LAS VEGAS — The Washington Wizards' season ended with a disappointing loss to the Indiana Pacers in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, but to John Wall, the team has been winning ever since.
Wall, who has been a part of the franchise's painful rise from laughingstock to respectability, believes the heightened expectations for next season are warranted and should be embraced. And after earning his first career all-star appearance and playoff berth last season, the former University of Kentucky star aspires for much more as an encore.
"The Finals. All you can ask for now is the Finals," Wall said from Team USA training camp in Las Vegas when asked for his goals for the upcoming season. "We've been to the second round. We know what it takes to win. We know what we need to do. We know everybody needs to get better individually, and I think (the front office) just did a great job of adding pieces, great veteran guys that know what it takes to win."
This offseason, the Wizards brought back Coach Randy Wittman and center Marcin Gortat, lured free agent future Hall of Famer Paul Pierce, bolstered the front line with the additions of Kris Humphries and DeJuan Blair and watched Glen Rice Jr. and Otto Porter Jr. emerge as two of the standouts at NBA summer league. And this week, Wall and Bradley Beal are one of just two sets of teammates in the 20-man talent pool in Las Vegas vying for 12 roster spots on the FIBA World Cup.
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"It's a great sign for our team, for us continuing to grow and it's just showing that we're constantly getting better," Beal said. " We're definitely going to be more than ready going into the season, and we're definitely going to show up. Last year, we got a great taste of the playoffs, made it to the second round. We were this close from the Eastern Conference finals, so hopefully, that'll be our goal this year is to get there and then we'll see where it goes. We definitely want to get back to that second round, but we definitely want to take it one step at a time."
The Wizards haven't been to the Finals since 1979, before every player on the roster except Pierce and Andre Miller were born. But LeBron James' decision to leave Miami for Cleveland after winning two NBA championships and making four consecutive trips to the NBA Finals helped created the most wide-open Eastern Conference in several years. It also created a possible opening in the Southeast Division, which has been claimed only by teams from Florida since it was created in 2004-05.
"It helps us in our division, so we can get a top-three seed and homecourt advantage," Wall said of James' move to the Central Division. "We still got to battle it out with Charlotte, but we knew it was always going to be tough getting No. 1 in our division with Miami being at the top the whole time. We know they're not the same team, but they're still talented. We got great veteran guys that's going to come in and push all of us."
The Wizards won 44 games and advanced to the postseason for the first time since 2008, but Wall believes that Pierce's decision to come to Washington on a two-year deal was the clearest indication of how much the team has grown from when he arrived as the No. 1 overall pick in 2010. Wall admitted he was surprised when the 10-time all-star chose to continue his career with the Wizards.
"Yeah. I knew he was thinking about going to the Clippers and things like that, to be with Doc" Rivers, Wall said of Pierce. "He's coming to us to see how the organization has changed, saying he wants to play with me and Brad. We feel like we're a young team that's developing and people are taking us more serious than the Wizards in the past. It's a big honor to me.
"It's tough to see both of the Trevors (Ariza and Booker) leave," he continued, "but I think they did a great job of adding Paul Pierce and Kris Humphries, DeJaun Blair, signing Kev (Seraphin) back and seeing Otto and Glen at the summer league. That was pretty big."
Wall lobbied hard for the Wizards to bring back Ariza, who left to sign a four-year, $32 million deal with the Houston Rockets. But he also understands that getting Pierce on a shorter deal will allow the Wizards to have more flexibility to pursue Kevin Durant when he becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2016.
Durant didn't shut down the notion of possibly returning to play for his hometown team, and Wall views the next two seasons as the Wizards' audition as a destination for talented players across the league that are interested in winning.
"I think, just anybody, they understand where we're going," Wall said. "Some people might call it a fluke year (last season) because everybody said the Eastern Conference wasn't strong. I don't think it's a fluke when you take a team that's been to the Eastern Conference finals two times in a row to Game 6 and you really think you could've beat them in that series but they had more experience. We just got to prove ourselves the next two years."