When Ted Leonsis overruled the wishes of many Washington fans last summer by retaining long-time general manager Ernie Grunfeld and removing the interim tag from coach Randy Wittman, the Wizards’ owner expected to see progress this season after four straight ugly years.
That goal certainly wasn’t in sight when Washington started 4-28 and was threatening to post one of the worst seasons in NBA history. However, the Wizards stunned 2012 finalist Oklahoma City in their next game and then finally welcomed point guard John Wall back to action from three months on the sidelines with a knee injury.
Despite a poor performance on defense in Monday’s defeat at lowly Charlotte, Washington is 18-15 with Wall heading into tonight’s game at Phoenix, the second leg of stretch that features six road contests in seven over a 12-day span.
While the Wizards embarrassed the Suns 127-105 this past Saturday at Verizon Center, their 5-26 road record is the worst in the NBA so their extended trip away from home that includes stops at the division-leading Thunder as well as playoff contenders Golden State and the Los Angeles Lakers and forgettable Orlando doesn’t bode well.
However, there’s little doubt that Washington has realized Leonsis’ goal of progress. At 23-43, the Wizards have already topped their victory total of last season (albeit a lockout-shortened campaign) and from 2008-09, matched it from 2010-11, and are within three triumphs of 2009-10, their high-water mark of the past four years.
Big men Emeka Okafor and Nene have played well as have shooters Bradley Beal and Martell Webster, but Wall has certainly been the catalyst in Washington showing a pulse for the first time since its last playoff season back in 2007-08.
The Wizards are 18-15 since the return of Wall, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 draft. Over the course of an entire season that projects to a 45-37 record, a figure the franchise has managed just once (in 2004-05) since its last appearance in the NBA finals 34 seasons ago. That .545 winning percentage would also tie Washington for sixth in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
Wall is the reigning conference Player of the Week, the first Wizard to be so honored since Antawn Jamison during the same week five seasons ago. Wall averaged 24.9 points, 11.0 assists, 5.0 rebound and 2.5 steals as Washington went 3-1.
Belying his career struggles from the field, Wall hit 61.7 percent of his shots including an incredible 80 percent of his three-point attempts, as well as 85.7 percent of his free throw tries. He became the first player in NBA history to average 24 points, 11 assists, five rebounds and two steals while shooting at least .600 from the field, .800 from outside the arc and .850 from the line during a four-game span. Not bad for a 22-year-old.
For the season, Wall is shooting better than ever from the field and the line (and almost his best from three-point range) while averaging more points, steals and blocks per minute (his assists and rebounds are close). The former Kentucky star has eight double-doubles (points and assists) in 33 games. Three of those efforts came last week. Washington is 6-2 when Wall is so productive, 12-13 when he plays and isn’t.
There’s no arguing that Wall and the Wizards haven’t progressed this season. But if they’re going to contend for a playoff spot next season, they have to learn to win away from Verizon Center. Boston is the only Eastern Conference team with a bigger home/road discrepancy than Washington. Wall’s presence hasn’t really affected that imbalance as the Wizards are 14-4 at home with him, 4-11 on the road.
So the current lengthy sojourn away from home (other than Monday’s pit stop against Memphis) is the perfect opportunity for Wittman’s team to take that next step. And for Wall to show that he’s the right man to lead the way.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin