The Washington Wizards will conclude their 2015-16 campaign Wednesday night when they host the Atlanta Hawks at Verizon Center. Their best players may or may not play. John Wall has a sore right knee. Bradley Beal’s pelvis is bothering him. Nene is aching. They would suit up if the game mattered. But Game No. 82 doesn’t hold any significance beyond the possibility of completing a lost season with a .500 record.
It wasn’t supposed to conclude with a meaningless contest in mid-April. Based on preseason prognostications, the Wizards should be preparing for the playoffs, maybe even resting players for a postseason run that would last at least until the middle of next month as it has the last two springs. But while the Hawks will continue on to the postseason, the Wizards’ unsatisfying season will come to a close Wednesday, setting the stage for a pivotal summer overhaul that could begin in earnest with a coaching change.
Wednesday will mark the end of Randy Wittman’s fourth full campaign and perhaps his tenure as head coach in Washington. Next season will be the third year of his three-year contract, which pays him more than $3 million per season. But it isn’t fully guaranteed and NBA sources say he is unlikely to return for the 2016-17 campaign. Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld has at least another guaranteed year left on his contract and is expected to return for his 14th campaign as the organization’s chief decision-maker.
Since taking over for the late Flip Saunders in January 2012, Wittman has amassed a 177-199 regular season record. He snapped the franchise’s five-year playoff drought with berths the past two seasons by getting the team, which was 2-15 when he was promoted, to buy in on his emphasis on playing better defense.
The Wizards accumulated a 12-9 record in the postseason under Wittman. They both concluded with six-game losses in the Eastern Conference semifinals. He was the first coach to lead the franchise to consecutive trips to the second round since Dick Motta in the late 1970s.
The team’s ascension was supposed to continue this season, but it hit an unexpected snag as it unsuccessfully assumed a new up-tempo playing style while freeing salary cap space for this offseason. The defensive identity vanished, and the Wizards sank from fifth in the league in defensive efficiency to 15th and from second in opponents’ field goal percentage to 24th.
Friction between Wittman and players was also apparent. Players, including Wall and Jared Dudley, openly questioned coaching decisions — such as rotations and the lack of in-game adjustments — throughout the season. The relationship between Wittman and Marcin Gortat, already chilly, got icier after Wittman called Gortat out after a blowout loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder in November. With one game left on the schedule, the disharmony and disappointing results have created a belief among players that Wittman senses he won’t be back.
What is certain is Washington’s upcoming roster makeover. Unless luck falls on their side and the draft lottery catapults them into the top three of the draft order, the Wizards won’t have a pick in June’s draft after trading their second-round selection as part of a package to acquire Kelly Oubre Jr. on draft night last June and shipping a top-nine protected selection in their Feb. 18 trade for Markieff Morris. But they will be very active otherwise.
Washington has, by design, eight players that will become unrestricted free agents this summer. Nene, Dudley, Alan Anderson, Ramon Sessions, Garrett Temple, J.J. Hickson, and Marcus Thornton will all become unrestricted free agents July 1. Drew Gooden III and Jarell Eddie have team options for next season that will not get picked up, so they will join the free agent fray once those decisions are officially made. Beal is Washington’s lone restricted free agent, meaning the Wizards can match any offer he receives on the market; he is expected to re-sign with Washington.
Trading players under contract next year and beyond is also a possibility as the Wizards seek to acquire a top-flight talent either through free agency or a trade. Washington will have the cap room to absorb a big contract: Based on the projected $90 million salary cap for next season, the Wizards will have $27,410,635 in cap room plus a $2.898 million mid-level exception the league grants teams under the cap. Additionally, under league rules the Wizards can go over the cap to re-sign some of their own players.
Washington envisioned jumping into the offseason with positive momentum, with a shiny deep postseason run to use to coax top free agents — maybe even Kevin Durant — and take the next step in the NBA’s pecking order. But it didn’t happen as imagined and the Wizards can only hope the offseason produces better results.