WASHINGTON (AP) — On one hand, the Washington Wizards are an NBA team on the rise, destined to be a playoff perennial for years to come because of the young backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal.
“If these two guys improve their game, this team is going to get at least three, four, five wins extra every year — just because of these two guys,” center Marcin Gortat said.
On the other hand, the Wizards captured some magic this year through a unique, well-blended mix of young and old, of big and small — and now they’re headed their separate ways, perhaps never to be together again.
“If we brought the whole 15 (players) back, I think we’d be fine,” forward Al Harrington said. “It’s unrealistic, but I think this core that we’ve got, we can do some special things.”
Wall and Beal aren’t going anywhere, of course, but many of the key players on the Wizards’ first playoff team in six years are impending free agents. Half of the starts this season were made by players not under contract to the team next season. Those players accounted for 45 percent of the scoring.
“Ah, man, that’s the tough part about the business,” forward Trevor Ariza said. “You never know what can happen, so while you’re on the court, while you’re with the group of people that you’ve formed tight bonds and relationships with, you just have to get the most out of it that you can.”
Among the players set to be up for grabs this summer are Ariza (best 3-point shooter, best defender), Gortat (top rebounder), Trevor Booker (45 starts) and the invaluable “AARP group” of Andre Miller, Drew Gooden and Harrington, who transformed the bench rotation late in the season.
Together, this roster gave Washington its best postseason run in decades, winning a second-round game for the first time since 1982 before falling in six games to the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Wizards became relevant again in D.C. — at least to a point. Game 6 on Thursday wasn’t a sellout.
The players who had their season-ending physicals Friday were an upbeat bench. All spoke of wanting to return because the Wizards are trending upward, because the locker room chemistry is positive, because they want to finish what they’ve started. Gortat used “we” and “us” as if it’s a given that he’ll be back. Gooden said he didn’t even bother cleaning out his locker.
“You want to build on it, you want to keep it together,” Gooden said. “Because when you start trying to fix something that’s not really broke, you might break it.”
But all that could change if, for example, a top-tier team dangles an attractive contract in front of Gortat, or if there’s a team that can offer Gooden more than a role-playing job off the bench.
Adding to the uncertainly is another free agent of sorts. Coach Randy Wittman’s contract is also expiring. He has one of the worst regular season won-loss records in NBA history, in part because he’s been put in a tough spot in each of his three head coaching jobs, but he pressed the right buttons often enough with these Wizards to win them over — and win some games along the way.
On Friday, the players praised Wittman to no end, citing his tough-love tactics, his teaching methods and his game-day preparation.
“He gets as much credit as the players,” Harrington said. “I would really be upset if he’s not the coach leading this team out of that locker room next year.”
Owner Ted Leonsis, as is his custom, wrote on his blog Friday that he won’t make any decisions until the “raw emotion” of the season has faded. By any measure, however, he has to consider the season a success. The team won 23, 20 and 29 games in his first three seasons as owner before this season’s 44-win breakthrough.
“The first couple of years, we were the laughingstock of the league,” Booker said. “But now we have everybody’s respect.”
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