CLEVELAND — It began with a whimper in Orlando and ended Wednesday night with a 100-93 loss in Cleveland that strengthened their standing in the NBA draft lottery, but the Washington Wizards’ season couldn’t completely be judged by wins and losses. There was too much roster turnover, too many injuries and too much focus on player development for the campaign to be about anything more than preparing for the future.
The final results were often gruesome, but there were enough encouraging signs — from No. 1 overall pick John Wall’s continued desire to compete through hard times, the progression of Nick Young and JaVale McGee, and the scrappiness of rookies Jordan Crawford and Trevor Booker — that a 23-59 final record can’t dampen the enthusiasm for next season.
“From beginning to end, this season is going to pay dividends, as far as what we want to do in the future,” Coach Flip Saunders said before the loss at Quicken Loans Arena. “As of late, we’ve had a lot of individual success with players. Next year, that’s going to turn into team success.”
They opened the season with 25 consecutive road losses, set a new franchise low with just three road wins, and lost more than 50 games for the third consecutive season. But they will have another high lottery pick, acquired a mid-first-round pick from the Atlanta Hawks and are in position to possibly sign free agents, depending on what happens with the next collective bargaining agreement.
“We’re all competitive. We all want to win and we’re not happy about that part of it,” Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld said, “but I think we know what we’re doing, as far as executing a plan, and trying to move forward, so hopefully one day, we’ll win a lot more games and get back to the playoffs.”
After going through several incarnations, the Wizards established an identity as a team that would be a tough out on most nights, leading Wall to talk about making the playoffs next season. “That’s our goal,” Wall said. “We take this as a learning experience. We know it’s going to take time, but we feel like we’re going to be a playoff team next year, definitely.”
The season could actually be broken into three parts — the first 24 games with Gilbert Arenas on the roster, the next 32 games when the team rarely got veterans Rashard Lewis and Josh Howard on the floor together, and the final 26 games when the team was energized by trade of Kirk Hinrich, which added Crawford and Maurice Evans.
The Wizards let it be known that the focus was on the future when they traded Arenas to the Orlando Magic for Lewis on Dec. 18. The move, which saved the franchise nearly $30 million, ended a more than seven-year relationship with Arenas, whose tenure was defined by electrifying play, playoff appearances, injuries and a franchise-altering gun incident. It established that the franchise was moving forward with Wall as the foundation. The trade also cleared an opportunity for Young to slide into Arenas’s spot at shooting guard and establish himself as the team’s leading scorer. After struggling to find a spot in the rotation his first three years, Young averaged a career-high 17.4 points per game — an 8.8-point improvement from the last season — and held his own against some of the best players in the league.
“I don’t think a lot of people thought we were going to be able to do it, based on where his contract was, and everything else,” Saunders said. “He had given a lot to this franchise, but from where we were, the drafting of John, the youth movement, the plan that [first-year majority owner Ted Leonsis] had in place, that was something that was going to have to happen at some point. It put the rebuild in full focus, because there was nothing to really hang onto, as far as the past. It was saying, ‘Hey, we are pretty much starting anew.’ ”
“Gil’s Gil, he brought a lot to the city,” Young said. “It was tough shoes to fill, so I knew I had to. . . bring my all. It was a learning experience for all of us. I believe we all grew from this. It’s sad, but I think some positives came out of it.”
Young’s season ended prematurely, as a bone bruise in his left knee forced him to miss 16 of the final 22 games. The Wizards were plagued by injuries for most of the season, with McGee the only player on the roster to appear in at least 70 games for Washington. Wall missed 12 games with problems to his left foot and right knee, and played several others while hurt. Lewis’s season ended in early March when tendinitis that bugged him in Orlando became unbearable. Howard was never able to recover fully from a left knee injury and he eventually stopped trying after a series of starts.
“No question, you’re disappointed because we never had a chance to get the full team we expected to get on the floor at one time, all year. No question, that gets frustrating,” said Saunders, who utilized 29 starting lineups.
But with injuries came opportunities, as the Wizards were able to play Booker, who — before his season was derailed by a broken foot — gave the team a more physical presence with his tenacity and aggression. Crawford filled in for Young and meshed well with Wall in the back court.
“It feels like we’re going to [carry] momentum into next year,” McGee said. “It’s a great feeling knowing that we have a stable group that knows how to play together. In the beginning of the year, we were all new, we didn’t know each other, we were trying to figure it out, but we figured it out.”
Andray Blatche returned from a shoulder injury in late March to finish strongly and help the Wizards win five of their last eight games.
“We fought hard. Never gave up. Competed most of the games until the end,” said Blatche, who scored a team-high 20 points against Cleveland. “I feel like next year, we should come in, all the rookies would have a year under their belts, to know what it takes. Do what they got to do to become a winning organization. We should be fine next season, definitely a playoff team if we play how we played at the end.”