In pure basketball sense, Randy Wittman announcing that the Wizards have set a goal to finish ninth in the Eastern Conference — one spot out of a playoff berth — makes, well, no sense. Same as his Yogi-like proclamation that “it ain’t over yet,” moments after his Wizards beat the Bulls, 90-86, on Tuesday night at Verizon Center.
The chances of the Wizards winning their final eight games and the Bucks, comfortably in the eighth position, losing their final eight is PowerBall-esque.
At first, it actually makes you want to shake the coach and his brainwashed players, wake them from this temporary insanity, spell out very clearly how they have spent the last half of the season ruining any chance for a top-three pick the NBA draft lottery, and that the least they could do for their fan base was finish 10th, 11th or worse — if only to secure a better player in June.
This isn’t the National Invitation Tournament, where you can proclaim, “We’re No. 69!” and take home a nice consolation prize for not making the NCAA tournament. In the NBA, you make the playoffs or you are close to lousy — one bad draft from being the Bobcats.
But it’s now past 10 p.m, moments after Washington just weathered all the forearm shivers and grit the depleted Bulls had to muster on a loud night in their home building where they have now won eight straight, and all of a sudden you realize: This season still means something.
“A lot of teams that aren’t really fighting for anything do tend to roll over and take the rest of the season how it comes,” Martell Webster said after the game. “But not us. We’re fighting for each other and showing each other we deserve to be in the playoffs, that we can actually play playoff-caliber basketball.”
“My perception of the team has evolved since I got here,” he added. “Be honest, I didn’t know what the hell to expect when I first got here. So many teams you got a lot of talk and no action. We talk and we perform here. We play for each other. We play to win. It doesn’t matter what part of the season it is.”
On second glance, it makes all the sense in the world to finish ninth — the world of the Wizards, where measuring progress since John Wall returned is so important to the future. His teammates have been much better. He has been flammable of late, knocking down a big shot late against the Bulls and making the right decisions down the stretch. Bradley Beal is occasionally butter from beyond the arc. Webster is suddenly worth a mid-level exception and more.
Look, they were never going to be a playoff team this season. Those hopes died the moment Wall sustained a knee injury that cost him the first 33 games and Nene aggravated a left foot injury in the Olympics, limiting him for much of the season’s early going.
Their postseason was gone after they started 4-28, and after that there were only two important questions to be answered: Would Wall show that he was a bona-fide point guard capable of making his teammates better while also showing the same explosiveness he had before the injury? And were some of the key components around him good enough to warrant keeping him for the future?
Sure, 28-46 doesn’t make for a complete roster reassessment. But 24-18 after that start, the way the Wizards have turned into a tough out on many nights and into one of the top 10 defensive teams in the league since Wall’s return, has answered both questions in the affirmative.
If the Wizards have been about anything since Wall came back, they have been about purpose. They actually care deeply about how the league and this town perceives them; heck, Wittman got angry just a week ago when he heard the term “circus” and his club put in the same sentence.
While Wittman is perhaps the only coach in league history to publicly set a goal of finishing ninth, purpose is what it’s all about. They still care, still play as if they have something to prove beyond contract extensions, in the dog days of the NBA calendar.
I know what you are thinking: They’re millionaire basketball players; isn’t the least they could is play hard until their season ends?
Yes, in regular-person logic. But the NBA isn’t logical. It’s a 100-plus game grind for teams who actually go far. And even with all the safeguards to prevent a team from tanking and getting the No. 1 pick in the draft, teams that don’t make the playoffs have little incentive to win down the stretch.
The best teams often compromise the integrity of the product to rest and protect their players with the express reason of being fresh for the postseason — see San Antonio and Miami. The worst teams sometimes don’t play their stars simply because they don’t want to miss out on the possibility of moving one slot ahead of another team in the draft for a significantly better player.
Wittman and the Wizards could get away with sitting Nene or Wall the next two weeks. Lord knows the organization, headed for the lottery for the fifth straight time, has not always done what’s right for the game the past five seasons.
But finishing the job, making the league and themselves believe they have something here much better than 4-28, became important.
Did they cost themselves a better player the last few months? Probably, but that’s okay.
The last thing the Wizards needed was another 20-something, doe-eyed kid trying to figure his game and his new environment out at the same time. They need a piece or two to be a playoff team next season.
One of those pieces became showing purpose and passion this season, right up until Game No. 82. Going all out for ninth place doesn’t sound very noble, does it?
But from whence the Wizards came this season, it’s a building block for next year. After all the wrong, it’s doing the right by the game. And in the dog days of another lost season that’s something, no?
For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.