The Washington Wizards, by design, will be making the playoffs this year. The team is stuck at .500, which is somehow good enough for the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference currently, and it’s hard to see this squad dipping at least five games out of the playoff bracket between now and the third week in April, a dive that would be enough for a team like the Detroit Pistons to advance into the East’s top eight. Even with center Nene out for in upwards of a month and a half after an MCL sprain, Washington has put in enough work over the first 56 games to feel safe about a playoff berth.
That doesn’t mean Nene’s absence isn’t an absolute killer. Not only will the 31-year old big man likely need each and every one of those potential six weeks off, he’ll also need plenty of time to work his way back into NBA shape, diminishing what has been a solid year for the 12-year vet. That’s not to demean his professionalism, far from it, but Nene has dealt with conditioning issues before, and staying off one’s feet during the NBA’s stretch run can’t be good for his ability to move on both ends of the court. He may not be out for the year, as many had feared, but this is bad news.
This is what happens when you go all-in for a playoff berth, though. The Wizards dealt their top overall pick to Phoenix last fall in order to secure Marcin Gortat, a good enough center, in the wake of news that told the team’s front office that defensive-minded center Emeka Okafor could have to sit out for the entire 2013-14 season. After years of working around the fringes, Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld didn’t hesitate to deal for insurance in the pivot; but with the 2014 trade deadline having passed, to say nothing of Grunfeld’s lack of tradeable assets, insurance for Nene will have to come from within.
That’s why Kevin Seraphin, a developing player keen on shooting some of the strangest jump hooks you’ll ever see, will have to try and approximate Nene’s ability to slide from side to side and box out (if not grab the actual rebound) two at a time. Journeyman Drew Gooden will be asked to sop up minutes in the pivot on a 10-day contract, and he is two years removed from actually playing quite well under similar circumstance in Milwaukee, but after a disappointing 2012-13 and an absence from the NBA for the first four months of this season, nobody knows what sort of shape he’ll be in.
In the meantime, the Wizards will have to rely on Seraphin and Trevor Booker to anchor the team’s pick and roll defense, a defense that remains markedly underrated even if it has dropped from fifth overall last season to eighth in this term. With guard John Wall improving and with players like Gortat and Trevor Ariza possibly having career years, the Wizards do have enough in the tank to sustain with Nene out.
The issue from here is if any of this matters.
Making the playoffs is nice, and noble even. But the Wizards are capped out and desperate, they’re running up against the edge of the luxury tax after signing Andre Miller and Gooden, and the team is without a pick in this June’s loaded NBA draft. It’s true that Grunfeld has some flexibility this summer with Gortat, Ariza and others’ contracts coming off the books, but should Wizards fans be happy with Grunfeld potentially leading yet another re-boot? He recently traded a former lottery pick in Jan Vesely for a guard in Miller that was told to go away by his former team, top three overall pick Otto Porter has played terribly in his rookie season, and Grunfeld’s decades-long executive career hasn’t exactly produced a series of all out winners.
His latest team is quite nearly a “winner,” working with that .500 record, with every option exhausted as the franchise pits itself against the terrible Eastern Conference. Losing Nene hurts, the team is 7-34 without him over the last two seasons, and even if the big man were able to come back in early April to help contribute to the last run, it will still take him a goodly chunk of time to get his timing and conditioning back. There’s a possibility that the team could still sneak into the second round, but nobody is confusing this roster with a potential Heat or Pacer-killer. There’s no first-rounder, and though the team could potentially work some free agent magic this summer … again: Ernie Grunfeld.
Wizards fans will take it, though. Anything, after too many years in the NBA wilderness.
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