Before addressing what had transpired just a few minutes earlier — another second-round, six-game exit in the most far-fetched and heartbreaking of ways — Washington Wizards Coach Randy Wittman posed a scenario to his players in the home locker room at Verizon Center late Friday night: Imagine if we extended the level of play that fueled a 22-8 start and earned home-court advantage instead of plunging into a 2-12 midseason rut and, ultimately, to fifth place in the Eastern Conference standings for the second straight year.
Wittman then spent his weekend in a fog after the Atlanta Hawks eliminated his team, 94-91, but he watched the Houston Rockets complete a rally from 3-1 down to overtake the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 7 of a Western Conference semifinal series Sunday and wondered whether they would have been able to do that without home-court advantage. The Wizards have been remarkably successful on the road in each of the last two postseasons — 8-3 away from the District — but home-court advantage, Wittman emphasized, could have made the path easier.
“That’s a legitimate question. Does finishing third rather than fifth push you over the hump?” Wittman said Monday, getaway day for most of his players. “And so to do that, you’ve got to have a better focus for 82 games. It’s a long season. I’ve got to do a better job as well as wanting our players to do a better job of that.”
But the formula to vault to that level, and bust through that second-round barrier, may go beyond simply an intangible factor like focus and was unveiled in how the Wizards’ offense looked in the postseason.
After being one of a few teams left in the NBA to utilize two traditional big men for most of the regular season, Washington used Paul Pierce and Drew Gooden III, two three-point threats, at power forward for extensive periods. The stretch-four lineups unearthed a more potent offense — one that scored 2.6 more points per game than during the regular season despite poor showings in their final two games — while not sacrificing their stout defense, especially with Otto Porter Jr., a breakout postseason performer, on the floor at small forward.
“That’s what the league is turning into — a lot of stretch forwards,” point guard John Wall said. “They’ve got one highlight guy that goes and gets it at the rim, and other guys are stretch forwards. That’s what we see when we play like that, we’re a pretty good team, spacing the court, attacking. That’s how a lot of teams are playing, so that’s something you’ve got to look into for the near future.”
The configurations afforded more spacing and driving lanes for perimeter players, which Wall and Bradley Beal exploited, and center Marcin Gortat benefited with more room for dives to the basket off pick and rolls playing alongside Gooden or Pierce. Though Gortat acknowledged playing with Nene has its benefits — one of them being a weaker defender often guards him — he was frank in his desire to play alongside a stretch-four.
“As much as I love Nene, and I think Nene understands this, too,” Gortat said, “I would love to play with a stretch-four.”
Wittman explained that the Wizards rarely deployed Pierce at power forward during the regular season because the coach wanted to save Pierce’s legs for the playoffs, while Gooden was in and out of the rotation the entire campaign. But Wittman indicated he would like to have the necessary components in place to use the lineups throughout next season.
“I can’t sit here and say, obviously, until you get through the draft and free agency and that, but obviously playing small is successful for us,” Wittman said. “Playing faster. Those are the things I want to try to improve this team, moving forward, with. Being able to play smaller. Being able to play faster. . . . We’ve got to be able to have the pieces to do that in the regular season.”
Securing the necessary cogs is among the team’s offseason priorities alongside securing Beal to a four-year contract extension, something Beal said Monday he has not considered yet.
Pierce, 37, is contemplating retirement, while the 33-year-old Gooden is a free agent and would like to return after playing for 10 teams over 13 seasons. Kevin Seraphin, a traditional big man who specializes in scoring with his back to the basket, is also a free agent and seeks more playing time, which will likely come elsewhere. Then there’s Kris Humphries, who was out of the playoff rotation after playing a significant role during the regular season but worked on his three-point shooting at practice over the final month and could incorporate three-point shooting next season.
Perhaps a combination of Pierce, Gooden and Humphries is the stretch-four answer. Perhaps the Wizards delve into free agency. Either way, they expect to use the small-ball configurations more often, which could be the blueprint to secure that regular season success they desire.
“I don’t know who’s going to be here,” Beal said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen with the management of our team. But I liked it. I think it worked for us. It keeps the other team off balance. It gives them a different look, and we were successful with it, so I’m pretty sure we’ll definitely use it next year.”