Nothin' but Net: Wizards' success has been a long time coming

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - In the early months of 2012, the Washington Wizards made drastic moves that shaped the organization for years to come.

First, Flip Saunders was shown the door as head coach. Two months later, the Wizards rid themselves of JaVale McGee and Nick Young, bringing in the pro's pro, Nene. He's so professional, he doesn't even mess around with surnames.

Saunders just didn't work and Randy Wittman got the job. Saunders is a capable man and Wittman won't confuse anyone for John Wooden, but the Wizards' brass showed it was unafraid of making the big move.

The really big move turned out to be the trade. The Wizards were a semi- talented, but immature group and the biggest wild-cards were shown the door in favor of stability.

That was important to groom John Wall. President Ernie Grunfeld decided it was best to not pollute Wall with the antics of the aforementioned players. Wall was the future of the franchise.

The team essentially already struck out on that year's draft picks, Jan Vesely and Chris Singleton, so reconstruction began.

It was a massive philosophical turnaround. The theory being that the Wizards needed to become a more professional group, not one just built on talented individual talents. Washington won the final six games to get people thinking.

Fast-forward to Nov. 19, 2014, and those decisions have paid off remarkably.

Wall has become an All-Star point guard and a leader. He has improved on previous weaknesses like jump-shooting and defense, and don't take things like that lightly. Sadly, in the world of professional sports, it passes as refreshing to see a top star improve. Wall might be the fastest player baseline to baseline in the league.

Wall may also anchor the best team in the Eastern Conference.

The Wizards are 7-2, just a half-game behind the Toronto Raptors, another team that could fill column space. Wall is once again proving to be at least a second-tier point guard, which isn't shabby considering the residents of the top tier.

However, the lasting effects of the 2011-12 season are still felt, if, for no other reason, than the personnel.

Washington sent Rashard Lewis and his monumentally prohibitive contract to Charlotte for Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza, two more professional, defensive- minded guys you'd like to have date your daughter as well as play on your team.

Neither is with the Wizards now, but their professionalism stuck.

Okafor was shipped to Phoenix for Marcin Gortat. The center is, you guessed it, the consummate professional, willing to bang and score. He once advocated the league allow fighting if you ever thought of questioning his toughness, or sanity.

Ariza helped the Wizards win a round in last season's playoffs. His 3-point shooting and defense helped establish the culture that permeates through the Wizards.

If we constructed our government the way the Wizards built their team, DC would be a different place.

There were other significant moves such as the drafting of Bradley Beal, an All-Star in waiting, and Otto Porter, who was a total non-factor as a rookie, but has become a vital bench guy as a sophomore.

The Wizards brought in Andre Miller, who never ruffled a feather until Brian Shaw came to Denver. Kris Humphries and DeJuan Blair were acquired, then the biggest free-agent signing since Gilbert Arenas came forward in Washington - Paul Pierce.

Washington needed just a little more leadership and someone else to score the ball in the fourth quarter. Ariza took a lucrative free-agent deal with the Houston Rockets, but the Wizards have improved record-wise under Pierce's stewardship.

The roster is loaded and it's fair to pinpoint that philosophical shift 2 1/2 years ago as a major reason why. Some of the principals are gone, but everyone that came through our nation's capital was there because of the correct mindset.

And this season has been a perfect example of what to do after a successful run for a team that everyone knew wasn't quite ready. They added veteran guidance who can help foster a winning mentality, but can still play.

What could potentially be scary is, this Wizards' group has yet to be whole. Beal suffered a broken wrist and hasn't played a nanosecond this season. That will change this week. Beal's return will send Garrett Temple to the bench, where he can play shooting-guard minutes against reserve players.

Martell Webster hasn't played a minute yet after back surgery. That's a huge bench presence yet to be accounted for and when he returns, he'll fill both wing spots.

In their absence, the Wizards have built the second-best record in the East. A careful examination shows it may be a little too early to anoint them the best, however.

Of their nine games, three have come against teams with a winning record and both losses came against winning franchises - the Raptors and Miami Heat. The Wiz did beat the Milwaukee Bucks!

But the Wiz can only beat who is in front of them. They haven't quite demolished the weaker opposition with an average winning margin of 7.2 ppg, but wins all count come spring time.

And the Wizards will be challenged. Their next seven games are against over .500 opponents, starting Wednesday with a home tilt versus the Dallas Mavericks and two matchups with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, the preseason favorites to win the Eastern Conference.

Statistically, the Wizards don't do anything great, either. They are 17th in scoring and ninth in field-goal percentage, tied for ninth in opponents' scoring and 11th in opponents' field-goal percentage.

They are 23rd in shooting the long ball and 23rd in defending it. Washington is 11th in turnovers and 18th in rebounding differential. The Wizards' bench, which was 29th in scoring last season, is up to 13th.

The only thing the stats say Washington does really well is force turnovers. They're third in the league in that category.

The Wizards themselves know this hasn't been the clearest test of their standing.

"We feel good, but at the same time I don't think we're getting super excited because we all know that we didn't win against top, top, top teams," said Gortat.

That will come in the next two weeks. Washington can weather the storm with this roster and should come out with more wins than losses. Beal will be back and the rotation is getting ironed out with Rasual Butler and Kevin Seraphin in and Blair, Drew Gooden and Glen Rice, Jr. out.

The talent and depth is there in Washington. The mindset is perfect and it should be. The Wizards have been perfecting that winning, professional attitude for years now.