The Washington Wizards entered this season tiptoeing the line between the present and the future. Advancing to the Eastern Conference finals was a realistic goal for a success-starved franchise; a championship was implausible in the short term. To get there, the front office determined the best route would be to use this season to convince premier players around the NBA of the franchise’s momentum without mortgaging its ability to acquire those players after the season ended. The plan was a John Wall pass threaded through heavy traffic.
Nothing went as intended. Flashes of a capable team surfaced, only to be washed out by inexplicably poor performances. Inconsistency has been steady and it has bred stinging disappointment, capped by a five-game trip out west that ended Sunday with two victories when at least four were needed to keep alive any realistic hopes of making the postseason. The Wizards are 37-40 and 31/2 games behind the Detroit Pistons for the Eastern Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot. With five games remaining, the postseason appearance many anticipated as a given is close to a mathematical impossibility.
Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld is under contract for next season, according to a league source, which strongly indicates he will return for a 14th campaign with the team. Coach Randy Wittman, however, has a team option and his salary, just over $3 million this season, is only partially guaranteed for next season. His status is murkier.
Looking back on the season before heading into an unclear future, there isn’t one reason the Wizards have fallen so short of expectations. Their multiple ambitions created as many pitfalls. Here are five:
Each transaction Grunfeld has made over the past two years has been executed while attempting a balancing act. The Wizards sought to improve on their consecutive appearances in the second round of the NBA playoffs but didn’t want the pursuit to cost them salary cap flexibility this summer. One major part of that plan will come to fruition: The Wizards’ roster will look vastly different next season.
Eight players will be unrestricted free agents at season’s end. Washington will have money — about $33 million based on current salary cap projections — to chase top-tier personnel and will do so in free agency and in the trade market. Plan A is luring Kevin Durant, the Oklahoma City Thunder superstar and Washington-area native. Plan B is unclear.
But trying to field a playoff-caliber team while maintaining that flexibility has backfired. With eight players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents this summer, not including guard Bradley Beal, a core member the team intends to sign, questions about commitment to the team have rumbled through the organization.
The impending free agents know they’re essentially rentals and the ones who aren’t know that the organization wasn’t all-in to win this season. Is it a coincidence that the team’s defense has plunged with this roster construction? To what extent did players perform for the name on the back of their jersey instead of the name on the front?
Now, whatever chilling effect the Wizards’ disappointing performance might have on attracting impact players — or on the job status of who constructed the team — is unknown. Quantifying the effect is impossible, but it’s real, and it was crystallized when the season went downhill.
Further complicating the Wizards’ roster construction was their decision to modify their offensive system, following NBA-wide trends placing greater emphasis on playing at a higher tempo and using three-point shots to create space.
The change stemmed from the team’s success with the style in last year’s playoff series against the Toronto Raptors and Atlanta Hawks. Though it was just a 10-game sample size, the organization’s brass came away believing the style was best for Wall, its all-star point guard and centerpiece, as well as Beal, the ascendent if injury-prone shooting guard.
But it’s disputable whether there were ever enough pieces around them to fit the system.
The biggest change was shifting from a front line comprising two traditional big men to playing with a power forward capable of shooting three-pointers. Instead of acquiring a starting-caliber player to play the part of a stretch-four, though, the Wizards decided to replace Nene in the starting lineup with Kris Humphries.
The move caught Nene by surprise and tasked Humphries, who had made only two three-pointers in 26 attempts in his first professional 11 seasons, to lurk along the perimeter. The venture failed miserably, eventually leading the Wizards to send a protected first-round pick, Humphries and DeJuan Blair to the Phoenix Suns for Markieff Morris at the trade deadline.
Injuries to Beal and Alan Anderson, two key wing players, stifled versatility and further limited the weaponry available to play the pace-and-space game. Wall has played every game and is averaging career highs in points, assists, rebounds and blocks. But he’s also averaging a career high in turnovers, his efficiency has plunged and he’s regressed substantially on defense.
And though Beal is averaging a career-high 17.4 points in his fourth season, he hasn’t performed as needed down the stretch: The fourth-year guard has played in 30 of the Wizards’ past 34 games — he missed four because of a sprained pelvis — and is averaging 16.6 points on 44.1 percent shooting, including 36.8 percent from three-point range, in 30.1 minutes per game during the span.
There hasn’t been another consistent perimeter option. Otto Porter Jr. started the season frigid from three-point range. Garrett Temple’s shooting efficiency dropped off after a solid start. Jared Dudley ranked in the NBA’s top three in three-point shooting percentage through the all-star break but has been stymied since moving to the bench.
The result is a unit that has played faster than last season — nearly five more possessions per 48 minutes and three more fast-break points per game — but is posting just 0.4 more points per 100 possessions while allowing 3.7 more points per 100 possessions.
Though Grunfeld is under contract for another year, Wittman has coached his fourth full season in Washington under the possibility that he wouldn’t back for a fifth. Players knew it.
Wittman’s success in Washington derived from his ability to get players to buy in on the defensive end. The Wizards ranked in the NBA’s top 10 in defensive rating each of Wittman’s first three campaigns, including fifth last season, when they also ranked second in opponents’ field goal percentage. This season, Washington ranks 15th in defensive rating and tied for 25th in opponents’ field goal percentage.
Moving away from two big men and playing faster surely had a negative impact, but most of the defensive problems emanated from IQ and effort. After last Wednesday’s loss at Sacramento, Wittman cited a lack of discipline and Beal offered a sharp, unfiltered critique of players’ mentalities.
Players have publicly questioned the coaching staff throughout the campaign. Wall criticized Wittman’s substitution patterns in a November loss to the Charlotte Hornets and lambasted pick-and-roll schemes during an 0-3 Western Conference road trip last month. Dudley echoed Wall’s sentiments after a 21-point loss to the Utah Jazz, saying the team didn’t make enough in-game adjustments. Those are just a few examples.
Meanwhile, Marcin Gortat’s relationship with Wittman, already frosty after two seasons together, deteriorated further when Wittman called Gortat out for his lack of rebounding in a blowout home loss to Oklahoma City in November. Gortat voiced his displeasure with the public criticism and the two didn’t hash things out for months.
The Wizards have a roster filled with veterans but no one like one they let go, future Hall of Famer Paul Pierce. His experience, swagger and championship pedigree coaxed instant respect from teammates in his only season in the District. He kept the locker room in order and held players accountable. He was a leader on and off the court.
“He would’ve helped us out tremendously still,” Beal said in Los Angeles on Saturday. “But we can’t necessarily say he’s reason we’re having the year that we’re having.”
Age has caught up with Pierce, 38. He remained a clutch shooter last season but had become a defensive liability, and the Wizards were going to need to move on from him eventually. After the Wizards decided not to offer him the two-year contract Pierce sought, he accepted a reduced role with his hometown Los Angeles Clippers and is averaging career lows across the board the season.
Washington determined Porter was ready to start following a strong postseason showing; that veterans like Anderson and Dudley would more than compensate for the loss of Pierce’s on-court production; and that Wall, entering his sixth season as the team leader, would navigate the ship with help from the other veterans. But the Wizards have been rudderless for much of the campaign.
There is no denying that a deluge of injuries helped fuel Washington’s demise. The team ranks third in the NBA in games lost because of injury, according to tracking by ManGamesLost.com.
Beal, who will play fewer than 64 games for the third time in his four pro seasons, has missed 25 games, leaving the Wizards without their best shooter and one-on-one scorer for nearly a third of the season. When he did play, he was often trying to reestablish his rhythm. Nene, their best interior defender, missed 24 games. Porter was sidelined for seven. Drew Gooden III sat out 29 before falling out of the rotation. Humphries missed 19 before he was traded. Gary Neal sat out 21 games before he was waived, and even Gortat, who had missed one game in his first two seasons in Washington, missed three games because of a knee infection and three others to visit his ailing mother in Poland.
That was all in addition to Martell Webster never stepping on the court before he was waived in late November and Anderson missing the team’s first 55 games. Only Wall, who dealt with a variety of minor injuries, and Ramon Sessions have appeared in every game this season.
The decimation often forced the Wizards to play with just nine or 10 players available from November through January. The timing didn’t help: The Wizards could’ve used the early part of the season to develop confidence and chemistry — and fix their defensive woes — as they transitioned to the new offensive ideology and lineup configurations. Instead, they dug a hole they ultimately couldn’t escape from even after getting healthy over the last couple months.
But the Wizards weren’t the only team to deal with injuries. They had a couple of months with their main pieces to salvage the season, clinch a playoff berth and become more attractive for their offseason pursuits.
“We’re not trying to throw anything away,” Wall said during training camp. “I’m not trying to waste my sixth year on nothing.”
It looks as if the Wizards will. Whether they can recover this summer remains to be seen.