Nations: Wizards ready for next step

The Washington Wizards took a huge step this past week by locking up the franchise’s first NBA playoff appearance since 2008.

The Wizards could end up as the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, or maybe the No. 7 depending on how they finish out the remaining five games in the regular season. Tonight’s home matchup against the surging Charlotte Bobcats is huge for seeding purposes; the Bobcats are just a game behind Washington for that No. 6 seed, and own a 2-1 advantage in the season series.

Worst case, the Wizards fall to the No. 7 seed. And perhaps that’s not so bad, after all. Washington would face the Indiana Pacers in that event, a team that has stumbled badly in recent weeks after looking for most of the season like a squad that could contend for the Eastern Conference championship.

Then again, the Wizards haven’t been setting the world afire despite clinching that long-awaited playoff berth with last week’s win against the Boston Celtics. Washington is just 5-5 in its last 10 games, with tough matchups against the Bobcats tonight and a home game with the league-leading Miami Heat on April 14 left on the slate.

If they do hold onto the No. 6 seed, the Wizards would face either the Toronto Raptors (currently the No. 3 seed) or the Chicago Bulls (No. 4, but right there with the Raptors).

Really, though, does it matter who Washington draws in the first round? Raptors, Bulls, Pacers — Washington will be the underdog no matter who it ends up with to start the postseason.

Chances are, the Wizards don’t make it out of that opening round. But with a rising star backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal, both likely with their best years still ahead of them, the future is oh-so-bright for the Wizards. Short of a four-game sweep, this season is already a success for Washington just by reaching the postseason. String a couple wins together and perhaps win a first-round playoff matchup — why not? — and this team could be on the fast track to real contender status as soon as next season.

There’s a qualifier, of course — as exciting as that Wizards backcourt is, the franchise is still at least one impact player from tangling with the big dogs in the East. Washington has gotten great contributions from blue-collar types like forward Trevor Ariza and center Marcin Gortat, among others, but for the most part the roster is fairly interchangeable with most other NBA teams at this point outside of Wall and Beal.

Washington will get some kind of boost by the return of injured post player Nene, whose absence these past six weeks with a sprained knee seemed to put the team’s playoff hopes in real peril. Others filled the void, unlikely heroes like Drew Gooden and Al Harrington. That illustrates the point, though — Nene isn’t so good that he can’t be replaced, and his replacements weren’t all that difficult to find. He’ll be severely limited, at any rate, due to that long layoff.

The real hope for Wizards fans may well rest in the free-agent market, where by now potential future targets have taken note of just how talented this backcourt has become. Is there a third running mate out there, willing to sign where previously so few top-flight free agents have bothered to come? A solid playoff showing, even if it is brief but better if it isn’t, could go a long way toward luring another star to the Beltway.

The season is a success, and the more noise the Wizards can make in the next few weeks could go a long way toward determining the team’s status as a potential destination for real impact help. Miami Heat forward Chris Bosh could be that guy, or maybe the Detroit Pistons’ Greg Monroe.

It’s a nice thought, dreaming of that one piece which could put the Wizards over the top after so many years of sifting through potential building blocks to lay the foundation. Much of that work is done, but at least a decent showing in the playoffs might be just the cement necessary to prove this franchise is once more solid and stable.

Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or jnations@nvdaily.com>