Here with your semi-regular look at the Wiz is Mr. Irrelevant contributing writer Bryan Frantz.
Context is a funny thing.
Context is what enables you to say the Wizards were better this season than last, despite that they were eliminated from the playoffs in the same game (Game 6) of the same round (Eastern Conference Semifinals) by the same seed (No.1) on the same day (May 15), and you wouldn’t be wrong.
After all, they won two more games in the regular season than they did a year ago. This year’s 46-36 record constituted the franchise’s best winning percentage since the 1978-79 season, and it was the ninth-best percentage in franchise history.
Then again, it was also only one more win than the 2004-05 Wiz squad that featured a typical starting lineup of Gilbert Arenas, Larry Hughes, Jared Jeffries, Antawn Jamison and Brendan Haywood. Kwame Brown was on that team.
And 46 wins would have been just enough to sneak them into the eighth spot in the Western Conference playoffs this season, where they would have faced the top overall seed Golden State Warriors. Yes, the same Warriors who came within a Kevin Seraphin baby hook of holding the Wizards without a field goal for an entire quarter late in the regular season.
Context also lets us say the series against the Atlanta Hawks that ended the Wizards season this year was vastly different than the series against the Indiana Pacers that ended the Wizards season last year.
The season coulda/woulda/shoulda lasted longer, whether by a game or a month, if John Wall’s hand hadn’t been mangled in Game 1. When Bradley Beal said he felt the Wiz should’ve beaten the Hawks in five games, he wasn’t just doing the typical get-down-on-yourself-after-a-loss athlete thing.
Even without Wall for most of the series, Washington had a legitimate opportunity to win each game. Games 3-6 were all decided by five points or less, and the Hawks won Games 5 and 6 by a combined four points.
So Beal isn’t talking out of his ass; the Wizards were this close to beating the top seed in the East and playing the Cleveland Cavaliers for a shot at the NBA Finals.
But when it comes to tangible results, context means all of nothing. And if the tangible results are essentially identical to what they were a year ago, where does that leave us moving forward?
1. The Players
The Wizards could end up putting out a nearly identical roster next year as they did this year, if they choose. The team’s only impending free agents are Seraphin, Drew Gooden, Rasual Butler and Will Bynum.
Paul Pierce has a player option that he might exercise, but whether or not he will remains a mystery. After all, precisely nobody expected the future Hall of Famer to come to D.C. last offseason in the first place.
Seraphin is most likely headed elsewhere, or at least he should be unless general manager Ernie Grunfeld opts to pull a Martell Webster and give a rich, undeserved long-term deal to a role player.
Gooden would certainly be welcomed back, as he proved himself valuable as a stretch-4 off the bench in the postseason. He has seemed to genuinely enjoy his time here, and he was the only big man on the roster (out of six) who consistently overachieved.
Butler and Bynum are anybody’s guess. Butler was instrumental to the Wizards starting the season 22-8, with his three-point percentage in the first few months lingering among the league leaders, but he quickly fell out of favor once he regressed back to his norm. Bynum, a late-season pickup, proved his worth when Wall went down against the Hawks by effectively running the second unit in place of Ramon Sessions, who took Wall’s place as the starting point guard.
The biggest question mark among players still under contract is the starting frontcourt.
Nene has been tremendous for the Wizards since coming to the District midway through the 2011-12 season, but his time here may be done. He was highly ineffective in the postseason, with nearly every facet of his game declining, and the leadership qualities he brought a few years ago to a young Wizards team desperately in need of such are no longer required.
Though the big Brazilian suggested in his exit interviews that he would be open to moving to center or coming off the bench, neither is really ideal for a $13 million/year power forward.
Meanwhile, his frontcourt mate Marcin Gortat was better in the postseason, but head coach Randy Wittman (more on this jokester soon) clearly preferred Nene when it mattered during the regular season; Gortat played just 265 minutes in the fourth quarter this season compared to Nene’s 364, even though Nene missed 15 games while Gortat played in all 82.
Even Kris Humphries, he of five total minutes in the postseason, played more fourth-quarter minutes than Gortat during the regular season. Hump played in just 64 games but managed 327 minutes in the final frame.
Gortat is all but guaranteed to be in D.C. for the next few years, because good luck trying to find somebody to pawn that contract off on, but Nene is less of a sure thing. He has just one year left on his deal, and while somebody like the Philadelphia 76ers might be willing to take on the financial burden if it also comes with a handful of draft picks, Washington isn’t going to get much in return.
Whatever Grunfeld ends up doing, something has got to change with this frontcourt dynamic. Considering the Wizards have more than $30 million tied up in Gortat, Nene, Humphries and seldom-used DeJuan Blair (just 181 minutes this season) next season, better results should be demanded from the big men.
2. The Guys In Charge
Popular opinion on Randy Wittman has been on quite the roller coaster this season. The only place it hasn’t visited is the “overwhelmingly positive” region, because why would it?
The 2015 postseason could very well be the best 10-game coaching stretch in Witt’s 623-game career, and that’s saying so painfully little for the man sometimes considered the least successful coach in NBA history.
Even after back-to-back winning seasons, Wittman’s all-time coaching record sits at a laughable .394. In all fairness, he has coached in D.C., Cleveland and Minnesota — three of the saddest places in professional American sports — but he hasn’t done much to help himself or his teams.
I won’t go into much detail about why I still firmly believe he needs to be replaced before next season, though I have ranted about him ’round these parts before, but the main concern is I just don’t buy the turnaround. I don’t believe that he’s suddenly, more than 15 years after making his NBA coaching debut, figured out how to be an NBA coach.
It took him all season to finally play a small-ball lineup that has been wildly successful since being implemented, despite fans, writers, bloggers, analysts and more clamoring for it for months. He continued to force-feed minutes to Nene in the postseason, who was truly dreadful for most of the Atlanta series, and totally abandoned Humphries. He kept reserves in the game way too long and let leads evaporate at every opportunity.
And this was perhaps the best coaching he’s ever done.
Grunfeld, the second half of the wildly over-praised duo, will almost surely keep Wittman for another year, if not more. Ol’ Uncle Ernie inexplicably gets credit for drafting Wall, Beal and Otto Porter, even though the picks were incredibly obvious and nearly impossible to miss.
Grunfeld will also surely be back, so (*Adam Silver voice*) with the 19th pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, the Washington Wizards select a European prospect who will never pan out.
3. How To Make It All Better
The Wizards don’t have a whole lot of wiggle room unless they move Nene or somebody else generally expected to return. Owner Ted Leonsis isn’t known for doling out big money to put a winner on the court, so Washington probably won’t go near the luxury tax.
If Pierce returns, in what capacity would it be? With Porter breaking out in the postseason, he seems primed to take over the starting small forward position, but will Pierce want to spend his 18th and likely last pro season coming off the bench for a 46-win team?
Barring any dramatic changes, Washington will spend the offseason looking for a few role players to fill up the final roster spots and the overall makeup of the team will be very similar to this year’s crew.
The Wizards desperately need some scoring off the bench, which could be where Pierce carves out his role, but somebody who can come in and go off for 15-20 points on any given night — a la Isaiah Thomas or Jamal Crawford — is what the team really needs.
A big man who can shoot from the perimeter would also be an enormous boost, but those aren’t easy to find and Gooden might just step into that role. His shooting improved throughout the season, and while he’s no Kevin Love, he did hit 12 of his 26 three-point attempts in the playoffs.
One idea I keep tossing around in my head is putting Porter as the starting power forward and just playing small all season. He would need to bulk up and would undoubtedly get eaten alive by actual big men who play the 4, like Pau Gasol or Greg Monroe, but fewer and fewer teams are employing traditional big men at the 4.
That would all depend on whether or not Pierce came back and who else is on the roster still as far as wings and big men, but it’s something to consider.
Washington had Pierce trying to guard Paul Millsap for much of the series against the Hawks, and even though Millsap often had his way against the 37-year-old veteran, the Wizards as a whole were far more effective than they had been in the regular season.
Porter is a much better defender as a whole than Pierce. His long arms and general lankiness should allow him more opportunities to infiltrate passing lanes and disrupt shots. He has a decent jumper that will improve with time, and his quickness and backdoor cuts should be able to keep opposing defenses on their toes.
If Washington still has half the league’s big men on the roster, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to move a wing down low. This is only really applicable if the Wizards move into the 21st century and move to a faster game that emphasizes effective shots, not contested midrange jumpers.