Owner Ted Leonsis shouldn’t dwell on the Washington Wizards’ greatest season in a long time. There’s too much work to be done to make next season even better. He may as well start at the top.
Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld and Coach Randy Wittman deserve new contracts. They’re the architects of a team that defeated the Chicago Bulls in an opening-round Eastern Conference playoff series. Then the Wizards pushed the Indiana Pacers — the East’s top seed — to six games in the semifinals.
Their postseason drought ended at six seasons. For the first time in nine seasons, the Wizards advanced in the playoffs. That’s called major progress. “We know how far we’ve come,” all-star point guard John Wall said.
Before the season, Leonsis declared the Wizards had to make the playoffs. The “or else” was implied. Leonsis wound up receiving much more than he mandated. Grunfeld must make sure that continues.
A few years ago, I would have endorsed former Wizards blockhead player Andray Blatche for NBA commissioner before backing Grunfeld in anything. In fact, you could make an argument Leonsis should have fired Grunfield. I know. I made it.
But given time to correct his mistakes, Grunfeld did. He jettisoned the knuckleheads, replacing them with players who spend more time in the weight room than the club. An organization that used to be a laughingstock evolved into a winner and a model of professionalism. That’s a great combination.
In June, Grunfeld will have served 11 years at the Wizards’ helm. Few sports executives have remained in power as long as Grunfeld. Based on the Wizards’ momentum, it’s important for Grunfeld, who is believed to be under contract through next season, to stick with the franchise. Management upheaval is the worst thing for a rising organization.
Keeping Wittman around also is the right move. There’s no other sensible conclusion after Wittman, whose deal expires after this season, guided the Wizards to the East’s fifth-best record and a rarity in franchise history: playoff success. Despite losing to the Pacers, the Wizards showed encouraging signs. “Bradley Beal is going to be an all-star,” Pacers all-star center Roy Hibbert said. The Wizards have finally done something to warrant fans’ optimism.
A big part of a coach’s job is to motivate players. Wittman’s ability to connect personally with Wall and center Marcin Gortat, both players said, helped them regain their confidence late in the semifinals. Wittman understands the Wizards. He knows what buttons to push.
For some Wizards observers, Wittman will always be the guy with a career mark of 191-329 (.367) in the regular season. They enjoy explaining Wittman has the worst winning percentage of the 90 coaches with at least 400 career games. They focus on Wittman’s less-than-impressive 91-122 mark, excluding the playoffs, during two-plus seasons in Washington. Here’s a message for them: Stop living in the past.
Finally given a talented team, Wittman delivered. His Pacers counterpart recognizes another sharp coach when he sees one. Wittman is “doing a great job of building something pretty special in D.C.,” Indiana Coach Frank Vogel said. Leonsis will have to open his wallet to keep it going.
After the season, the Wizards could have nine free agents. Fans should be pleased Beal and Wall aren’t among them. On the other hand, Gortat and reinvigorated forward Trevor Ariza may leave. That’s cause for alarm.
Since arriving in a trade shortly before the season, Gortat was even better than Grunfeld hoped, and Grunfeld always hopes for a lot from players.
The man known as the Polish Hammer scored 31 points and grabbed 16 rebounds in Game 5 against the Pacers. Before his clutch outing in a potential close-out game against Indiana on its home court, the Wizards had already decided Gortat is a keeper. They put Ariza in the same category.
Ariza did so many things well, it’s difficult to determine whether he was best at shooting three-pointers, playing stick-to-his-man defense or providing leadership in the locker room. The Wizards are eager to retain it all.
The buzz on the Internet is that the Wizards will have to choose between Gortat and Ariza. They couldn’t possibly keep both and remain under the luxury tax threshold, the thinking goes. But the thinking may be wrong.
Gortat and Ariza both have salaries of a little more than $7.7 million. Even if the Wizards offer Gortat a few million more per season and also make a strong pitch to Ariza, they could remain under the tax. Remember: Disappointing big man Kevin Seraphin and forward Trevor Booker, who make more than $5 million combined, come off the books. And the salary cap is expected to increase again.
The Wizards could keep their starting lineup intact. That’s how good teams continue to grow together.
“They are good,” Hibbert said. “They got good players. . . . They’ve come a long way.”
If Leonsis does his part, the Wizards could go much further. The ball is in his court. Now we’ll see whether Leonsis wants to play.
For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.