INDIANAPOLIS — As Drew Gooden made his presence known in the paint, Al Harrington made shot after shot and fans chanted Andre Miller's name before stepping to the line for a pair of free throws, one thing was clear Sunday in the Washington Wizards' Game 4 second-round loss to the Indiana Pacers.
The old guys still have it.
"I think we demonstrated that last game — that this is what it's gonna take to win these ballgames," Gooden said Tuesday morning. "You can either do it vocally, or you can do it physically."
The emergence of the Wizards' bench this season was instrumental in their success, but the team didn't just find any ordinary player to round out its cast of 15. With John Wall and Bradley Beal figuring to emerge as one of the league's brightest young backcourts, and veterans Nenê and Trevor Ariza staking their claim to starting roles, Washington traded for Marcin Gortat and signed Harrington before the season, then added Miller via trade and picked up Gooden late.
Now, Washington is set to find itself at a crossroads during the coming offseason. Four of those veterans — Gortat, Ariza, Harrington and Gooden — are set to become unrestricted free agents. A fifth, Miller, will be in the option year of his contract, leaving his return equally uncertain.
The debate will then center on whether Wall and Beal are ready to claim their leadership on the team, and if Trevor Booker and Otto Porter are ready to assume vital roles in the rotation — potentially even as starters.
Wall, who was selected to play in the All-Star game in February for the first time in his four-year career, has assumed a role in the locker room as the team's captain. Beal, a budding star in his own right, has emerged as a reliable scorer this season, and his poise and assertion during the playoffs have signaled that he, too, is capable of being a respected voice in the locker room despite being just 20 years old.
The futures for Booker and Porter aren't as clear. Booker demonstrated he can be a force in the paint, stepping into a starting role late in the season when Nenê sprained the MCL in his left knee, but fell to the bottom of the rotation in the series against the Pacers, failing to see the court in the Wizards' Game 4 loss as Gooden consumed his minutes.
Porter, injured early in the season, rarely cracked the rotation and saw his most significant minutes in the final month. The former No. 3 overall pick's only foray onto the court during the playoffs was when the Wizards were routed in Game 3, with Porter entering the game with 1:32 remaining.
As the second quarter of Game 4 demonstrated, there's a value beyond keeping experienced players on the roster merely as mentors. If a team scouts and signs the right ones, they can play, too.
"I think that's big," Wall said. "Early in the season, we didn't have that. Our bench would struggle a lot, and when we added [Gooden and Miller later on] and Al got back to being healthy, that kind of helped our team. We knew we wanted to be a good team, and to have a chance to win a lot of games, you've got to have a good bench. That's what we had ever since we added those guys and they came in and started playing well together."
Gortat, traded from the Phoenix Suns to Washington a week before the regular season began, could tell immediately upon stepping foot in the locker room that there was an opportunity to impart his six years of wisdom upon the youthful Wizards — especially Booker, Kevin Seraphin and Jan Vesely, who was traded to the Denver Nuggets in February in the deal that brought back Miller.
"Still, it's one thing to have veterans on the team, and the other thing is young guys have got to be able to use the knowledge of veterans' knowledge and be able to transfer that on the court later," Gortat said. "It's not only the veterans' side that they have go and talk to the young guys, but also, young guys have to listen."
Wall and Beal have. Wall, in particular, has spoken highly of Miller during his time with the Wizards and has tried to incorporate various aspects of the veteran's game, such as Miller's willingness to back guards down into the low post, into his own repertoire.
The veterans' biggest message to the younger players before the postseason was to soak in the experience, hoping the lessons would carry over to future years and similar circumstances.
"As a young guy, I'm really just following suit," Beal said. "I'm learning a lot from them, just what it takes to be able to win, and the focus and mentality that you need to have going into this game."
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