The novelty of just being good enough to make the playoffs has worn off for the Washington Wizards.
The Wizards, who begin training camp today on the campus of Virginia Commonwealth in Richmond, now have loftier aspirations.
No longer will reaching the playoffs only to be eliminated — in the first round like last season or the second round like 2005 — qualify as progress.
“That’s how I’m looking at it,” Gilbert Arenas said yesterday during media day at Verizon Center. “We have to look past the first and second rounds because we’ve been there.
“Before, in the past it was, ‘Can the Wizards make the playoffs? Are you ever going to make the playoffs? Are you ever going to win more than 20 games?’ We’ve proven all of that. Now let’s see if we can get to the conference finals, the NBA Finals. You want to get there. That’s the next step. You can’t just keep going to the first round and the second round — that’s not building anything.”
It can be argued the Wizards — who last season finished 42-40 and ended a league-high streak of failing to reach the playoffs in consecutive seasons (18 years) — could be happy with just reaching the playoffs again.
After all, they share the same division as the Miami Heat, who are the defending champions. And there are teams in the Eastern Conference such as the Chicago Bulls, who added Ben Wallace in free agency, that appear to have improved substantially.
But the Wizards, despite being a bad defensive team that lost its best defender (forward Jared Jeffries) via free agency, believe they have added players that will make them a better and tougher team.
“I think this is the deepest the roster has been since we’ve been here,” Wizards president of basketball operations Ernie Grunfeld said last week. “I think that we’re a tougher team than we were last year.”
While Jeffries is gone, the Wizards have replaced him with players that certainly have the potential to make the team better. DeShawn Stevenson, a 6-foot-5 guard, averaged 11.2 points, 2.9 rebounds and 2.0 assists while starting all 82 games in Orlando.
Stevenson could start in the backcourt if he can beat out 6-foot-7 Jarvis Hayes, who was tabbed as a starter last fall only to have his season reduced to 21 games after having knee surgery.
The Wizards are also optimistic that 6-foot-8 forward Darius Songaila, who averaged 9.2 points in 62 games with the Chicago Bulls last season, will give them a deeper bench. He also gives Washington the ability to go with a smaller and quicker lineup, which could lead to the Wizards having an even more potent offensive attack than the one that was third in the league with 101.7 points a game last season.
Grunfeld and Wizards coach Eddie Jordan heard their players’ entreaties to keep the team’s nucleus intact so the team would not have to go through the learning process it endured last season when Larry Hughes left for Cleveland, Kwame Brown was traded for Caron Butler, and eventual top reserve Antonio Daniels was signed as a free agent.
As a result, there were some early growing pains — they were six games below .500 midway through December — but eventually reached the playoffs as a fifth seed.
This season just reaching that point won’t be considered good enough.