The Wizards' path to respectability is littered with land mines, potholes and other assorted obstacles in the Eastern Conference. But at least Washington seems headed in the right direction, having jettisoned the goofballs and blockheads who steered it off course the past few seasons.
Losing the dead weight should improve the Wizards' responsiveness in maneuvering during the journey.
But there's no escaping the familiar sense of dread that has surrounded the franchise for the better part of 30 years now. Just when it appeared that the depression was lifting, we learned otherwise. Star point guard John Wall is out for at least eight weeks, long enough to jeopardize thoughts of a postseason berth.
The Wizards talked a good game in the immediate aftermath and at Monday's media day. Team President Ernie Grunfeld called the left knee injury a "bump in the road." Coach Randy Wittman said the team's "expectations aren't going to change." Wall said he believes in his teammates and "they can win a lot of games without me."
Those comments are the exact opposite of what we fear will happen, which is this: By the time Wall returns and gets in the groove, a quarter of the season could be gone. The remaining players, though game, realize they can't overcome such a significant loss. They'll do the best they can, but the talent differential will lead to another ugly record out the gate.
That might sound overly pessimistic. But it's hard to be upbeat when the Wizards' best player is out for two months and their second-best player, Nene, is out indefinitely (though Grunfeld hopes the center will be ready for the season opener Oct. 30). "I don't give specific time," said Nene, who's recovering from plantar fasciitis in his left foot. "I hope I can come back soon. The bad part has passed, now is the good part."
Fans are waiting for the good part, too. The Wizards lucked into the No. 1 pick in 2010 and selected Wall, but that looks like an exception to the rule.
Good fortune for the Wizards doesn't have to be big-time free agents choosing D.C., like LeBron James chose Miami. Or potential free agents forcing a trade here, like Carmelo Anthony forced a trade to New York. If Washington ever becomes a destination spot in the NBA — and there's no reason it can't — we'll have to wait until Wall's rookie deal ends and hope he re-ups while recruiting a superstar or two.
For the time being, Wizards fans have to dream small. Signs of a charmed life would be Bradley Beal turning into another Ray Allen. Or Jan Vesely not turning into another Darko Milicic. Or the Kirk Hinrich haul (Jordan Crawford, Maurice Evans, Mike Bibby and a first-round pick used on Chris Singleton) looking as lopsided in three years as it was back then.
Setting the playoffs as a goal — with a healthy Wall and Nene — wasn't totally unreasonable. At least one Eastern Conference spot should open as Orlando nosedives without Dwight Howard. The Knicks and Philadelphia 76ers finished seventh and eighth, respectively, but they have reshuffled their rosters as much as the Wizards, with no guarantee that the new versions will mesh.
That would put the Wizards in a glut of several teams fighting over the last three berths. Initially, the thought was Washington's experience and newfound professionalism might compensate for talent deficiencies, at least enough to make the Wizards competitive. Maybe that's still the case.
But play hasn't even begun yet, and already there's been a gloomy note.
Of course the players will never say they're out of contention, certainly not as training camp commences. No matter what fans and the media think about the Wizards (not much), the guys in uniforms have to be true believers or play the part well. Youngsters such as Beal don't know any better than to think all things are possible.
"I think the team can be great with the assets we have," Beal said. "[Owner Ted Leonsis] said there's no reason we shouldn't make it to the playoffs and not be in the lottery, and I totally agree. We have older vets and a lot young guys who are willing to sacrifice and do what's best for the team. We have a great chance."
That's easy for him to say. He's new around here.
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