Coach Flip Saunders let his players take the day off on Saturday, giving them one final reprieve to do any last-minute holiday shopping, spend time with family and rest up for what should be an exhausting 66-game campaign that begins on Monday against the New Jersey Nets.
The Washington Wizards will have just 122 days — including a four-day all-star break — to fit in an entire season that will test their endurance, conditioning and depth. Saunders and forward Rashard Lewis are the only members of the team who experienced the 50-game lockout-shortened season in 1999 and they understand the importance of being well rested and energized through the grind.
“Once we start come Monday, it will be full-speed ahead,” Lewis said. “I know it’s going to be a lot of games. Like coach said before training camp, you’ve got to be mentally prepared and listen, watching game film and shoot-around, because there’s not going to be much practice time. I remember the year I got drafted, it was the first year of the lockout. I think we hardly practiced at all. Everything was shoot-around and games. That’s all we did.”
The Wizards will play five games in the first eight days of their season, concluding with the first of 16 back-to-back sets. They also will have two sets of three games on consecutive nights in the final two months of the season.
“When we had those triple-headers and the back-to-back, a day off and then another back-to-back, it’s no excuses for tired legs or exhaustion, because every team is going to have it,” Lewis said. “So I mean the most important thing is taking care of your body, preparing yourself the night before the game. Knowing it’s going to be a lot of games, you’ve got to eat right and get the proper rest.”
The Wizards will have a relatively favorable schedule, since they won’t have to face every Western Conference team twice and will avoid facing five of the Eastern Conference playoff teams four times.
The three Western Conference opponents they will face are Portland, Houston and the Los Angeles Clippers. The Clippers have improved with the addition of all-star point guard Chris Paul, but only one of those teams made the playoffs last season. The six Eastern Conference teams that they will face four times are Charlotte, Toronto, Milwaukee, Boston, Philadelphia and Orlando, and only three made the playoffs last season.
“A lot of times, it’s as much the style of play as who you’re playing. I think all in all, you’ve still got to play everybody,” Saunders said. “More than who you play, it’s the number of games you play and the travel. I think the schedule is going to beat you more times than the team you’re playing. What you hope to be able to do with an extended bench, being able to play with energy every night. That’s not going to be much of a factor and you can eliminate schedule-type losses.”
Saunders said he would likely have to expand his rotation from nine to possibly all 12 active players, and he might give some of his older veteran players such as Lewis and Maurice Evans games off and rely on the depth of a roster that features seven players age 23 and younger.
“I think it really can help us because we’re a young team,” John Wall said. “It reminds me of an AAU season, playing five games in one day. It can be tough at times, but I think it can help us because we have younger legs.”
Having the start of the season coincide with the Christmas holiday “feels weird,” but Lewis said he would still show up at the gym on Saturday to maintain the rhythm he developed over the past two weeks.
Lewis, 32, was a spry rookie fresh out of high school during the last lockout-shortened season but knows he will have to take a different approach in his 14th season. “I’m getting a lot of massages,” Lewis said with a smile. “Rest and ice. Sitting in the cold plunge almost every day after practice. I’m just going to have to throw ice in the tub in the hotel room.
“It’s important to take care of your legs and get that recovery, because it’s going to be nights when you have tired legs, shots not going to be falling. It’s going to be a lot of injuries early in the season, a lot of sloppy basketball.”
The Nets are already dealing with injuries, with center Brook Lopez having surgery on his broken foot, possibly sidelining him for the season. The Wizards are relatively healthy entering the season, with the exception of Jan Vesely, who was unable to practice on Friday because of a right hip injury.
Saunders said he hopes to have Vesely for the opener and is ready to see his team hit the court after the lockout-aided delay to the season. “I’m excited to see how our guys react. Can we play with energy and intelligence at the same time? I’ll be anxious as everyone else to see how they perform.”