- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 4, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The Washington Wizards have issued a “fraud alert,” warning fans of the risk of “purchasing seats from an unauthorized third party” for the Eastern Conference semifinals starting Monday in Indianapolis against the Pacers, with Games 3 and 4 Friday and Sunday at Verizon Center.

Wow. Wizards playoffs tickets are so hot that they are selling on the black market. Scam artists are trying to cash in on Wizards fever.

At least we can assume that. Why else would the team issue a “fraud alert?”

That’s a long way from when you could buy Wizards tickets for $2 just a month ago.

Remarkable, isn’t it?

These Wizards are worth the full price of admission. They exceeded expectations basketball-wise and heart-wise by handling the experienced Chicago Bulls in five games, and it’s reasonable to see this team beating Indiana and likely facing the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals.

There’s nothing fraudulent about the way the Wizards are playing basketball now.

Beyond this season, though …

Let’s face it, this team is built on the premise of general manager Ernie Grunfeld saving his job this season and making the playoffs. He is the arsonist fireman, the one who burned this franchise to the ground and now gets the credit for rebuilding it.

He did a hell of a job doing that. Nearly every personnel button he pushed — trading for Marcin Gortat and Andre Miller, picking up Drew Gooden off the scrap heap — has worked. He drafted John Wall and Bradley Beal. He brought Nene here, pawning off one of his many mistakes, JaVale McGee, in the process.

But what is the end game? Where will it lead?

There is the young, talented backcourt of Wall and Beal, which is reason to be optimistic about the future. It’s a backcourt league, and they could have one of the most talented duos in the NBA.

But it’s not enough. There is a third piece missing — if indeed the mission is no longer to save Grunfeld’s job (he has likely done that already), but to compete for an NBA championship.

There seems to be an assumption that Kevin Durant is the missing piece, and will come home to Washington after “Mr. Unreliable” leaves Oklahoma City.

The Los Angeles Lakers may have something to say about that.

Let’s just look forward to next season.

Both Gortat and Trevor Ariza are unrestricted free agents, and, based on the way both have played this season — particularly in the playoffs — they are going to get paid. The Wizards won’t likely be able to pay both, but even committing to one of them will not leave them with enough money to go after that elite third piece they will need. If they let Gortat go, they won’t have anything to show — save for this year’s success — for surrendering next season’s first-round draft pick.

They gave $80 million to Wall, and in two years Beal will be looking for his money as well.

Despite his stupid self-indulgent scuffle that got him suspended in Game 4 of the first round, Nene is still the emotional and intelligent leader of this team. Next year he will be 32, having not played a full year in three straight seasons, and has three more years left on the five-year, $65 million contract Washington inherited from Denver when it made the trade in March 2012.

There are a lot of challenges ahead, a lot of decisions that will make the difference between languishing in the place they are now, and taking the next step.

That’s no different than most other NBA teams. The difference is the guy making the decisions, the one who appears to have hit on 50 percent of four years of lottery picks (unless you really think these Wizards are so talented that Otto Porter can’t get on the court), with the days of lottery picks likely at an end.

The Wizards may be entering that no-man’s land that defined this franchise in the 1980s — winning 40-plus games a season, always making the playoffs, but never being quite good enough to be elite, or quite bad enough to be in position to get the next young star to take them to that level.

This may be the best it will get — and so far, it’s pretty good. So Wizards fans are “encouraged to make their ticket purchases directly from the team at WashingtonWizards.com or NBATickets.com, or by calling 202-661-5050.”

Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 radio and espn980.com

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