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At the end of the worst Wizards season ever, more change is coming

At the end of the worst Wizards season ever, more change is coming

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

BOSTON — There was no ceremony to Sunday for the Washington Wizards.

For the fans, the end of the grueling first season of Washington’s rebuild might be reason to celebrate, an opportunity to wash your hands of an agonizing crawl to a 15-67 record and look forward to next year. But to the coaches and players who survived all that losing, there was no sense of relief, no outlandish emotion in either direction after one last defeat, this one coming 132-122 to the NBA-best Boston Celtics.

The locker room was genial as usual, with injured guards Landry Shamet and Tyus Jones chatting quietly in one corner. Jordan Poole, who was out Sunday with a non-covid illness, sat in another, bemoaning the arrival of a six-month stretch without a competitive game to play. Deni Avdija was in the middle, resisting a dare to throw something he shouldn’t.

The downright ordinary atmosphere gave off a sense that the Wizards viewed Sunday not as the end but as the beginning of the long path back to contention.

“We developed a lot of resilience, and we developed a competitive atmosphere,” interim coach Brian Keefe said. “We learned about the process and what it takes to be a really good team. We’ve still got a lot to do, but I think we started laying the foundation for that.”

Keefe and his players have plenty of hope because there’s only one direction to go from here. But this season will be remembered as an underachievement, even measured against the Wizards’ low expectations. Growing pains are natural, sure, but did they have to feel so torturous?

Early on, nothing worked for the Wizards as they spent the season’s first half sleepwalking through games. On the rare occasion they broke through irrelevance to make waves on the national landscape, it was so pundits and social media dwellers could make fun of Poole.

The on-court results were harsh. The Wizards notched the most losses in franchise history, eclipsing the 19-63 teams of 2000-01 and 2008-09. Even worse, many of the losses were painful to watch. The level of competitiveness and focus improved with a coaching change in late January — Keefe was promoted after Wes Unseld Jr. was moved to the front office — but the Wizards still racked up 32 losses in which they trailed by at least 20 points, including Sunday’s. They had a nine-game losing streak in November and a 16-game whopper that began in January and ended in March. They even split their four-game season series with the Detroit Pistons (14-68), falling twice to the only team in the league with a worse record.

But — and here comes the hope again — judging a team’s on-court performance and judging an organization’s rebuilding efforts are two different things.

“It’d be hard for a fan to see that if they’re watching,” Corey Kispert said, “but we made some really good strides in really important areas that aren’t really tangible. When people talk about culture and how to maintain it, we took some really good steps to get started on that, especially in the last three months.”

The Wizards fortified their foundation in several areas, the most obvious of which is player development: Avdija, a fourth-year forward, and Kispert, a third-year forward, made significant leaps. Avdija said he had a better understanding of what was expected of him on the court this year than he did in his three previous seasons because the coaching staff, the training staff and the front office were better aligned.

“I feel like we’re more specific in what we’re going to work on on the court now,” Avdija said. “We keep it simple, we keep it clean, and I feel good about it.”

Alignment between the Wizards and their G League affiliate, the Capital City Go-Go, is another point of pride for Monumental Basketball President Michael Winger and General Manager Will Dawkins. The Wizards are in the development business (not to be confused with the winning business) for the next few years, and several players who started out on two-way contracts grew into important contributors. Forward Eugene Omoruyi, one such player, scored a season-high 26 points Sunday.

Sure, it was a meaningless game. But in a season blighted by 67 losses, the Wizards took all the tiny triumphs they could get.

Here’s a look at what the offseason might hold:

The Wizards will have a busy offseason. First on their long to-do list is finding a coach.

After Unseld was removed Jan. 25, Keefe was promoted and finished out the season with an 8-31 record. In evaluating Keefe, Winger and Dawkins will look beyond wins and losses to consider his development-oriented style, his ability to hold players accountable and the team’s raised level of competitiveness in close games as positives of his tenure.

The Wizards shouldn’t be too concerned with the competition as they consider outside candidates. Only two other teams are looking for coaches at the moment: Brooklyn (Kevin Ollie is the interim) and Charlotte (Steve Clifford is stepping down).

With a young, rebuilding team, it would make sense if Winger and Dawkins don’t turn to an established coach with experience in getting a veteran roster to the playoffs. The Wizards might not have to worry about vying for in-demand names such as former Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer, for one example.

July 1: Free agency opens

July 12-22: Summer league

Who’s headed for free agency?

Not many! The Wizards have two players set to become unrestricted free agents: Jones, the point guard who turns 28 in May, and forward Anthony Gill, 31. Washington owns both players’ Bird rights, meaning it can exceed the salary cap to re-sign them.

Jones is a player to watch because of the risk the Wizards took by not moving him at the February trade deadline. Washington could lose him for nothing — or, because it owns his Bird rights, it could sign him to a bigger contract than he would receive elsewhere, then trade him. Or it could re-sign him, having wooed him with the promise of a spot in the starting lineup, and try playing him alongside Poole again. (Poole was taken out of the starting lineup in February to get him more ballhandling opportunities and shake him out of a funk.) The Wizards have options.

The Wizards signed four players after the trade deadline: Omoruyi, guard Jared Butler and center Tristan Vukcevic landed multiyear contracts, and guard Justin Champagnie got a two-way deal.

All of this is part of what the Wizards have deemed their season of discovery. That means Winger and Dawkins will take the summer to evaluate whom they have in house and see whom they might want to keep around as the rebuild progresses.

Aside from Champagnie, brought in on a 10-day contract in February, all the recently signed players entered Washington’s system with the new front office. Butler and Omoruyi signed two-way deals in July, and Vukcevic was the Wizards’ 2023 second-round pick. Butler and Omoruyi, in particular, have been toiling away at the end of the bench all season, shouldering the burden these last few weeks when much of the roster was out because of injuries.

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