By Sekou Smith, NBA.com
Posted Oct 16, 2013 8:13 AM
Whatever injuries, inadequacies or immaturity remain, the time for excuses has ended in Washington.
For the Wizards, of course.
With as solid a 15-man roster as they've had in years, a franchise cornerstone in John Wall and a supporting cast that is deep, talented and filled with versatile performers, Wizards owner Ted Leonsis has declared an end to the explanations for his team not delivering a playoff bid.
The good-will tank is on empty in Washington and Leonsis knows it. There have been too many explanations, legitimate and flimsy, for the Wizards not making that final leap from lottery regular to playoff factor.
But no more. The third-longest playoff drought in the NBA has to end this season.
"Last year, there was a pass given," Leonsis said during a news conference prior to the Wizards' preseason opener. "We were down Nene and John Wall, our two best players. Understandable. But this year, our expectations are, regardless of what happens, that the team is capable and has enough depth that we can be a playoff-caliber team. The one thing I'm not allowing anybody to do is use injuries as an excuse. We have 15 players under contract. There's two who can't start the season. That means we have 13. That's all you can dress anyway."
The Wizards are down two players again to start this season. Veteran center Emeka Okafor has a herniated disc in his neck and forward Chris Singleton a broken foot. Okafor is out indefinitely while Singleton will miss all of training camp and the start of the regular season.
But a summer that included Wall signing a five-year, $80 million extension and the additions of talents like rookie Otto Porter Jr. and veteran specialists like Al Harrington and Eric Maynor has raised expectations yet again for the Wizards. There's room to grow, considering Washington has averaged just 24 wins in each of Wall's three seasons in the league.
And make no mistake, Leonsis and Wall are in this thing together. They are connected as tightly to one another as any owner and budding young star could be. Leonsis made his significant investment in Wall before the mercurial point guard has produced the sort of breakout, game-changing season that usually justifies it.
"He's our leader. He's the player with the ball in his hand all the time and if the team doesn't do well ... you can trace it to, he hasn't matured yet. He hasn't realized his gifts and he understands that," Leonsis said. "He naturally is about team success.
"That's one of the things that you look for in a player. He doesn't pad his stats. He would rather make a great pass and have another player score it, than he has to score. It's a pass first point guard and that makes the other players want to play, they'll run harder, because they know they'll get the ball. They'll rebound and fill a lane because they know they'll get the ball and John's at his point now. He's got his contract. Now he needs to get the team to have success and then the personal accolades will come. He'll be an all-star if this team is a playoff team."
Wall was pointing to the 2013-14 season as the ultimate stage before he signed that extension. He talked about the opportunity that he knew would await him this season in Las Vegas during his stint with the U.S. Men's Senior National Team's mini-camp, which served as a gathering for a couple dozen of the league's most promising stars under the age of 25. Both Wall and his backcourt mate, Bradley Beal, were in attendance.
"I gladly accept the pressure to lead my team," Wall said then. "Last year was tough for me, getting the late start. But I think we showed the kind of improvement and made the leap we made after I came back that should get people excited. I love that we went into the summer with that momentum on our side."
The Wizards' 24-25 record after Wall returned from injury was the first sign that the Wizards were on the verge of taking that next step. Their defensive work all season -- they finished among the top 10 in the league -- gave coach Randy Wittman every reason to believe what his crew was doing without Wall ... and after he returned.
That's not to say the Wizards don't have a litany of issues to sort out between now and the that playoff push they're pursuing.
Wall has to show that his star turn last season wasn't temporary. The wounded must return and those who are left to handle the heavy lifting have to do exactly that. Both the Atlanta Hawks and Orlando Magic have taken steps back the last two years, leaving the door ajar for someone else in the Southeast Division to rise.
The Wizards are poised to make that move Leonsis speaks of, provided their young stars show poise and leadership beyond their years.
Do it right and Leonsis won't have to worry about coming up with another excuse for the Wizards' inability to play more than 82 games each season.
1. Chris Singleton joins Okafor on the Wizards' injured list, which is the one place no one wants to be these days.
2. A reportedly lean and hungry Al Harrington will have a chance to resurrect his career as a floor-stretching power forward, the perfect role for a wise veteran at this stage of his career.
3. The Wizards don't lack for quality long distance shooters with Beal, Porter Jr., Rice Jr. and Harrington all locked and loaded from the perimeter.
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LAST YEAR: 29-53, 3rd in Southeast
FINISH: Missed playoffs
2012-13 TEAM LEADERS
|Complete 2012-13 Stats|
JOHN WALL, POINT GUARD
18.5 PPG | 4.0 RPG | 7.6 APG
Wall got the organization's nod of approval in the form of that $80 million contract extension he signed in the summer. Now he has to deliver the same type of efforts he gave in the Wizards' last 49 games.
BRADLEY BEAL, SHOOTING GUARD
13.9 PPG | 3.8 RPG | 2.4 APG
Beal needs to avoid the injury bug that tagged him during his rookie season and get all of the court time he can with Wall. When healthy, they form one of the most lethal backcourt duos in the league.
MARTELL WEBSTER, SMALL FORWARD
11.4 PPG | 3.9 RPG | 1.9 APG
Webster is probably just keeping this seat warm for rookie Otto Porter, who is battling a hip flexor injury. Still, he's a competent temporary seat filler who can work efficiently.
NENE HILARIO, POWER FORWARD
12.6 PPG | 6.7 RPG | 2.9 APG
Nene's toughness gets questioned often, and with good reason. The Wizards need his best early on this season, with their frontline depth in question due to injuries and inexperience.
EMEKA OKAFOR, CENTER
9.7 PPG | 8.8 RPG | 1.2 APG
Okafor is out indefinitely with a herniated disc in his neck, with a regular season start in doubt. Injury issues have plagued him throughout his career.
|Trevor Ariza||6-8||210||F||His leadership will be key.|
|Otto Porter Jr.||6-8||200||F||A starter when he's healthy|
|Eric Maynor||6-3||175||G||Capable combo-guard.|
ADDED: F Otto Porter Jr., G Glen Rice Jr., G Eric Maynor, F Al Harrington
LOST: C Jason Collins
JAN VESELY, SMALL FORWARD
Vesely's Draft night smooch and hype has faded considerably. He has yet to make a significant impact for the Wizards and could lose ground in a crowded frontcourt rotation. There are specialists on hand, so Vesely has to play up to his Draft profile this season.