Reporting David Elfin
WASHINGTON (CBSDC) - How to judge the Wizards’ season that wrapped up last night with a sixth straight loss, this one a 95-92 close shave to the playoff-bound Bulls in Chicago?
Certainly not by that six-game losing streak, which oddly balanced the six-game tear with which Washington completed its ugly 2011-12 season.
Rookie shooting guard Bradley Beal was sidelined for all six losses with a leg injury. Small forward Martell Webster missed the final three, power forward Nene sat out the last two, and center Emeka Okafor was on the bench for the finale, all with injuries. Only point guard John Wall, who missed the first 43 games with an ailing knee, started each of those six nights. Beal was absent for 26 games all told, Nene for 21.
A 29-53 record is certainly nothing to crow about, but after only finishing ahead of ever-awful Charlotte last season, Washington topped seven teams this year. The Wizards were 12th in the Eastern Conference, five games from ninth place and nine out of the playoffs, a year after finishing 14th in the East, 11 games out of ninth and 15 out of the playoffs (in a lockout-shortened season).
The statistic that coach Randy Wittman and his players can really point to with pride is their 25-25 record after starting a ghastly 4-28. A .500 winning percentage for the season would have produced their first playoff spot since 2007-08, the last year that Washington won more games than it did in 2012-13.
The Wizards rose from four ugly years to mediocre this season even though they were swamped by injuries. Only four players were on the court in at least 58 games.
“It’s very frustrating because we could have done a lot of good things,” Wittman lamented.
Wall, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 draft, and Beal, the No. 3 selection last June, were on the floor together in just 25 of 82 games. Washington went 16-9 with Wall and Beal, beating Denver (57 victories) and Chicago twice each along with fellow postseason qualifiers Brooklyn, Houston, Atlanta and Milwaukee.
In contrast, the Wizards struggled against the other non-playoff teams in the East, going 6-19 against Philadelphia, Toronto, Cleveland, Detroit, Orlando and Charlotte. That’s the same record Washington posted on the road after Wall returned, which is markedly better than its 1-15 mark without him away from Verizon Center but still awful. On the other hand, the Wizards went 18-6 on F Street with rising star Wall.
Add Nene to the Wall-Beal backcourt to give Washington a three-man core and that trio started alongside each other in just eight games all year, going 6-2.
Wittman’s preferred starting lineup of Wall, Beal, Nene, Okafor and Webster played together for only a quarter of the season. The Wizards won two thirds of those games with that quintet intact, a fact that bodes very well for 2013-14 especially because Wall, Beal, Nene and Okafor are already under contract for next year.
Webster, who became a fan favorite with his often sizzling three-point shooting, has said that he wants to return and should be obliged by Washington owner Ted Leonsis and general manager Ernie Grunfeld, who have been searching for stability since the abrupt demise of the Eddie Jordan-Gilbert Arenas-Antawn Jamison-Caron Butler era in November 2008.
Wall, who’s still just 22 after three NBA seasons, averaged 18.5 points, had a better than 2-1 assist-turnover ratio, and hit 44 percent of his shots. Beal, an All-Rookie candidate at 19, averaged 13.8 points. Nene and Okafor, both 30, combined to average 22.3 points and 15.5 rebounds. Webster, 26, chipped in 11.4 points per game and ranked 11th in the league with .422 accuracy from beyond the arc.
Defensively, Washington ranked in the top 10 in points allowed and opponent field goal percentage and three-point shooting. That hadn’t happened since the team was still the Bullets, called Capital Centre home, and was in the midst of a five-year playoff run led by Moses Malone and Jeff Malone 26 years ago.
Those teams never won a playoff series. Arenas, Jamison and Butler won just one. Wall, Beal and Nene give the Wizards the foundation to end their five-year playoff drought next April. And with help from their lottery draft selection and a couple of quality free agents, Washington might even advance beyond the first round in 2013-14 in the weak East which has just two teams who won as many as 50 games this year.
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