- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 24, 2014

It’s not that Washington Wizards coach Randy Wittman wants to forget or discount last year. It’s just, last year is not now, so it matters little. But it still matters. Understand?

“Last year we’ve got to use,” Wittman said. “Are we going to use it as a stepping stone to this year? We accomplished some things. They understand that. When I say we’re back to ground zero, everybody is 0-0 right now. We’ve got to build that back up again. Where are we going to take that to this time?”

The crux of a Wednesday discussion among reporters, Wittman and team president Ernie Grunfeld centered on that thought. Can the Wizards be a contender in the Eastern Conference? What does a step beyond last year’s 44-win season look like? Division title? Conference finals?

These are not the common preseason topics for the Wizards over the past decade. Last season’s 44 wins were the most since 2004-05. That was also the last time the Wizards won a first-round playoff series prior to beating the Chicago Bulls in five games last spring.

Back are the core four: point guard John Wall, shooting guard Bradley Beal, power forward Nene, and center Marcin Gortat. The Wizards added veteran Paul Pierce and frontcourt players DeJuan Blair and Kris Humphries in the offseason as complements. The club is also wondering what youngsters Otto Porter and Glen Rice Jr. will bring.

Wittman is loathe to trumpet a number of expected wins. He won’t say winning the conference semifinals is the benchmark of progress. He will, however, say the next step is necessary. He’s just non-committal on the precise form of it.

“What is it going to be?” Wittman wondered. “So much goes on in 82 games, and we have to see how things play out — I want to focus more on us. … I don’t want them to worry about what Cleveland is now. Or what Chicago is now or what Miami is now. I want them to worry about what we are now.”

That remains a team built around two still exceptionally young guards in Wall, who just turned 24, and Beal, who became eligible to legally consume alcohol this past summer.

Gortat was brought back on a five-year, $60 million contract. Grunfeld explained finding a big man who could play well is rare. Hence, they paid Gortat, who averaged 13.2 points and 9.5 rebounds last season.

One intriguing factor is Pierce. The former captain of the Boston Celtics turns 37 on Oct. 13. He’s entering his 17th season in the league, 15 of which were with Boston. Pierce played for the Brooklyn Nets last season. He averaged 13.5 points in 28 minutes per game, both the lowest markers of his likely Hall of Fame career.

“I know who he is just from coaching on the other sideline against him all these year,” Wittman said. “Obviously, Doc Rivers (Pierce’s former coach in Boston) and I are very close. He raved about what kind of leader he is. I think he’s going to fit right in with that.”

The Wizards begin with only a single health concern. Guard Martell Webster had surgery in June to repair a herniated disc in his lower back. Wittman said Webster is able to “do some things” when training camp begins Tuesday. Webster was originally projected to be out 3-5 months following surgery. Otherwise, Wittman said, the team’s health is fine.

That leaves the Wizards built for the next step.

“Everybody’s saying the East is wide open,” Grunfeld said. “It is wide open.”

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