Fauber: Wizards need to build on success

I was on my way to a high school football game at Madison County on Nov. 1 of this past fall and, while sifting through the radio stations in my car during the long trek, I came across a pregame talk show prior to a Washington Wizards game.

It was typical sports talk stuff that you’d expect early in the season — the broadcasters were breaking down the Wizards’ season-opening loss to Detroit just two days before, while also discussing team strengths and weaknesses, the progression of young guys like John Wall and Bradley Beal, and just how much production to expect from guys like veteran forward Nene and rookie forward Otto Porter. Then the commentators started discussing the Wizards’ playoff chances this season, and my reaction was something similar to Jim Mora’s now infamous rant.

I’m not going to pretend to be a big NBA fan, but I follow the sport occasionally — mostly during the playoffs — and pay attention enough to know that the words “Washington” and “playoffs” haven’t appeared in the same sentence too often over the last quarter of a century. Prior to this year, D.C.’s NBA franchise had made the playoffs just five times since the 1988-89 season.

But now here we are in the middle of May and the Wizards have only just recently seen their 2013-14 season come to a close in the Eastern Conference semis. Who would’ve predicted that? Well, not me obviously — especially not after the Wizards’ 2-7 start to the season. But how much do I know, really?

Everything just fell into place for the Wizards this year, and they went above and beyond what most people — diehard Washington fans included — probably expected to from this young, up-and-coming team.

That surprising run came to a disappointing end on Thursday night against the top-seeded Pacers, as Indiana thwarted a late comeback bid from Washington in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals to win the series 4-2. But the Wizards nearly had one more magical run left in them.

Down by as much as 16 points in the second half, Washington stormed back in the fourth quarter and appeared to completely flip the game’s momentum when Beal ripped a rebound away from Pacers center Roy Hibbert, pushed the ball up the court and nailed a 3-pointer from the top of the arc to give the Wizards a 74-73 lead with 8:30 to play.

Unfortunately for the Wizards, the comeback appeared to sap their energy. Washington had too many defensive breakdowns over the final half of the fourth quarter and settled too soon for desperation 3-point attempts that were repeatedly off the mark.

The 93-80 loss was a sour end to the season for both Wall and Beal, who combined for just 28 points on Thursday, but the foundation has just been planted in Washington.

The core of Washington’s franchise is set in the young backcourt combo of Wall and Beal, who will return next season as the Wizards (44-38) look to build on this year’s playoff run. That’s good news for Wizards fans, but there will be some uncertainty in Washington during the offseason.

The Wizards could potentially have nine free agents hit the open market this summer, including starting forwards Marcin Gortat and Trevor Ariza.

Gortat — who averaged 13.2 points and 9.5 rebounds per game this season — proved to be a surprisingly good pickup in a trade with Phoenix just before the start of the season, and Ariza (14.4 points, 6.2 rebounds per game) emerged as a solid long-range shooter and a lockdown defender. Both were invaluable to the Wizards during the playoffs, both for their statistical contributions and their leadership on the court.

It will be difficult — but not impossible — for Washington to keep both Gortat and Ariza on board for the future, which is a reason for concern amongst Wizards fans. The good news is that the departure of either would likely free up playing time for Porter, who was the third overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft. The downside is that it’s unclear how good Porter actually is (he averaged just 8.6 minutes per game this season).

The Wizards and head coach Randy Wittman did what they were supposed to do — and then some — this season. It’s now up to Washington’s front office to build on what has now been established.

I have a sense that something special is growing in D.C. The fans — who were chanting, “Let’s go, Wizards” when their team was down 14 points with a minute left — certainly feel it, too.

Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or bfauber@nvdaily.com. Follow on Twitter @BradFauberNVD