20-46) didn’t win many games immediately after the trade, but they were more competitive, played better defense and had given away a handful of games in which they built double-digit leads. The early bumps helped them win eight of their final 10 games, a run of success that the Wizards believe wasn’t a fluke.
“It’s real,” said Roger Mason Jr., who was waived after having season-ending surgery on his left index finger to make a roster spot in the final week but has expressed a desire to return as a free agent. “I genuinely believe if we had the same team the last month of the season, we’d be fighting for a playoff spot.”
Nene’s arrival at the trade deadline, along with signing James Singleton to a 10-day contract earlier this month, brought a veteran presence to the front line and they helped Kevin Seraphin and Jan Vesely become solid contributors. Nene has received a bulk of the credit, and with good reason, because the team was markedly different after the trade, and especially with him in the lineup.
“I felt like he held everyone accountable,” rookie Chris Singelton of Nene. “Our team hasn’t always been the most mature team. Since we got him and we got James and a couple of veterans they brought in, it’s definitely helped us.”
In the 41 games before the trade, the Wizards were 9-32 and getting outscored by an average of 8.5 per game (102.3-93.8). In the final 25 games, the Wizards went 11-14 and outscored their opponents by an average of 1.4 points per game (93.4-92.0). In the 11 games that Nene actually played, the Wizards were 7-4 and outscored their opponents by an average of 10.3 points per game (95.8-85.5).
“When I came here, a lot of things changed. I’m very excited about next season. Good things will come,” Nene said. “We can surprise a lot of things in this league next season. I know that’s the reason I’m here.”
John Wall is disappointed that he hasn’t been able to help the Wizards reach the playoffs in his first two years, but he is encouraged by the late-season rally, believing that the team is a few more veterans away — either at small forward, shooting guard or point guard — from contending for the postseason.
He also understands that Washington is eagerly waiting for a winner, with the team making four consecutive lottery appearances.
“I know that. Every time somebody sees me out, they say, ‘It’s coming. Just don’t leave us,’ ” Wall said with a grin. “But I like it here. I know it’s a tough time. You can tell we making the progress and making the steps, like we did this year. All it is is adding other pieces and . . . you want to be in the playoffs. Everybody don’t have the opportunity to come right out the gates and go to the playoffs their first year or second year. It takes time. As long as it’s by your third year or fourth year, you at least got to be in the playoffs.”
This month, the Wizards claimed two victories against Charlotte, a win over Cleveland and another victory that crushed Milwaukee’s playoff hopes. They also had two wins over a Miami Heat team that rested all-stars LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh; had a road win in Chicago against a Bulls team without all-stars Derrick Rose and Luol Deng; and another victory over the Dwight Howard-less Magic.
“People are going to say it was against this team or that team and who held out and who didn’t, but you still got to win the game — and we didn’t always do that,” said Coach Randy Wittman, who still hasn’t been given any hint from the organization about his future beyond this season. “I liked how this team came together since the trade, I like the locker room, the professionalism that changed within the whole group, as we made the change that we did, and then obviously the play on the court was a positive. I liked what I think is a pretty good future where this team’s headed.”
Crawford agreed that adding Nene has been huge, but feels the Wizards need to make a few more additions before making the leap into playoff contention. “Guys that’s hungry to win. Guys that want to change this culture around. I couldn’t really say more than that,” Crawford said. “It’s shifted to a positive way. Everybody wants more than what they getting out of this. They want to win and bring excitement like it was when they was in the playoffs.”