WASHINGTON — The expectations have been raised, perhaps higher than they've been in a decade.
The roster has been bolstered, with the additions of aging superstar Paul Pierce and blue-collar power forward DeJuan Blair.
Are the Washington Wizards for real, or was last season just a nasty tease for the team's long-suffering fans?
Even a rash of preseason injuries and the looming opening-night suspension of four players have not dimmed the enthusiasm surrounding the Wizards, who return to their local roots Monday night in a 7 p.m. preseason game against the New Orleans Pelicans at Royal Farms Arena.
If anything, Wizards coach Randy Wittman looks forward to building on last season's turnaround, when his team overcame a 2-7 start to finish 44- 38, make the playoffs for the first time in six years and reach the Eastern Conference semifinals for the first time since 2005.
"You always go into a season with high hopes, no matter what the so-called experts might think heading in," Wittman said after a practice last week at Verizon Center. "You always want to have a belief in yourself as a team and individual, and I want them to believe that."
Said veteran center Marcin Gortat, now in his second year with the Wizards: "It's going to be a huge difference now because people know what we can bring. People know we're a talented team, and we have different expectations this year than we did last year."
With the shifting of power in the Eastern Conference back to the Cleveland Cavaliers with the return of four-time NBA Most Valuable Player LeBron James from the Miami Heat — and perhaps to the Chicago Bulls with former MVP Derrick Rose healthy after missing two years with knee injuries —the Wizards are not quite the favorites.
But after upsetting the Bulls in the first round of last season's playoffs, and Indiana Pacers star Paul George suffering a potentially career-threatening knee injury while playing with the U.S. national team this summer, the Wizards are expected to be a factor in the conference.
"In my opinion, we shouldn't think about making conference finals and stuff like that, we should just focus on making the playoffs and becoming the best team we can be," Gortat said. "When we get to the playoffs, then we can think about each game at a time.
"Right now we're going to be much tough and much better team than we were last year, and people are going to get ready for us. In many games, we're going to be the team that's supposed to win, not the underdogs."
Wittman, whose team's 2013-14 season ended with a six-game defeat to the Pacers in the Eastern Conference semifinals, admits that the preseason injuries — particularly a broken wrist sustained by third-year shooting guard Bradley Beal — are concerning.
Wittman quickly adds: "At some point it happens to everybody, nicks and banged-up things. We can sustain it."
The loss of Beal for the first six to eight weeks of the regular season — as well as swingman Martell Webster, who underwent back surgery in June —will give an opportunity Pierce and second-year forward Otto Porter Jr., who struggled to find the floor as a rookie after being picked third overall out of Georgetown.
"Roles have changed, when guys go down, other guys got to step up," said Porter, who averaged just 2.1 points per game while playing 8.6 minutes behind Webster and Trevor Ariza, who returned to the Houston Rockets as a free agent this summer.
Along with Beal and Webster, the Wizards were banged up during a preseason that saw second-year shooting guard Glen Rice Jr. sprain his ankle in one game last week and Pierce go down briefly in another after bumping knees.
The preseason began with a heated game in Chicago, in which Pierce, the longtime Boston Celtics star who signed as a free agent after spending last season with the Brooklyn Nets, and Bulls center Joakim Noah got into a pushing match that led to the benches clearing.
Four Wizards, including Blair and starting power forward Nene, will sit out the Oct. 29 regular-season opener in Miami as a result.
Asked how important it is for the Wizards to start better than a year ago, Porter said: "It's very important. We have to carry over from last year, and we definitely have to protect home-court advantage. We have to take it very seriously."
To Blair, it feels no different in Washington than it did with the San Antonio Spurs, where he played the first four years of his NBA career before spending last year with the Dallas Mavericks. Brought in to back up the aging and often-injured Nene, Blair could wind up playing a key role with the Wizards.
"Everyone knows what to expect, they've been down for a long time, and they added a couple of pieces to the puzzle for the team to grow and be great," Blair said. "We've got to roll with what we've got until everyone is healthy, and then we'll see how it goes."