Friday, May 16, 2014

Was that a successful season for the Wizards?

“Who knows what their ceiling could be?”

Those were the words of Bill Simmons during NBA Countdown prior to Game 6 between the Wizards and the Pacers. It encapsulated why this now-concluded Wizards season seems like a big question.

What could have been?                                                      

beal game 6
On the one hand, it was obviously a success. They won their second playoff series in the past three decades. They won a second-round game for the first time since 1982. They have arguably the best young backcourt in the league. Bradley Beal, in particular, took a giant leap forward and did not shy away from any big moment.

Judged against the prism of the Wizards franchise, the title of this blog post is stupid and it was one of the most successful seasons ever.

Judged against this particular NBA season, it is not the success it appears to be.

The team struggled to remain above .500 in the worst Eastern Conference anyone can remember, with multiple teams tanking from day 1. They dominated a short-handed Bulls team. The Pacers, the subject of so much scrutiny over the past three weeks, dispatched them in only 6 games. The Hawks, with a losing record, took the Pacers to 7.

Most damning is that they blew two games at home against the Pacers. In Game 4, they blew a 19-point second half lead. In Game 6, they succumb to a 17-2 run in the fourth quarter after taking the lead.

That is not good. I read this excellent piece on the 2002 Kings/Lakers series and how the Kings’ window evaporated in a heartbeat when Chris Webber got hurt.

What if this was the Wizards’ big chance? The Pacers were a mess. The Heat are LeBron James and that’s it. The Western Conference is spending April and May slugging it out.

Watching the Wizards season end is so frustrating because the potential was unlimited. They should’ve beaten the Pacers. If they don’t blow Game 4. If they don’t crumble in Game 6. I’m on record picking the Pacers over the Heat because of how badly LeBron’s teammates are playing.

No one in the DC area is going to look at it like that because they can’t. The Wizards have been so bad for so long that you are expected to be content and happy with this poor performance. Why should we be easy on the Wizards in 2014 because they were so bad in 2004 or 1994?

Here’s a fact that will not be discussed in dissecting the Wizards’ playoff loss – the Wizards had better players. That should hurt! The Pacers couldn’t stay in front of Wall and they couldn’t stay close enough to Beal. Gortat and Nene, at times, brutalized the Pacers on the boards. With the exception of the Roy Hibbert Game, the Wizards were superior. And they lost.

randy wittman
This leads us to Randy Wittman, who will be back next year, and that’s not good. With Beal and Wall, the Wizards have a backcourt capable of winning an NBA title. With Randy Wittman, they have a coach who is incapable of winning an NBA title.

I was spoiled watching Kevin Ollie lead UConn to a national title in March by perfecting two of the most important aspects of coaching basketball – juggling lineups to exploit matchups and drawing up good dead-ball plays.

Wittman can’t do either.

In Game 4, the veteran trio of Andre Miller, Drew Gooden and Al Harrington helped build the big lead. As the game slowly slipped away, Wittman stubbornly kept leaning on them until it was too late. It reached the absurdity of Harrington taking – and missing – a ridiculous layup attempt with 15 seconds left. The Thunder are killed when All-Star Russell Westbrook takes a late shot – what about Harrington shooting instead of Wall…or Beal…or Nene…or Ariza…or…

In Game 6, Wittman stood there like a deer in the headlights as the Wizards chucked up bad three after bad three during the 17-2 run. By the time he finally called timeout, the Wizards were down 11 and the game was over.

Lastly, the lack of adjustments Wittman made in Game 6 – and all season – have been mind-boggling. The Wizards made David West look like Karl Malone by giving him open jumper after open jumper. Yes, you can live with West making a few jumpers. But then you guard him. Instead, West kept getting open looks at the corner of the free throw line and kept pouring them in. Did it ever occur to anyone on the Wizards coaching staff to prevent that from happening?

Wittman’s continued employment will be a continued reminder that Wizards fans, well, they don’t really exist. A team with a real fanbase – say, the Pacers or the Thunder – would be calling for their coach’s head after performances like that. Instead, the majority of DC fans will shrug and go read about RG3 and DeSean Jackson.

I was at the game when the Wizards clinched their playoff spot against the Celtics. It was a Wednesday night and the place was half-full, if that. There were a lot of Celtics fans. There were a family of 7 in front of me, no joke, decked out in all Kentucky gear, presumably to watch Wall and Rajan Rondo.

Fast-forward to Game 4 of the Bulls series, and suddenly instead of the 200 section, I’m in the first row of 415 and the place is jumping. The Verizon Center was live. It felt like a real NBA building.

By Game 6 of the Pacers series, there were hundreds upon hundreds of empty seats. Despite winning Game 5 by a historic margin, no one believed. Despite having an unimaginable ceiling, everyone on the ESPN pregame set picked the Pacers.

Ultimately, it’s impossible to judge the 2013-14 Wizards season as anything other than a success. Wall and Beal are too good. The team proved it could win in the playoffs. There is potential.

Alas, that p-word won’t go away. The season was a success. But it could have been so much better. 

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