WASHINGTON — The NBA season tipped off Tuesday night, but the Wizards open their 82-game slate Wednesday in Miami against the defending Eastern Conference champion Heat. Coming off their first trip to the playoffs since the 2007-08 season, expectations are raised in the nation’s capital for this season.
The addition of veteran Paul Pierce and the continued maturation of the team’s young core will be instrumental if the Wizards hope to improve upon last year’s campaign, which ended with 44 regular-season wins and a trip to the Eastern Conference semifinals. We talked with Wizards play-by-play man and WTOP’s own Dave Johnson about last year’s success, a busy offseason and what he anticipates out of the team heading into the season:
WTOP: You’ve seen the ups and downs of teams before. Did last year’s success look like something sustainable that could evolve further this year?
Dave Johnson: It was not a fluke that they made it to the Eastern Conference Semifinals. The process that led the Wizards to the success they had last year actually began, well, probably with their drafting of John Wall in 2010, but certainly the season before. If you look at the second half of the season, when John Wall was healthy, it was basically a playoff team then. So they went into last season believing that they should make the playoffs, and that was their stated goal.
This team, I get back to the word accountable. It’s an accountable team. I would never hear a player saying, “I don’t know what’s going on,” or — this is after losses — “I don’t know what happened.” You would have players raise their hand and say, “This is what I need to do. This is how it should be done. This is how we get better.” Quite frankly, that’s what the Wizards said after they got off to a 2-7 start last year. So this is not a team that looked for excuses — it looked for solutions. Based on that, there was always the feeling that they were going to have success and get to the playoffs last year. There was a moment in late February, when Nene went out with an injury the day after hitting the game-winning dunk in a win over New Orleans, where, I think, a lot of Wizards fans probably thought, “Oh, here we go. It’s an injury at a critical time of year. We’ve not done well without Nene in the lineup.” But during that stretch of games, the Wizards were 12-9. And they, you know, they missed Nene, but they survived. And not only survived, but made it to the second round of the playoffs, and left that series with the Pacers not feeling like, “Wow, we were overwhelmed,” but instead in a six-game series, they felt like they should have wrapped this up in five instead of losing in six.
WTOP: How much do the changes to the rest of the Eastern Conference — particularly LeBron leaving Miami and Paul George’s injury in Indiana — change the outlook for the Wizards?
DJ: I don’t think it impacts it at all. You know, they hear the talk and the speculation. The NBA season is such a long journey with a lot of twists and turns. As you look at the fall leaves changing colors, it’s a whole different situation by the time you get to the spring. You’ve gone through a winter. You’ve hopefully stayed healthy. There are too many things, both good and bad, that can happen. So, I don’t think the Wizards look at the situation in the East — OK, LeBron switched teams or Paul George is hurt — what they look at is what they believe that, OK, we set a bar of making the Eastern Conference semifinals and if you want to be a team that continues to make progress, the pressure is that you always have to exceed. Well, that’s a tough get. Now you’re talking Eastern Conference finals. Now you’re talking getting into the elite portion of the postseason. And that’s hard; that’s a big challenge.
So, I think they look at what they have to do, regardless of whether they’re in the East or the West, or where they are, because there’s too many wild-card variables and, quite frankly, from a Wizards perspective, they hope they don’t find themselves in this situation, dealing with unforeseen injuries or God knows what.
WTOP: What did you see as the most important move the Wizards made this offseason?
DJ: Re-signing Marcin Gortat, if I had to put my finger on one. Just because, here’s a guy who came in less than 48 hours before the start of last season, and he knows how to play basketball. He’s got a smart IQ. He’s a good passer. He works well with John Wall. He worked well with Steve Nash. He works well with mobile, creative point guards. But he also gives the team an attitude as well. And I don’t mean “attitude” in a negative way; I just mean an attitude of getting back to that accountability, of that force, that will. So, having him come back was essential. And the Wizards made it clear that they wanted him. They traveled to Poland, worked his camps before they re-signed him. A seven- foot player with his skill set and intelligence — there’s not a long list of them in the NBA. So that was a priority, and the Wizards accomplished that. Now you have a situation where you have a young backcourt and a center in his prime who you can kind of build around.
WTOP: Is there a player outside of the brand-name stars to keep an eye on who could help this team advance deeper in the postseason?
DJ: I think that gets back also to their additions. You get a Paul Pierce and a Kris Humphries. You know, we didn’t have that kind of depth last year. If you’re looking for reasons for why this season they could advance, it’s not only the emergence of an Otto Porter — which is on the right track — or a Kevin Seraphin, but when you look at players like Paul Pierce and Kris Humphries and DeJuan Blair — those are pieces that were not in the mix last year. And they’re players that have proven experience at some of the highest levels, championship levels. So I think that impact of those players will probably be felt in the playoffs, and that’s why the Wizards went out and got them.