CHICAGO – A flicker of promise invaded a season of what-ifs and never-wases for the Washington Wizards, who will take equal measures of hope and frustration with them into another offseason bound for the NBA draft lottery.
They started with 12 straight defeats and ended the season with six straight losses — and both losing streaks were influenced by injury-related absences to their main players. Wizards owner Ted Leonsis looked on as the season mercifully came to an end with John Wall throwing up an air ball on a three-point attempt as time expired in a 95-92 loss on Wednesday to the Chicago Bulls.
The team, down to just nine healthy bodies, finished short of the 30-win goal and tied with the Detroit Pistons with the seventh-worst record in the league.
And as example of how difficult it was to establish any consistency and continuity this season, forward Trevor Booker was the only opening night starter to be among the first five players announced during introductions at United Center — and in both cases, Booker only got the nod because big man Nene wasn’t available.
“That’s part of the business,” Coach Randy Wittman said of a season in which the Wizards only had four players appear in at least 58 games. “You have no control over that. It’s very frustrating, because we could’ve done a lot of good things.”
Instead, the Wizards will prepare for their fifth straight trip to the lottery. In past failing seasons, the Wizards were done in by Gilbert Arenas’s bad knee and then his guns, in-season roster upheaval, coaching changes, and the immaturity and unprofessionalism of an inexperienced squad. But this season, the Wizards’ instability was largely the result of poor health.
Wall missed the first 33 games with a stress injury in his left knee; Nene missed the first nine games, and 21 overall, because of problems with his left foot, right knee and right shoulder; and rookie Bradley Beal missed 26, including the final eight, with injuries to his back, right wrist and right leg.
But when the Wizards (29-53) got their desired lineup together for a few dozen games, they had a clear vision of what they wanted to be, and saw enough to be encouraged by the potential, but not enough to find comfort in a season that started with so much misery and injury.
Wall broke down defenses off the dribble and found Beal, Martell Webster and Trevor Ariza for wide open three-pointers; Nene and center Emeka Okafor held down a solid interior defense; and the Wizards routinely knocked off playoff-caliber visitors at Verizon Center and claimed a few surprise victories on the road.
“Just had it for a brief period of time. For that brief period of time, we took advantage,” Okafor said, adding that the team will improve next season “having better luck of avoiding the injury bug.”
From Jan. 7 to April 6, the Wizards went 25-19 and defeated Oklahoma City, Denver (twice), Chicago (twice), New York, Brooklyn, the Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis, Indiana, Atlanta, the Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee.
“Good to have that than nothing,” Webster said of the run. “I honestly felt we could beat any team in the league. Every team in the NBA was afraid of us. We established respect. Early on, in the beginning, we weren’t respected at all. But as the season progressed, we gained respect from every team in the league.”
During their gruesome start, the Wizards lost games in every way imaginable. In Nene’s season debut on Nov. 21, Webster ran off the floor thinking he made the game-winner in Atlanta only to have the shot waved off while watching in the locker room. They squandered an eight-point lead in less than 75 seconds before losing in double overtime to Brooklyn.
“The first part of the year, it wasn’t fun at all, for nobody,” Ariza said. “It was frustrating for everybody, but that’s the hand we was dealt, so we just have to do what we had to until everybody got healthy.”
The Wizards went through five point guards before Wall made his debut. They cut Jannero Pargo, replaced him with Shaun Livingston, replaced him with Jordan Crawford, a converted shooting guard, and then grabbed Shelvin Mack and Garrett Temple from the NBA Developmental League, before moving Temple over to shooting guard when Beal was injured. Crawford played a prominent role before he became marginalized with the return of Wall and emergence of Beal and eventually got dealt to Boston.
But even through the mishaps, struggles and occasional roster turnover, the Wizards still remained competitive because of a stout defense. For the first time since 1986-87, the Wizards ranked in the top 10 in points allowed, opponent field goal percentage defense and opponent three-point field goal percentage.
“This group just doesn’t quit,” Okafor said. “We enjoy being around each other, we enjoy playing, there is a sense of pride that we have when we step on the court.”
The Wizards will also need to find a way to stay motivated against teams, regardless of their location and opponents’ records. They finished 7-34 on the road, which matches the third-worst record in franchise history. And, with or without Wall, they consistently struggled against fellow bottom-feeders, as they posted a 6-19 record against the other Eastern Conference non-playoff teams — Philadelphia, Toronto, Detroit, Cleveland, Charlotte and Orlando.
“I still have a lot of confidence,” Wall said. “We’ve just got to do whatever we need to do to stay healthy. You see what our team is like when we’re healthy and you see what we’re like when we’re not healthy.”