After all the smiles have faded and congratulatory hugs have been exchanged, after all the champagne has been popped and the sighs of relief dispersed, the Washington Wizards will look to this season as nothing more than a stepping stone to something greater.
The sight was surreal. John Wall was beaming as the final seconds ticked off the clock. The crowd was ecstatic, the bench appeared relaxed and head coach Randy Wittman looked relieved.
It was finally over.
Even for newcomers, the stench of lottery finishes loomed large. The players understood what this season was supposed to mean. The Wizards had spent the necessary money and assets on assembling a playoff team. From day one, clinching this postseason berth was the goal, the expectation.
But there's little time to bask in its glory, and not just because the playoffs are nearing.
Celebrations cannot end with this postseason appearance. The Wizards and their fans can and should enjoy it, appreciate it. Not even a first- or second-round exodus should be met with fierce disappointment. Again, for the franchise and its fanbase, this is big.
It just needs to get bigger.
"We're still learning the process of what it takes to be a really good team," said Wittman, per the Associated Press (via Fox News).
Wall wasn't handed a max extension for one playoff berth. He was paid because the Wizards believed he was a superstar—he is—who could not only distance the organization from the days of Gilbert Arenas and immense failure, but lead them to title contention.
Part of that path included a playoff berth, this playoff berth. Whatever happens, no one can take this away from the Wizards. But there is still work to be done, expectations to be met.
Currently constructed, the Wizards aren't going to legitimately contend for a championship. Maybe they squeak past the Toronto Raptors or Chicago Bulls, or whomever they will meet in the first round. Maybe they even make it a series against their second-round opponent. Their ceiling, though, stops there.
This Wizards team won't be making a surprise run to the Eastern Conference Finals, overthrowing the Miami Heat or Indiana Pacers en route to the NBA Finals. That's the ultimate goal. It's not yet reality.
For as good as the Wizards have been—and at times, their defense has been phenomenal—they're only three games over .500 in a conference that bends to genuine contenders. There's nothing wrong with that, since, by and large, this is who the Wizards are supposed to be...for now.
No one is asking nor demanding they move forward immediately, but ultimately, they have to move forward. Playoff appearances and early postseason exits won't be the standard forever. By rising to this occasion, the Wizards have indefinitely raised their own bar in addition to erasing history.
With a talented core in tow—Wall, Bradley Beal and even (gasp) Martell Webster—they will be tasked with doing what they haven't done since the late 1970s, when they last won (1978) and contended for a title as the Bullets: Taking the next step.
Actually taking it is going to be difficult. As The Washington Post's Jason Reid writes, there are imminent obstacles standing between the Wizards and the next level:
The Wizards deserve the success they’ve earned. You just wonder how long it will last.
Of the 15 players on the Wizards’ roster, only Wall, Bradley Beal, Nene, Andre Miller, Otto Porter Jr. and Martell Webster are currently under contract for the 2014-15 season. The Wizards potentially could have nine free agents, including starters Gortat and Trevor Ariza— pillars of their resurgence—and valuable reserve Drew Gooden. That’s not an ideal situation.
That's not ideal, indeed.
Never mind losing starters such as Marcin Gortat or Trevor Ariza to teams offering more money. How much should the Wizards invest in them? Should they even invest in them?
Renouncing the rights to all their free agents—including the qualifying offers owed to Kevin Seraphin and Trevor Booker—gives them some serious cap space to work with. From there, they can try to land a prominent free agent to pair with Wall and Beal, injecting additional name recognition into their dynamic.
But that's all assuming said free agent is out there and willing to join the Wizards. Severing ties with key cogs like Gortat and Ariza, and even Drew Gooden, cannot be done in vain.
Equally important, their returns cannot be orchestrated foolishly.
Ariza will be 29 in June and Gortat is already on the wrong side of 30. This will likely be the last opportunity either player has to cash in with a long-term contract. Do the Wizards generously pay each of them for the next three to five years? With Nene and Wall both earning at least $13 million next season?
Nene himself is a question mark. He's missed at least 20 games in each of the last three seasons, yet he's under contract through 2015-16 for $13 million per year. The Wizards have to take that into consideration.
While effective when he plays—especially on the offensive end—Nene's deal is likely immovable through at least next season. If the Wizards retain Gortat and Ariza (and maybe Gooden), they're left to fill out their roster with incumbent free agents—Chris Singleton, Al Harrington, Seraphin, Booker, etc.—or outside players on the cheap.
That's not good enough.
Not for these newly playoff-bound, progressively ambitious Wizards.
Standing relatively pat won't get this team where they need to go. Moving on with this entire core pigeonholes the Wizards. It leaves them relying on the developments of Wall, Bradley Beal and injury-prone Otto Porter, and the sustained production and availability of Gortat, Nene, Webster, et al.
Issue wouldn't be taken with that blueprint if the Wizards were already a contender, which they're not. Both their offense and defense are generally mediocre; they rank 18th and 10th in offensive and defensive efficiency, respectively. They also rank in the bottom half of rebounds grabbed per game.
Once more, there's work to be done.
General manager Ernie Grunfeld must find a way to improve this roster without compromising the Wizards' financial flexibility for marginal talent that won't elevate the team's ceiling. That's going to be a challenge. The future is going to be a challenge.
One playoff berth is not enough to inspire absolute confidence. Despite all the Wizards have done, it's nigh impossible to provide projections for them beyond this season. You want to believe they're headed in the right direction when really, it's this offseason that will define what path they traverse.
For now, though, the Wizards can enjoy this. Embrace this. It's a modest accomplishment, but it's one that was a long time coming and after their efforts this season, is well deserved.
"It's everything I've been waiting for," Wall said of making the playoffs, per the AP.
Hopefully it's also something the Wizards can build upon, the first of many postseason dances, a necessary detour on their way to something bigger, something more prestigious.
Something worth waiting for.