Losing Wizards see hope in Nene-Wall combo
By JOSEPH WHITE
WASHINGTON (AP) Nene for President!
Or at least MVP.
To hear the Washington Wizards talk, no title would be too lofty, no praise too great for the Brazilian center who played all of 11 games with the team this season.
When the final record is 20-46 - more than 25 games below .500 for the fourth straight season - the search for silver linings has to begin somewhere. On Friday, as the players cleared their lockers the day after the regular season finale against the Miami Heat, the positive thoughts started and finished with the mention of the 29-year-center acquired at the trade deadline.
Trevor Booker: "Everybody knew they could trust Nene."
Jordan Crawford: "Nene made it a lot easier on a lot of guys. He was a big part of it."
John Wall: "He can do everything. ... He's a great professional. He wants to win and that's what you need on this team."
Coach Randy Wittman, who might have Nene to thank for saving his job, cited the won-loss record when Nene was in the game: 7-4, including five of the six straight victories that capped the lockout-truncated season and made everyone feel not quite so embarrassed.
The Wizards have been through this sort of thing before - a promising finish during the season's garbage time after the playoff chances had long ago evaporated. They're always hoping for a carry-over into the next season. Usually, they don't get it.
Maybe this time will be different. If so, Nene will have much to do with it. And so, of course, will Wall.
Wall will be entering his third season in 2012-13, and the former No. 1 overall draft pick is growing both as a leader and as a point guard. He averaged 16.3 points, 8.0 assists and 3.9 turnovers this season. Not bad, considering the coach was fired early on. And considering that his teammates included Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee and Nick Young - three players whose games never grew up. All three were jettisoned in one form or other at about the time Nene came along.
"At times it was tough because you had guys like Nick and JaVale; they wanted the ball a lot and took a lot of shots. It's kind of tough to find what kind of team it was with them," Wall said. "I think it was the right decision. We had a lot of jokes and stuff going around the locker room, but (now) the energy is more serious, everybody is being on time, taking things more serious, being professional about everything. We're just interacting more as a team."
McGee and Young were traded. Blatche was told to stay home and work on his conditioning and is a candidate to be cut using the NBA's amnesty rule this summer. All three are part of the very mixed legacy of team president Ernie Grunfeld, who nevertheless received a contract extension from owner Ted Leonsis in the waning days of the season.
Nene averaged 14.5 points and 7.5 rebounds in a Washington uniform, but more importantly he provided a much-needed helping of maturity and leadership. The Wizards will have a high draft pick and should have money to spend in free agency, enough to add more pieces to the Wall-Nene dynamic.
"We were bad - by plan - and now we plan to be GOOD," Leonsis wrote in his blog.
Grunfeld called this was "Year 2 of a three-year rebuild," inherently putting the pressure on himself to mold a much better roster for next season. First, he must decide the fate of Wittman, who took over when Flip Saunders was fired in January.
But whatever he does, he had better not get rid of Nene.
"It felt like we had two seasons," Wall said. "How we started, and how we made the trades and got everybody into it and finished the season without the same guys we started - and on a better note."
AP freelance writer Ben Standig contributed to this report.
Joseph White can be reached at http://twitter.com/JGWhiteAP
Updated April 27, 2012