It's been a while since the Washington Wizards opened training camp as one of the hunted rather than a hunter, as a team expected to make the playoffs rather than one destined to pick up the "lottery-bound" label before the All-Star break.
Even so, the men who have overseen the turnaround were cautious more than bullish as they sat side-by-side before reporters on Wednesday.
President Ernie Grunfeld proclaimed the Eastern Conference to be "wide open," yet went on say that merely home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs "would be a good accomplishment" for his team. Coach Randy Wittman mentioned "Eastern Conference finals" as a possibility. Nothing beyond that.
In other words, the Wizards are finally good, but not close to great. Good enough to land Paul Pierce as a free agent — a choice he almost certainly wouldn't have made a couple of years ago — and well clear of the ridicule associated with the five-year playoff drought that ended last season. The goal is no longer to make the postseason; last year's second-round exit is now the benchmark for anything that follows.
"Listen, as a coach, you want to have these expectations," Wittman said. "I'd much rather be sitting here talking about high expectations than you so-called experts thinking we might win 15-16 games."
The challenge is for the coach to balance his sales pitch: Last season is over and done with — "water under the bridge," as he called it — but it's also something to build on.
"Last year doesn't mean nothing. Last year we've got to use. Are we going to use it as a stepping stone to this year?" Wittman said. "When I say we're back to ground zero, everybody's 0-0 right now. Now we've got to build that up again. Where are going to take that to this time? I want them to use the experience of last year of going to the second round of the playoffs. It's not thrown away."
The Wizards kept four-fifths of their starting lineup, replacing Trevor Ariza with Pierce to go along with John Wall, Bradley Beal, Nene and Marcin Gortat. Everyone on the roster is expected to be full-go when camp starts Tuesday except for Martell Webster, who is recovering from back surgery.
Wittman said the 36-year-old Pierce is already having an impact during player workouts ahead of camp.
"Paul knows who he is and where he's at in his career, and I think he's going to be really good for our young guys to learn from and watch him and how he conducts himself," Wittman said. "Since he's been here, he's one of the first guys in the gym every morning. He doesn't have to say anything. When you're a young guy and you've got him beating you to the gym, you'd better find a way to get here before he does."
For the first time, the Wizards are staying home for training camp. The hotel they used in recent years at George Mason University has closed down, so practices will be held at the Verizon Center, and the players get to sleep in their own beds.
"To have everybody start a routine right away is a good thing," Grunfeld said. "And nothing's etched in stone. We'll see how it works. We'll discuss it and we'll see what we do next year."
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