The Wizards open their season tonight in Detroit with their most optimism since coach Eddie Jordan and stars Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison were seeking a fifth straight playoff berth in the fall of 2008.
That didn’t happen, of course. Washington didn’t finish with a winning percentage higher than last season’s .354 – thanks to a .500 record over the final 50 games — during the intervening five years.
Last Friday’s trade of Emeka Okafor – and a conditional 2014 first-round draft choice — to Phoenix for fellow big man Marchin Gortat has given the Wizards a solid lineup of Gortat, Nene and either Martell Webster or Trevor Ariza up front with kids John Wall and Bradley Beal in the backcourt. That’s a major improvement from this time last year when Nene and Wall were hurt, Beal was a 19-year-old rookie, and Okafor, Webster and Ariza were all new to Washington.
“I feel good, but I felt good last year,” said coach Randy Wittman, who was promoted to replace his dismissed boss Flip Saunders in January 2012. “If you don’t feel good as a coach going into your first game, you shouldn’t be in this business. I felt we could compete even without John and Nene, which we did. We just didn’t win very many games.”
That’s like saying there will be lots of candy given out tomorrow night. The Wizards lost their first 10 games en route to a 4-28 start. But then, Washington began 1-9 in 2008 and 2011 and 3-7 in 2009 and 2010.
“If we do things the way we’re capable of, the wins and losses are going to take care of themselves,” said Wittman, who prefers to wait 10 games before he considers tinkering with the lineup or strategy. “If we were a game over .500 [instead of 13-23] against the teams that didn’t make the playoffs, where would that have put us … fighting for a [playoff] spot. You’ve got to respect your opponent. If you don’t, it can smack you in the face. It happened too often last year. This is the NBA. These are the best players. It doesn’t matter if the team is 1-30. There [are] not bad players, there [are] bad teams.”
Washington beat six of the seven teams that won at least 50 games, including the champion Miami Heat, but went 1-11 against Charlotte, Cleveland and Detroit, none of whom topped its 29-53 record.
Webster said the Wizards were guilty of “playing down to the competition” instead of “always play[ing] like we’re playing against the top teams. We’ve been known to give up leads in the fourth quarter or in the second half. There has to be a sense of urgency.”
There had better be. Everyone from general manager Ernie Grunfeld on down should be on notice if Washington doesn’t reach postseason in the East with Boston rebuilding and Atlanta maybe coming back to the pack. A 10-game improvement to 39-43 could be good enough for a playoff spot as would have been the case last season.
The 25-57 Suns were one of the four teams to whom the Wizards didn’t lose last year, but the 6-foot-11, 240-pound Gortat, who averaged 11.1 points and 8.5 rebounds, missed both games. After making the NBA finals and two Eastern Conference finals during his three full seasons as a backup with Orlando, the native of Lodz, Poland was frustrated as a starter for a losing team in Phoenix.
“I’m looking forward to playing here,” said Gortat, who worked out on his own on Sunday to get acquainted with Verizon Center while his teammates had the day off before the 82-game grind begins. “It’s a huge opportunity. I’m looking forward to win some games and try to get a spot in the playoffs. … [Washington is] closer to my house in Orlando. It’s closer to Europe … direct flights from here to Warsaw. What else do you need?”
With Okafor’s return uncertain and young potential replacements Jan Vesely, Kevin Seraphin and Trevor Booker having all come up short, the Wizards swung the deal for the energetic Gortat, figuring finally ending their playoff drought was worth surrendering their top pick next June. Nene was thrilled that he could return to his preferred power forward spot and let Gortat bang with the even bigger bodies at center.
“He gives us some size that without Mek we didn’t have,” Wittman said of the 29-year-old Gortat. “I think he and Nene will be able to play off each other. He’s got good hands. He can run the floor, which fits in with us. John [Wall] has the ability to find people in transition. [Marchin] played with Steve Nash, one of the best to play the pick-and-roll. He plays hard whether in practice or in games. That can rub off.”
Wittman believes that Washington’s ninth-ranked defense will remain solid, so the key to reaching the playoffs will be reducing turnovers (24th of 30), shooting better (27th) and scoring more (28th).
“We have to take a positive step offensively and it begins with taking care of the ball,” he said. “We have guys that can knock shots down, but you don’t have an opportunity to make a shot if turn it over. That’s got to be our focus.”
That and making the playoffs for the first time since a hoops junkie moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue nearly five years ago.
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.