CHICAGO – As the Washington Wizards bumbled into seasons adrift and the infancy of roster cohesion, the talent was palpable around the NBA. So young, so fresh, their two cornerstones, John Wall and Bradley Beal, had gone untapped and had lacked the proper guidance and voices from veteran players. The Wizards had appeared vulnerable, because otherwise the proposition of attempted pickpockets of their young talent was baseless.
Wall trained diligently and watched closely when he missed time with injuries a season ago, and he saw exactly what the Wizards’ management knew: Beal’s a special scorer and shooter, a basis of a team’s foundation. He was Washington’s third overall pick in 2012, and opposing organizations plotted on how they could pry him out. They had come to the Wizards presuming an unsure front office, declaring empty solutions: Hey, how about this veteran piece for Beal to speed the rebuild?
For years, Ted Leonsis ensured the Wizards’ rise again as long as patience sustained. We’ll be bottom-dwellers, until we’re reputable again, and then this core will go on and on for contending runs, he’d preach. Still, he sensed teams hoping for them to rush the process; those on the hunt to capture a star let go too soon, too carelessly.
These Wizards never folded, as it turned out, and they punctuated a restoration by advancing to the Eastern Conference semifinals with a 75-69 win over the Bulls in Game 5. Executives would place calls into the availabilities of this young asset or that one, and Leonsis’ ensemble held firm.
The visions of the owner, Ernie Grunfield and Tommy Sheppard played out in front of them all on Tuesday: John Wall and Bradley Beal celebrating a series win at midcourt, proven players reveling in a franchise’s rebirth and the first postseason advancement since 2005.
“We had confidence in the plan and building a team around high integrity character,” Leonsis told RealGM on Tuesday night. “That’s become really, really important to us. I’m very humbled that the plan’s kind of working. Everything started to turn for us, for our young guys, when we traded for Nene. Nene’s such a good player, such a leader, and has so much confidence and peace. And then bringing in [Trevor] Ariza really helped, and we had some good drafts.
“Now, we’re a team.”
Now, they’re healthy, motivated and a legitimate threat to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. When the Wizards’ executives discuss strong character, know it stems from the humility in the backcourt and has been nurtured by precise leaders.
Stars deliver playoff series victories, and the Wizards had the three best players in this first round series. The Bulls were battered and beaten and ran out of offensive answers. Joakim Noah revealed an ongoing knee injury and Taj Gibson suffered an ankle sprain Tuesday. In the locker room, Carlos Boozer made a swift exit, and his possible amnesty will fuel into the offseason.
No matter. The Wizards crushed them – with shot creators, with offensive rebounds – while understanding a healthy Derrick Rose changes everything for Chicago. Wall and Beal combined to score 41 points, grab 12 rebounds and dish eight assists in the series clincher. One’s a non-stop, fearless guard, and the other’s a smooth, finesse genius. Fit and a maximum contract past him, Wall’s made true on every promise, thrived on the court and developed a partnership with Beal that only rivals Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
Wall had told everyone within sight last summer that he desperately wanted to absorb the feeling of playing in the NBA postseason late into April, and he has it.
“It was everything that I’ve been waiting for since coming to the Washington Wizards,” Wall said.
For Wall, Beal’s shooting opens up so many driving angles and play sets. More and more, Beal, 20, is learning to distribute the ball and allow shots to come within the flow of the offense. Yes, there’s reason his name was mentioned with the Oklahoma City Thunder and James Harden in 2012.
For those around Beal, he’s so low maintenance, so focused on production. Whatever hope opposing franchises had about plugging Beal out of Washington eroded this season.
“We have to stay humble and continue to stick together as a team,” Beal said.
The vigorous player development of Sam Cassell has gone unattributed, and yet he’s a focal point of the coaching staff’s efforts with Beal and Wall. Cassell arrived a year before Wall, and his messages resonate clearly now.
Above Cassell, Randy Wittman’s in the last season of his contract and he heard prior to the season the pronouncing of his job on its final term. Yet, he’s progressed to the second round in his first postseason as head coach. Leonsis told RealGM he has tremendous fondness for Wittman and the way the team has grown under him, and without revealing his intention, he sounded confident in the coach’s ability to lead into next season.
“Randy Wittman really did magnificent work, sensing and responding to each game situation,” Leonsis said. “He called a couple timeouts at exactly the right time, and then we came out of the timeouts and scored baskets. I’m proud of him. When he took over, this team had hit rock bottom. He said, ‘Let’s do things the right way. Let’s keep working.’ The players really respect him, and they play defense for him.
“You’ve got to give Randy credit. We beat a team that no one thought that we could beat, and I think we beat them pretty handily.”
In Wall’s mind, Wittman and his staff countered every adjustment that the Bulls made and prepared him and his teammates with a modified gameplan. They had drilled defense into practices and film sessions, but no one could have envisioned these Wizards playing and conquering in the 70s with Tom Thibodeau.
“We knew we had to win in the playoffs with defense,” Wall said. “Coach wanted us to play team defense … knowing you don’t want to try to outscore [the Bulls], just try to get a lot of stops.”
Those stops stifled the Bulls and sent them home, as Noah said, both earlier and later than some people expected. This was a valiant march to the playoffs for Chicago, but the talent gap was wide from the outset of the series and became so difficult to overcome once the Wizards’ young guys flourished with the belief that they belong.
They were all hugging each other here, Washington players and coaches and front office members and family. “Good job, coach,” Leonsis told Wittman, and the congratulating spread everywhere. Nine years ago, the Wizards had assembled a team around Gilbert Arenas that escaped a fourth-seeded Chicago team in the first round. Now, Ted Leonsis promises this core’s ceiling is far greater and its personnel is much more mature with a premium placed on character evaluation. Now, these Wizards are a team again.