The ink has faded some, but the word “playoffs” remains faintly scribbled on John Wall’s red Adidas game-day sneakers. Wall vowed to use that message as motivation during a season in which he hopes to end the Washington Wizards’ six-year playoff drought, the second longest in the NBA.
Even when the team started out 2-7, Wall never changed his expectations for the team. “If I take it off,” Wall said of the writing on his shoes, “I’m not living up to my word.”
The Wizards (9-9) already have met the modest goal of reaching .500 for the first time since they drafted Wall first overall in 2010. If they can defeat the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday at Verizon Center, they will have a winning record in December for the first time since 2007 — the last time the franchise advanced to the postseason. And Wall can take another step toward fulfilling the promise that came with his arrival in 2010 and with the $80 million contract extension he signed this summer.
“It was tough. My first three years were very tough,” Wall said. “I feel we’re going in the right direction. I feel like we have a complete team that we can play inside and outside, that we trust each other, that we’re playing with each other. . . . We weathered the storm of everybody saying that we wouldn’t want to be in the playoffs. At 2-7, nobody wanted to believe that.”
But after winning seven of their past nine games, the Wizards are now thinking ahead to how good they could become in a mediocre Eastern Conference that has just two teams with winning records. Newcomer Marcin Gortat, acquired from Phoenix via trade six days before the season opener, boldly declared that the team is capable of winning 50 games.
Never mind that in the 52-year history of the franchise, the team has only five 50-win seasons. Since the Bullets won 54 games in 1978-79 — the last time the organization reached the NBA Finals — Washington has never won more than 45 games in a season.
“I really do believe we can win 50 games with this team. There’s not too many people that believe this. It might sound crazy. I know how it sounds,” Gortat said. “Every team hits that time in the season where they are winning a few games and then they start losing a few games. Hopefully the losing part we have behind us already.”
Wall cocked back his head and laughed when he was told of Gortat’s comments, but he is encouraged by moves the team made to assemble a roster with the talent, character and experience to withstand some tough times. Since the Wizards started last season 4-28 with Wall sidelined because of a stress injury in his right knee, they have gone 34-34.
“I never saw them put their heads down and feel sorry when they were 2-7,” Coach Randy Wittman said. “I kept hearing in the locker room: ‘We’re better than this! Keep after it.’ That’s how you turn it around like they did.”
The Wizards were last in the Eastern Conference on Nov. 17. Since then, they are tied with Denver for the fourth-best record in the NBA — behind Portland, Indiana, Miami and Oklahoma City — and have rediscovered their defensive identity, holding opponents to just 93.7 points, which is fifth best over that span.
“That’s for the big mouths that have no clue what’s going on here,” Nene said Monday. “When you don’t know how things go in the future, just be quiet. But people like to open their mouth and say things. We always have a good team, and now we start to play the right way. I don’t think that’s a surprise. We are very talented, very capable to do special things. It’s a good thing that bad things happen because we realize where we came from. We have a successful position. We can forget about where we came from and just maintain the same basketball level.”
The Wizards started the season by incorporating Gortat, lost Nene for two games with a strained right calf and sore Achilles’ tendon and were without Trevor Ariza for six games with a strained his right hamstring. Ariza has returned but only after promising shooting guard Bradley Beal suffered a stress injury in his right fibula and veteran forward Al Harrington developed soreness in his right knee.
Harrington hopes to return soon, and Beal will be reevaluated next week. Otto Porter Jr., the third overall pick from Georgetown in June’s draft, might make his season debut against the Bucks after being sidelined for three months with a strained right hip flexor.
Harrington said he noticed the course of the season taking a different path when he showed up to the practice gym early one morning and already heard the sound of a bouncing ball. He looked inside, and Wall was shooting jumpers.
“I think it was him taking it serious and realizing we’re going as far as he takes us,” he said.
Three weeks ago, Nene was so frustrated by the Wizards’ slow start that he angrily blasted the young players on the team, telling them to “get their heads out their butts” and start playing more team ball. Earlier this week, Wittman spotted Wall at Verizon Center and belted out, “If John Wall would ever get his head out of his . . .”
Wall turned back and shared a laugh with Wittman as he walked away. That the comment is now used for humor shows how quickly and dramatically the outlook has changed for the Wizards.
“I wanted to stay here, trying to just be my own leader and not follow anybody. I think the organization did a great job of trying to build this team up to where we want to be, and I feel like we have a great team,” Wall said. “I don’t care how many games we win. The main thing is trying to keep improving as a player and get to the playoffs. That’s the biggest goal for us.”