On Nov. 26, the Washington Wizards lost by 26 points, at home, to the San Antonio Spurs. It was the team’s 12th straight defeat to start a season, and it’s hard to characterize just how bleak things were looking at that point. Star guard John Wall was out with a tough-to-explain knee injury caused by wear and fatigue that remains rare for someone his age, with no return date in sight. The team was capped out with veterans who weren’t providing much, 2011 lottery pick Jan Vesely was (and continued to) play his way out of the NBA, and rookie guard Bradley Beal was struggling just as badly, shooting less than 34 percent in the combined months of October and November.
It was a situation that could drive a coach to tears. Which is apparently what happened to Wizards head man Randy Wittman, who was so overwhelmed in the locker room following the defeat that he broke down in front of his players. Wizards swingman Martell Webster tells the story, as relayed by the Washington Post's Sarah Kogod:
“After we lost that 12th game and he came into the locker room — I don’t even know if he wants me to share this, but I don’t care — and he was crying, man, after that game,” Webster said.
“And he told us that he cared about us. And for me, that was a point in the season where I was just like, I’m in. I’m totally in. I bought into the system. And when I did that, that’s when my season began to turn to a positive light, and I started to succeed after that point.
“That meant a lot because it showed that he really cared. He didn’t care about his job. He didn’t. He just cared about the guys that he was coaching. And that was amazing. That was touching for me. But that’s when I realized that I really wanted to buy into this system.”
Guard A.J. Price, stuck trying to lead the team at the point in Wall’s absence, told reporters that Wittman’s display did far more good than bad:
“That showed me how passionate he was as a coach. I think it did a lot for us, in terms of how we viewed him as a coach. Because anytime you get a head coach [crying], that’s not normal. Not to say it’s bad, but it’s just not normal that you’d see a coach show that much emotion, especially in this business. It let us know that we were dealing with a special type of guy who really cared about the job. Really cared about us as players, and I think that led to us really buying in even more and really giving it all we got, because he was showing to use that he was giving it all he had.”
Veteran forward/center Nene even admitted to crying with Wittman.
This is how tough a season can get. This is also great, mind you, because the Wizards weren’t your typical, dispassionate lottery team that knew the crummy hand it had been dealt ahead of another season spent away from the playoffs.
Washington went on to win its first game of the season two nights later against the Portland Trail Blazers, and even defeated the Miami Heat the following week. Washington continued to struggle following that little outburst, but on Jan. 7, the team downed the Oklahoma City Thunder, improving its record to 5-28. Wall returned for the next game, helping Washington put up a 25-25 record to finish the season. And in a pretty rare move for a 29-win team, the Wizards actually ranked in the top five in defensive efficiency in 2012-13.
This is why Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld gave every indication he wants the entire crew back in 2013-14, and not to expect any wholesale changes. It’s the best possible scenario for Grunfeld, because he can point to injuries as the cause of the initial swoon, and to that .500 end to the season as a reasonable starting point for the next season.
Save for the part about how unreasonable that might be.
Even if Wall returns to build on his fantastic 2012-13 turn for 82 games next year, his growth may not be enough to offset the dwindling production of players like Emeka Okafor, Nene, and Trevor Ariza. All three of those vets work hard to compete and work through injury, but Okafor is fading, the turning-28 Ariza has just about peaked (iffy shooter, very good defender), and Nene is dealing with the aftereffects of a career that is entering its second decade.
This is the lot that Grunfeld has to roll with, though, because Okafor, Nene and Ariza combine to make over $35 million next year, and the team is capped out. He’ll be given the goodwill needed to make it to October because of Washington’s impressive ending, while hoping that it will somehow sustain in 2013-14 — as the Wiz prepare to take on teams who are alert and ready, not either working through the season’s dog days or playing out the string.
That isn’t to take away from the 50-game accomplishment. Wittman did well to build a near-winner when things could have gotten away from him, and though it was obvious that Grunfeld was putting together a defense-first squad heading into the season, nobody thought the Wizards could be that good on the defensive end. Even if they ranked 30 out of 30 NBA teams in offensive efficiency.
This is why Webster is calling Wittman “awesome,” and why we’re considering the retread status on the Wizards coach even after winning just over one-third of his career 438 games in three iffy stints with the Wizards, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Minnesota Timberwolves. And 2013-14’s best-case scenario, with the Milwaukee Bucks possibly rebuilding this summer, isn’t far-fetched. The Wizards could sneak in the backdoor of the playoffs to take on Miami next season in the first round, grab a little playoff scratch, and still be well under the cap during the 2014 offseason even after handing a maximum deal to Wall during this offseason, and a reasonable extension to sometimes-there center Kevin Seraphin.
(So, what both the Wizards and I are telling their fans is that they’ll have to wait until July 2014 to see any significant moves, unless the team cashes in on the expiring contracts of Okafor and Ariza during next year’s trade deadline, and no significant strides until the fall of 2014. Sorry.)
It’s a slow burner, this Wizards team. And while just hoping for the eighth seed in a crummy conference seems like a waste of a few years, understand that there isn’t much Grunfeld can do at this point. His fault if it falls short again, his gain if he attains those mediocre goals.