(SportsNetwork.com) - There's plenty of room on the Washington Wizards' bandwagon, but it will get crowded come October.
The Wizards are making a transformation Robert Downey, Jr. would be envious of with a talent-laden roster and high hopes for a successful 2014-15 campaign. They took advantage of an anemic Eastern Conference to make the playoffs this past season and are looking to keep the buzz going heading into the fall.
Washington juggled its roster somewhat with intentions of making a splash in the Southeast Division now that LeBron James took his talents from Miami back to Cleveland. The four-time defending Southeast champion Heat, though, still have an aging Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and tried to soften the blow of losing King James by bringing in Luol Deng. Good luck with that, Miami.
The Wizards are minus Trevor Ariza after he was dealt to the Houston Rockets in a three-team trade. Ariza was third on the Wizards last season with 14.4 points and second with 6.2 rebounds, and averaged 15.6 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game in a first-round playoff victory over Chicago (5 games). His 3-point shooting will be missed, as he set career-highs in 3- pointers made (180) and 3-point field goal percentage (.407).
Ariza averaged 12.0 points and 9.2 rebounds in the second round against Indiana (6 games).
While Ariza will be missed and not be a part of this new Wizards' resurgence, the team took care of its own and added some pieces to the mosaic. The head of the snake, coach Randy Wittman, was rewarded with a contract extension in early June just after the Pacers eliminated his team from the playoffs and guided the Wizards to their first postseason appearance since 2007-08.
Wittman is 91-122 in two-plus seasons with the Wizards and the odds of that number improving are in his favor.
"We are pleased with the progress the team has made on the court and with the culture we have been able to build with Randy as our head coach," Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld said. "We will look to continue that momentum with him deservedly leading this group of dedicated and hard-working players."
Wittman's team featured a well-balanced scoring attack in which five players averaged more than 13.0 ppg. Center Marcin Gortat was one of them and posted 13.2 ppg and a team-best 9.5 rebounds. Gortat's toughness inside and fearless play will reportedly earn him $60 million over five years. The Wizards were wise to acquire Gortat from Phoenix in exchange for washed-up Emeka Okafor.
"Re-signing Marcin was a top priority for us this summer so that we could maintain continuity and improve on what we accomplished last season," Grunfeld said. "His scoring ability, rebounding and defensive presence are matched only by his work ethic, leadership and personality, which all combine to make him an excellent fit in what we are trying to build moving forward."
Gortat's shoulders are broad enough to build around, so the Wizards kept piecing the puzzle. Big man DeJuan Blair headed to the nation's capital after a deal with Dallas, and although he might not have the type of flare and skillset to bring in large crowds, the former Pitt Panther serves as healthy legs and a veteran presence off the bench.
Kris Humphries is reportedly on his way to the Wizards and that's yet another capable big man to add to the rotation.
Good move by the Wizards to land Blair and Humphries, especially with forward Martell Webster laid up for some time after undergoing microdisectomy surgery to repair a herniated disc in his lower back. Webster will likely miss the first month of the season and averaged 9.7 points and 2.8 rebounds last year.
The Wizards still have great expectations on young small forward Otto Porter, Jr., who appeared in just 37 games in 2013-14 and will sharpen his skills this summer. Porter dealt with a hip issue and will be watched closely this summer, as the team is counting on him to one day crack the starting lineup.
"I mean, hey, the door opens up. Guys are now moving out and stuff. Now it's time for people to step up and fill those shoes," Porter told the Washington Post. "I was kind of hoping (Ariza) would (stay). But at the same time, hey, this is a business."
Grunfeld may one day also talk about Porter and a new contract for the Georgetown product, who has an opportunity to snag more minutes this season and give the Wizards another weapon to use alongside talented guards John Wall and Bradley Beal. Porter said the game is starting to slow down for him and has absorbed every piece of advice and direction since last year.
Porter will have veteran and 10-time All-Star Paul Pierce to sponge information from after the former NBA Finals MVP inked a deal in DC. Pierce spent last season with the Brooklyn Nets and helped them to the playoffs. The Wizards are counting on the aging Pierce to once again discover the fountain of youth and make another postseason run.
"We are very happy to welcome Paul to our organization and add his championship experience and history of clutch play to our team," Grunfeld said. "He will be a good fit alongside our young, dynamic backcourt while his presence and leadership will make a difference for us both on and off the court."
Pierce averaged 13.5 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.4 assists, while shooting .451 from the floor and .373 from 3-point range in 75 games for the Nets last season. Pierce's former Brooklyn coach and current Milwaukee bench boss Jason Kidd told reporters in Las Vegas that "Washington got better" with the signing of the slick-shooting Pierce.
"You've got a veteran guy who understands what it means to be a professional, comes to work every day and understands what it takes to win a championship," Kidd said at the NBA Summer League. "He won't have any problems (fitting with the Wizards). He'll be fine."
Pierce will probably be penciled in as the starter at small forward or he could play behind Nene. Nene posted an average of 14.2 points and 5.5 rebounds last season for the Wizards, who went 14-15 without him.
The Wizards are showing that they're not afraid to take chances on signing players to help bolster an already talented roster. Will it be enough to dethrone the Heat in the Southeast? Maybe with LeBron gone, but Washington still has to fend off Charlotte and Atlanta for that distinction. Nobody is putting their cards down on Orlando.
As of right now the Wizards have the potential to be one of top five teams in the Eastern Conference. When was the last time the Wizards were deemed a perennial contender? Probably not since the days of Gilbert Arenas.
Now it's just a matter of time to see if the Wizards can prove they belong in the upper tier of the Eastern Conference. They were one of the best teams in the NBA after the All-Star break, going 19-11 and averaging 103.0 ppg, and hope the second half momentum and playoff experience carries over.
"It's just a matter of the process of getting better," Kidd said of the Wizards' pursuit of greatness. "You see that with Gortat coming back. The backcourt is very talented. So they lose a player, a piece, but they're not afraid to go out and get a player that can help them. They're going to be one of the top teams in the East."
From your lips to God's ears, Jason.