Given this franchise's perpetually morbid state, 2013 was a very good year. It began with the Wizards in a terrible position at 4-24 without their star player, and it ended with the Wizards in a decent position at 14-14 with their star player emerging on the national scene. It featured a 25-29 record last year and a 14-14 record this year. Thanks to the awful Eastern Conference, it may be the precursor to a top-four seed.
So, that's good. It's certainly better than 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, etc. This franchise may finally be pointing in the right direction.
That brings us to 2014, though. And 2014 is going to be judged in a very different way than 2013.
The long-term challenges begin shortly after this season ends. We have a pretty good idea of what the Wizards are as currently constructed. This is a team that has been around .500 for a calendar year, perhaps slightly better if Nene's new off-the-bench role keeps him fresh. This is a team with some good vets surrounding a young backcourt that serves as the team's core. This is also a team that cannot in any way, shape or form afford an injury to its star.
All that's better than previous years, but all that also needs to keep getting better. The challenge of 2014 will be doing just that.
And it will be a challenge, in part because of self-inflicted wounds. This summer, the Wizards must decide on many, many things that will shape the next five years.
First, they must make management and coaching decisions. Ernie Grunfeld and Randy Wittman are each on the final year of their contracts, both of which were extended two years ago in an obvious kick-the-can-down-the-road move. The upside of that decision? There was stability, each were able to carry out the next steps of their plan and each has improved to some degree, with Grunfeld finding some good vets and Wittman enforcing a defensive culture. The downside of that decision? Both men must be judged not on what they have done, but rather on what they can do to allow the Wizards to move into contention. And frankly, nothing they have done so far has provided clarity on that question. They may be able to, but you'd have to make a leap of faith, because the challenge is so different than the last couple years.
But whoever manages and coaches this team will need to deal with difficult personnel questions. It's been championed that the Wizards sit on a good pile of cap space this summer, perhaps enough to sign at least a max-level free agent, but that's a bit of a misnomer because they have critical decisions to make on their own guys. Specifically: Trevor Ariza, who has been outstanding this year but plays the same position as last year's No. 3 pick that doesn't appear to be ready yet, and Marcin Gortat, who has stabilized the middle, but is due a big payday at age 29 and hasn't exactly been an ideal defensive anchor. Keeping both would cost the Wizards the majority of their cap space. Keeping one may be too much of a half-measure. Keeping neither would remove two of the best players on this year's club.
Also specifically: the members of the Flotsam, three of whom have shown flashes this year. Is it worth actually keeping any of Trevor Booker, Kevin Seraphin, Jan Vesely and Chris Singleton. If the answer is yes, that's more cap space lost. If the answer is no, then at least one replacement rotation player must be found. Unfortunately, because of the Gortat deal, the Wizards will likely lack that first-round pick in a deep draft to find that replacement. They'll have to do it in free agency, which will be more costly.
Finally, there's the matter of the "brand-name, marquee free agents" the Wizards eventually want to lure. Doing so requires being both cap flexible and good, a difficult combination. To remain good, the Wizards may need to keep Gortat, Ariza or both. To stay cap flexible, they will need to cast at least one aside or move them for assets. And who is that "brand-name, marquee free agent" that can be lured? When will the long game finally become the present game? It's hard to see it happening this summer with the Wizards already down a critical asset (their first-round pick) and at least one large hole in their starting lineup.
Even if the present goes well, the future is cloudy. Becoming a decent team is hard. Improving that decent team is even harder. Maintaining a really good team is harder still. Many clubs have crossed the first threshold and failed to clear the second. Several others have reached stage 3 and fallen apart from there. The challenge of 2014 is moving from point A to point B, and with a lot of uncertainty present this summer, it's a bigger challenge than many other franchises might face.
If 2013 was the Year of Relevancy, 2014 must be the Year of The Rise. It cannot merely be the Year of Retention.
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