Before the 2013-14 season began, owner Ted Leonsis made his goal awfully conspicuous: “I think that all of our focus, all of our attention, is to make the playoffs this year.”
Laboring under the weight of this mandate, the Washington Wizards have put together a qualifying season, albeit in an Eastern Conference notorious for its frailty and with Washington clinging distrustfully to the least challenging schedule in the NBA. The playoff-bound Wizards have already achieved everything they set out to do, but the way they reached this unassuming goal has at times been as disappointing as it has been gratifying.
Asked whether the Wizards had met his preseason expectations, stately sophomore shooting guard Bradley Beal offered this specter of insight into the nature of Washington’s modest ambitions: “We knew we could be an above-.500 team, and we knew we could be a playoff team, and we accomplished those two goals. Now it's up to us to just finish out this regular season, keep our sixth seed, and move on into the playoffs.”
Said fourth-year player Kevin Seraphin: “We was just trying to get to the playoffs, whether we was a seven, eight, five. It didn’t matter.”
Can you blame these Wizards, long below sea level within the league’s topography, for not aiming higher?
The six seasons since their last playoff berth have not always neatly traced Leonsis’ 10-point plan for professional sports teams. Point No. 5, for example, is headlined by Leonsis’ commitment to being patient with young players. In practice, not all young players were found worthy of that patience, and Leonsis’ one-time “New Big Three” concept disappeared rapidly -- along with the amnesty money Leonsis is still wiring to Andray Blatche -- into a void previously inhabited by organizational optimism.
JaVale McGee was traded for Nene, Nick Young was traded for Brian Cook and a second-round draft pick, and Jordan Crawford was traded for a few games of Jason Collins and an injured Leandro Barbosa. Most recently, 23-year-old Jan Vesely -- the sixth overall pick the season after John Wall was drafted first overall -- was traded for 38-year-old Andre Miller. The argument has been made that all of these maneuvers, each in its own pocket-sized vacuum, were necessary. But considered together, each transaction is another verse in a lament for player development that plays on loop for those who follow the team.
On the eve of the playoffs, there is a contingent of Wizards fans, disenchanted with the direction of the rebuild, who would welcome a swift playoff exit were it to serve as the denouement of team president Ernie Grunfeld’s 10-year tenure, and as the last gasp of Randy Wittman’s term as head coach. This internal conflict, far too deeply rooted in D.C. to be excised by the embryonic hope afforded by one playoff appearance, is integral to understanding why The Washington Post’s Dan Steinberg felt compelled to host a roundtable discussion asking the question, “Why aren’t people excited about the Wizards?”
It comes down to expectations. People don’t draw joy from basketball, from competition, in the same way an unrepentant completionist takes satisfaction from checking a necessary goal off of a reasonable checklist. Joy, pain and, to a similar extent, interest, are all generated by teams that brazenly disregard goals on their way to the sublime or into the abyss.
While other teams have adjusted and outstripped their initial expectations, the Wizards have done little more than meet them. Gifted every opportunity for success, the team has found unique ways to instead orbit mediocrity.
Tied with Miami and Toronto for the best road record in the Eastern Conference (22-19), Washington ended the season with the worst home record (also 22-19) of any playoff team.
At 9-9 in December, the Wizards briefly held the third seed in the East. Over the course of the season, the team stepped ponderously down the standings with the grim determination of a precompressed helical spring (er, a Slinky), but not because their play deteriorated. On the contrary, it showed gradual, if unexceptional, improvement.
The problem, then, was everyone else. While the Wizards mostly upheld the status quo, the Bulls obscured the loss of Derrick Rose and the trade of Luol Deng by rallying behind a galvanized Joakim Noah, the Nets dug themselves out of an ironclad coffin 60 feet under before kindly resting their aged roster, and the Raptors clawed callously at every well-meaning prognostication on their way to an identity and the third seed.
There are other, more nuanced concerns. Washington’s scoring strategy involves a prodigal amount of 15- to 19-foot shots, one of the least efficient shot types. The Wizards take the second most of these shots, but are the seventh worst at converting them. Without the 3-pointer (the Wizards are the NBA’s fifth best team from deep), Washington’s offense might be fairly abominable.
And then there’s young Otto Porter, Jr., third overall pick in 2013. The hushed, desperate and not-at-all-ironic chants for Porter have begun to seep over Wittman’s shoulder at Verizon Center in the waning moments of games no longer in question. As William Carlos Williams wrote in "The Descent," Otto’s “descent made up of despairs and without accomplishment realizes a new awakening: which is a reversal of despair.” At least, that’s the hope for an unready rookie who was touted as one of the more NBA-ready prospects in his draft class.
This is just to say that success, in this case, isn’t completely unburdened by disappointment. Losses to Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Boston, and various other non-playoff teams at home; eight overtime losses (the most of any team); and the inability to fully capitalize on the easiest schedule in the league are all bound up in an essential truth: These Wizards could have accomplished more.
They still might. The playoffs start now, and with nothing better to do, the Wizards will attempt to win as many games as they can. When “Uncle” Al Harrington was asked whether his younger counterparts were mentally prepared for what was to come, he simply replied: “We better be.”
Now the Wizards will check the postseason off their conservative list and cut their teeth on the playoff pavement. For Washington’s brilliant but unpracticed young backcourt of Wall and Beal, it could prove to be a necessary step. But while the team’s veterans hold the window open for the uninitiated to take in the playoff view, one has to figure that next season, the bar will be adjustable.