Looking back on the Washington Wizards’ second lockout-shortened season, there were a few similarities to the first one 13 years ago.
Chemistry was stunted from the outset as a starting backcourt player arrived late in training camp because of a contract dispute (Rod Strickland, meet Nick Young). Sputtering out of the gate resulted in a coaching change (Bernie Bickerstaff and Jim Brovelli, meet Flip Saunders and Randy Wittman). And, a lottery pick was waiting on the other side, as a lot of tumult was crammed into a condensed campaign.
But beyond that, the Wizards may actually remember the 2011-12 season as a time when the franchise made the dramatic shift from a juvenile culture of laughing through losing and altered the course of their rebuilding efforts for the better.
The Wizards ended the season on a six-game winning streak and recorded their most lopsided win in seven seasons, 104-70, over the Miami Heat at Verizon Center on Thursday night.
“All we’re doing is moving forward and looking to the future and I think the future looks good for us,” said President Ernie Grunfeld, who was rewarded with a contract extension this week.
After two years, the Wizards (20-46) finally recognized the error of investing their future in the careers of Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee and Young. Blatche was banished, while McGee and Young were sent packing to playoff teams because neither displayed the maturity or consistency to warrant lucrative long-term contracts when they hit free agency this summer. In return, the Wizards added veteran Brazilian big man Nene, whose arrival brought credibility to the locker room, a commitment to playing team basketball and an 7-4 record with him in uniform.
“You give anything a certain amount of time and options arise,” Wittman said. “It comes a point, with this team that’s so young, to add a guy with [Nene’s] experience and his ability was a good thing to do.”
But the epiphany to get more serious didn’t arrive until the team fired Saunders after a 2-15 start. Saunders’s tenure in Washington came to an end after 3½ seasons because he was unable to connect with one of the NBA’s youngest rosters or provide the necessary discipline for a group unable to police itself. Wittman came in with nothing to lose and employed a my-way-or-the-highway approach that got the players to respond, though wins didn’t come until the final few weeks of the season.
“It was hard,” said Wittman, who finished 18-31. “You’re going to lay some eggs, which we have, but they’ve been pretty resilient. I can’t fault them, for going through a trying time and trying to see what’s ahead. They’ve done that.”
The Wizards were certainly hamstrung by the lockout, because their young roster had no summer league, a short training camp and limited practices. Conflicting agendas early on also fostered an environment of individual play that was so unproductive that the phrase “selfish play” was used after nearly every loss.
“For some guys, it was contract year, wasn’t serious with the basketball as I think they should’ve been and with them being traded to veteran teams, it helped them,” John Wall said. “We didn’t have any veterans to get on them, they was the veterans. Now they are with veteran teams doing better and we’re doing better.”
Wall, the 2010 No. 1 overall pick, struggled early, finally got on track shortly before Saunders was dismissed, then put up all-star caliber numbers for nearly 20 games, and later entered a lengthy slump before finishing with an assist flurry. He had 12 assists in the season finale.
“This year, really, after the trade, it felt like it was my third year,” Wall said. “It was a whole totally different team and we started playing totally different, to be honest. No disrespect to any guys we had before, but everything changed. We were more serious in the locker room, more serious on the court, unselfish play, everybody played together and just wanted to win.”
Immediately after McGee was dealt, his replacement, second-year big man Kevin Seraphin showcased his previously hidden talents. And when Nene went down with plantar fasciitis in his left foot, Seraphin became the first Washington starting center since Gheorghe Muresan in 1995-96 to score 10 or more points in 15 consecutive games.
Jordan Crawford never felt comfortable backing up Young and flourished after the trade, taking advantage of his absence to put up big scoring numbers for the second year in a row. Trevor Booker also had a solid second season before a foot injury again prohibited him from seeing the court in April.
“Our second-year players, almost every one of them, has taken a significant jump,” Grunfeld said.
Booker, Seraphin and later Jan Vesely all got an opportunity because Blatche regressed for the first time in his career, got booed at home games and didn’t play the final 21 games because of he wasn’t physically fit.
“He’s got to make that decision to rededicate himself. He’s a talented player, but for him to play at his highest caliber, he’s got to dedicate himself to being the best player that he can be. That’s really what it boils down to,” Wittman said of Blatche.
Blatche said this season was a “minor setback” but added that he would work hard to make amends this summer.
“How I played this year, it was terrible,” he said. “The organization had to do something about it. So I didn’t take nothing personal this season from anybody.”
Rookies Vesely, Shelvin Mack and Chris Singleton got ample opportunity to contribute. Singleton had an uneven season but started more games than any player except Wall, Mack led all rookies in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.95 to 1) and Vesely relied on his athleticism and high-energy play to get time as he worked on refining his offensive game.
Looking ahead, the Wizards feel confident about the direction of the franchise. Owner Ted Leonsis is letting Grunfeld attempt to complete the task of turning the Wizards into a playoff squad again. Washington will soon need to resolve the coaching situation and get a draft pick that falls between first and fifth.
The Wizards could also have some money to get upgrades in free agency if they are able to trade or buyout creaky-kneed Rashard Lewis or use the amnesty provision to remove Blatche from the books. They are encouraged, either way.
“When I came here, I started to see we had a lot of talent who need to learn how to play basketball, who have the hunger to learn more and what to look for to get better,” Nene said. “I’m happy to help these young players. Probably next year, we will have more veterans to give a little more advice. We’re doing good, walking in the right direction.”