Dave Bing sat in a luxury box at Verizon Center on Saturday, joining several other former players at the arena for the team’s annual alumni weekend. From there, he and several other former all-stars – Moses Malone, Wes Unseld and Michael Adams among them – marveled at the way the current Wizards were handling the visiting Milwaukee Bucks.
“This is my home town,” said Bing, who grew up in Northeast. “This is where I was born and raised and where I learned to play the game, so to see what’s happening at this arena, to see what’s happening in this city, especially compared to where I am right now [in Detroit], it’s quite different.”
This weekend, the Wizards will make their first appearance in the playoffs in six years, with their first-round opponent to be determined Wednesday following a road game against the Boston Celtics.
It has been a slow climb back to respectability for what had been one of the league’s most hapless franchises – and one that, all things considered, does not appear to be complete. The Wizards have one of the league’s most promising backcourt tandems in John Wall and Bradley Beal, but their youth and inexperience have often led to issues with consistency and stability.
The playoffs, then, should harden this blossoming team, giving it an opportunity to gauge not only where it stands against the league’s best, but also an understanding of what it will take to one day get there.
“It’s just different ballgame,” said Marcin Gortat, a seven-year veteran in his first season with the Wizards. “End of the day, you have a TV broadcasting the game live and half of the world is watching you, so it’s totally different story.”
Gortat, whose Orlando Magic qualified for the playoffs his first three seasons in the league, is one of seven Wizards players who have postseason experience. None of the players on the current roster was with the team during the 2007-08 season, when it last played well into April.
That season, the Wizards were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, who also foiled Washington’s plan of a postseason run each of the previous two years.
Hard times followed. The Wizards finished a woeful 19-63 in 2008-09, matching their record from 2000-01 to mark their worst winning percentage since moving to the Mid-Atlantic region in 1963. Coach Eddie Jordan, who oversaw their run of four consecutive playoff appearances, was fired after 11 games, and the team would endure seven losing streaks of at least five games.
A season later, the Wizards gained significant attention when popular guard Gilbert Arenas was suspended indefinitely by the league for bringing four guns into the locker room at Verizon Center. An investigation revealed that Arenas and reserve guard Javaris Crittenton had been arguing during the team’s flight back from a game against the Phoenix Suns on Dec. 19, and on the morning of Dec. 21, Arenas placed the guns in Crittenton’s locker, leading to Crittenton pulling out one of his own.
Arenas was traded to the Orlando Magic early in the 2009-10 season, ending his eight-year tenure with the team. But that summer brought the Wizards a fresh start in Wall, who was drafted out of Kentucky with the No. 1 overall pick in June. While the team continued to struggle, winning 30 percent of its games over Wall’s first three seasons, it did so knowing Wall, an instinctive playmaker who wasn’t afraid to attack the basket, could potentially develop into one of the league’s best point guards.
His growth has been constant, punctuated by his first all-star selection this February. It wasn’t until Wall was paired with Beal, a steady shooter drafted No. 3 overall in 2012 after one year at Florida, that the Wizards established their backcourt. And, by sprinkling in several veterans –Nenê last season, Gortat and Al Harrington before this season, and Drew Gooden and Andre Miller during it – the Wizards set a goal of qualifying for the playoffs this year.
They did that on April 2 with a sound defeat of the Celtics, and on Saturday, a victory over the Bucks ensured the Wizards of their first winning record in six years.
“Everybody, all the vets on the team, always say it’s a different brand of basketball,” Beal said. “It’s gonna be physical, and you’ve got to be ready for it. It’s gonna be, bar none, the best [teams have] ever played all year.”
Later, Wall answered questions for five minutes and turned to grab his backpack, assuming his session with reporters was over.
Then one more postseason question was lobbed in his direction, and Wall, somewhat flippantly, yet partially festively, answered as he left the locker room.
“I’m just happy to be in the playoffs, to be honest,” Wall said. “I’m getting away from 29 wins.”