When the last hugs were made along the sideline and the tears had finally stopped flowing in the locker room, the heartache of losing to the top-seeded Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference semifinals had suddenly shifted into pride for the Washington Wizards.
After finishing with just 29 victories last season, spending so much of this season struggling just to claim a winning record and needing a desperate late-season push to avoid a first-round matchup against two-time defending champion Miami, the Wizards were a few better-executed plays from possibly playing the Heat for the right to reach the NBA Finals. The dramatic and stunning shift was harder to grasp than the disappointment.
“Nobody expected us to be here,” John Wall said after the Wizards lost, 90-83, in Game 6 against Indiana. “You know you can’t just jump the hurdle and get to the Eastern Conference finals. We just were shocked and amazed [at] what a heck of a season we had to get this far. We were one game away from forcing a Game 7 against the No. 1 team in the East. It was a successful season for us as far as we went that a lot of people didn’t expect.”
Washington has been littered with teams that showed promise and inspired optimism throughout the town but never came close to fulfilling their potential.
Michael Jordan called the Bullets a “team of the future” after Chris Webber and Juwan Howard lost in a competitive three-game sweep against the eventual champion Chicago Bulls in 1997. Within a year, the team changed its name to Wizards, missed out on the playoffs and shipped Webber to Sacramento in a deal that would doom the franchise for several years.
Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Larry Hughes ended an eight-year playoff drought and led the franchise into the second round in 2005. Hughes left for Cleveland in free agency later that summer, and while the Wizards made the postseason each year through 2008, they never got out of the first round. Washington never had much hope to be a serious contender after Arenas tore his left knee in April 2007.
Wall and Bradley Beal give the Wizards a solid foundation, establishing themselves as one of the best, if not the best, back courts in the NBA, and neither has reached his 24th birthday. But even with an all-star point guard and a shooting guard who has already been chosen for the Team USA talent pool in international competitions through 2016, the Wizards enter an offseason in which they want to make sure this season wasn’t just some fluky run through a mediocre Eastern Conference.
The Wizards have more than $40 million committed to five players under fully guaranteed contracts next season — Wall ($13.7 million), Nene ($13 million), Martell Webster ($5.4 million), Beal ($4.5 million) and Otto Porter Jr. ($4.5 million). The team has an option on backup point guard Andre Miller, who was acquired from Denver in a Feb. 20 trade. Miller could be bought out for $2 million of the $4.6 million that he is owed next season, but the team is likely to bring back the 38-year-old point guard, who immediately brought stability and savvy to a position of need.
With only the 46th pick in the upcoming draft, free agency will play an important role in the future of the organization. The priority for team owner Ted Leonsis and President Ernie Grunfeld is retaining unrestricted free agents and starters Marcin Gortat and Trevor Ariza — the Wizards’ best rebounder and shot blocker and the best three-point shooter and perimeter defender, respectively. Both players earned $7.7 million this season and will be looking for raises in the summer, when the Wizards will be at least $18 million under the salary cap (currently $58,679,000), which is expected to increase.
Washington believes it has enough to bring back both players. And as Gortat and Ariza held their exit interviews Friday, they both sounded open to return to help the team continue its climb toward respectability.
“The organization has been great. My teammates, we hang out all the time, so I think this is a really good destination. Free agents would be crazy not to want to come here,” Ariza said. “When you build something with people that’s hard to let go, and what we built in this locker room this season is a beautiful thing to me. I really enjoyed playing with those guys, and I love those dudes like they’re my brothers.”
Gortat was acquired from Phoenix five days before the start of the season in a deal that cost the Wizards the expiring contract of Emeka Okafor and their first-round pick in the June draft. In recent weeks, the outspoken, 6-foot-11 big man has been frequently talking about his plans to be more vocal with the team “next year,” offering hints about his intent to return. When asked to list his priorities in free agency, Gortat mentioned that playing with a quality point guard was near the top — and his impassioned defense of Wall after the Wizards’ Game 5 win over Indiana served as proof of the bond they had formed this season.
“I love the team here,” Gortat said. “We can have something special here for the next three, four, five years. We have a lot of talent on this team, a lot of young guys who can develop and become a superstar in this league.”
Trevor Booker and Kevin Seraphin, the longest-tenured players on the roster along with Wall, will be restricted free agents next summer, meaning the Wizards will have first right of refusal on any deal they might sign. Booker started 45 games while Nene dealt with various ailments but was unsure about his future after getting limited action against the Pacers. Seraphin was in a murkier position after falling out of the rotation following the acquisition of veteran Drew Gooden, who also will be a free agent this summer but hopes to return after moving to Montgomery County months before signing.
Garrett Temple and former first-round pick Chris Singleton are unrestricted free agents, and the team has an option on Glen Rice Jr., who is only owed $816,000 next season. Al Harrington, 34, could retire because of troublesome right knee and a left shoulder injury that will require surgery.
“They can. Ted got the pockets. If he want to go in the luxury [tax] and all that, he can keep every last one of us,” Harrington said with a laugh when asked whether the Wizards would be able to keep the team together. “But I think the core that we have here is great, and I think at as many guys he can keep, the better.”
And finally, of course, there is Coach Randy Wittman, whose deal expires this summer after he led the franchise to its second-highest win total (44 games) in the past 35 years and took the team into the second round for the first time in nine years. “I don’t ever worry about that,” Wittman said of his contract situation. “All I can do is try to do the best that I can do, improve myself as a coach as well as try to help my players become better.”
Harrington said he “would really be upset” if Wittman wasn’t brought back. All season, Wittman has sounded like a man who fully expects to return to the bench next season. That didn’t change after Thursday’s loss. “We’ve got a lot to look back on and reflect as time moves on here when these wounds heal, of what we did and what we can do moving forward,” Wittman said.