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Ball Don’t Lie’s 2013-14 Season Previews: Washington Wizards

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John Wall has quite a bit on his plate this season (Getty Images)

After a long, tortuous summer filled with sunny days and absolutely no NBA news of any importance, the 2013-14 season is set to kick off. This means the leaves will change, the cheeks will redden, and 400-some NBA players will ready those aching knees to play for the right to work all the way to June.

The minds at Ball Don’t Lie – Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine, and Eric Freeman – have your teams covered. All 30 of ‘em, as we countdown to tipoff.

Kelly Dwyer’s Palatable Exercise

This is what happens when you count on perfect health to attempt to achieve a record that will take you to a place in the standings with little room for error. When a significant part goes down with an injury, things go pear-shaped. When you fight and acquire and work and aspire and shoot for 41 wins, in a desperate attempt just to sneak into the playoffs, you leave yourself prone to injuries wiping out your goals. Washington Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld spent quite a bit of money to put together a 41-win team – and let’s be clear, he has put together a .500 team, no small feat – but the Wizards will likely fail to meet that goal this season mainly because of an unfortunate injury.

Emeka Okafor is not in John Wall’s league, because despite Emeka’s significant sway on the defensive end, Wall was playing at an All-Star level for the final third of the 2012-13 season. Like Wall, though, Okafor is out for an indefinite amount of time to start the season with an injury with no clear timetable for recovery, and no obvious break or tear to analyze in the hopes that the Wizards can settle on a return date. Okafor could be back by Thanksgiving after working through his back woes, or he could miss a significant chunk of the 2013-14 season. Like Wall’s somewhat indecipherable left knee issues from last year, we’re banking on his loss (for however long he sits) to be enough to knock Washington out of the playoff bracket.

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Which, sadly, could somehow turn into good news for Washington fans.

It is no fun to call for anyone’s gig, and Ernie Grunfeld certainly has his fans from around the league, but most Wizards fans aren’t exactly enthused about Grunfeld working behind the scenes as Washington hops back into life following this season with its young core and possible financial flexibility with Okafor and Trevor Ariza’s contracts expiring this offseason. Grunfeld has done well with his most obvious draft picks, but he’s punted a few others and either signed (Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison at age 32, Andray Blatche) or traded for (Okafor, Ariza, Rashard Lewis … possibly Nene) some of the worst contracts in the NBA over the last five years.

And at best, with Okafor rolling into shape and John Wall roaring his way to an All-Star year, he’s put together a team that is nearly set to pay the luxury tax (less than a million short, preventing the team from signing a veteran backup center in Okafor’s absence) for around a .500 season.

Again, though, this is a mediocre team at its best; far removed for the futility that we saw to begin last season when the team lost 28 of its first 32 contests. As long as Wall is pushing the ball and finding his teammates, utilizing that ever-improving decision-making process when it comes to his co-workers’ most efficient spots to score, the Wizards will be in games. And in a terribly top-heavy division that will feature twice as many games against Charlotte and Orlando than it will against the defending champion Heat, the wins will be there.

If healthy, Nene can help contribute in Okafor’s absence, Ariza remains a lockdown defender when he’s not roaming, and Wall certainly had his moments on that end last season. And though it’s a long shot, if Al Harrington can return to work as the sort of stretch four that he was during his time with the Denver Nuggets, then the Wizards should be able to circle the wagons. Wall will have to average about 16 rebounds a game in that lineup with Harrington and Nene, but he seems rested.

There’s been a whole lot of rest, a whole lotta space, between playoff visits for the Wizards. The team hasn’t been to the postseason since 2008, and it has made just five playoff appearances in 25 years. There is an outside chance even without Okafor for long stretches that the “Defense + John Wall = Playoffs” strategy could sneak them in, but it’s going to take a remarkable effort from this crew.

They do have a remarkable point guard leading the way, but it probably won’t be enough.

Projected record: 33-49

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Bradley Beal somehow eludes LeBron James (Getty Images)

Tune In, Turn Up with Dan Devine

While only a handful of NBA teams each season harbor serious hope of hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy come late June, all 30 come equipped with at least one reason to keep your television set locked on their games. Dan Devine shares his suggested reasons for the season ahead.

Tune into the Wizards for … Bradley Beal serving notice.

Transitioning to the NBA is hard enough when all you have to deal with is the pressure that comes with being the No. 3 overall pick. Having your shooting stroke compared to arguably the greatest shooter the game’s ever seen before you’ve played a pro second doesn’t help, either. But when the Wizards learned that John Wall would miss two months (it wound up being closer to 4 1/2) at the same time Nene was sidelined by plantar fasciitis, it meant Bradley Beal’s rookie role went from “supporting cast member who benefits from attention drawn by others” to “necessary shot-creator who has to score and distribute right now for us to compete.”

In a related story, the 2012-13 Wizards lost their first 12 games, as Beal missed more than two-thirds of his shots and had nearly as many turnovers (21) as assists (24).

Things got better, though. The Wizards got Lucky No. 13, improved their winning percentage every month from November through March and outscored the opposition by just under 2 1/2 points per 100 possessions in March (an efficiency differential that would’ve been the league’s 10th-best for the full season). They played nearly .500 ball after Wall’s return, prompting Ted Leonsis and company to take a major plunge and giving the District an early start on playoffs-or-bust talk. (Which, naturally, has been short-circuited by a big preseason injury, because these are the Wizards.)

Beal improved, too. He hit his first career game-winner against hometown hero Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder. His shooting percentages rose as the season progressed, the proverbial light seemed to come on around New Year’s Day, and rather than hitting the dreaded rookie wall come midseason, he smashed right through it. The Florida product averaged 16.5 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists in 31.9 minutes per game after the All-Star break, shooting 47.1 percent from the floor and a scorching 45.5 percent from 3-point land before going down for the season with a “stress injury” in his right leg.

It wasn’t the ending he’d had hoped for, but before Beal exited the lineup, he showed he pairs well with Wall and Nene. Washington went 15-7 with all three active, and in the 265 minutes they shared the floor, the Wiz scored at a rate higher than the Nets' No. 8-ranked offense while allowing fewer points per possession than the Pacers’ league-best D. The Wall-Beal backcourt also proved simpatico with re-signed swingman Martell Webster, scoring (110.6 points per 100 possessions) and defending (91.9-per-100) at rates that would've topped the NBA in 303 minutes shared by that trio. (So naturally, Randy Wittman plans to break that group up by starting Trevor Ariza and sliding Webster to the bench.)

The common thread, of course, was Wall. Beal shot 39.1 percent from the field and 34.1 percent from deep when Wall was off the court; those numbers jumped by 8 percent and nearly 16 percent, respectively, with Wall running the show, according to NBAwowy.com. A much higher share of the rookie’s triple tries came from the short corners with Wall there to probe, penetrate and kick, and Beal buried them at a 62.1 percent clip. There’s a connection there, a convergence of skill sets and results harmonic enough to make you think Washington’s got a real shot at an All-Star backcourt of the future.

In the present, though, Beal’s got work to do. While he gained experience in serving as a facilitator with Wall out, he must get more comfortable reading, creating and shooting out of the pick-and-roll to give Washington’s offense a secondary playmaking boost. He’s already a solid rebounder in the backcourt, and he’s big and quick to improve defensively; he’ll need to help out on both counts with leading rebounder and back-line focal point Emeka Okafor out indefinitely. He must add strength, just like virtually every player moving from Year 1 to Year 2, and he needs to stay on the court for a Wizards team that will need to score at a significantly better clip to make up for the likely sans-Okafor defensive drop-off.

Given his rookie growth, though, there’s reason to believe that work and those advancements will come. When you add that to a base that turned a very difficult introduction to the NBA into a campaign that put him in the company of LeBron, Kobe, ‘Melo, Durant, Kyrie and Stephon Marbury, you’ve got something worth watching.

Honorable mentions: Whether 2013 No. 3 pick Otto Porter (once he gets healthy) can carve out a niche for himself in a crowded wing rotation; Jan Vesely, for better and worse; how Kevin Seraphin responds to the opportunity to start in Okafor’s place, and whether that influences the Wizards look to make a move;.

Eric Freeman’s Land of Confusion

NBA analysis typically thrives on certainty, a sense that a trained expert sees the truth and points fans towards the key issues and most likely outcomes. Yet, as any seasoned observer of the league knows, events often unfold in unforeseen ways, with players performing against predictions or outside of the realm of presumed possibility altogether. In fact, it may sometimes make sense to dispense with the pretense of predictive genius and instead point towards those issues that as yet provide no simple answer. In Eric Freeman’s Land of Confusion, we investigate one player per team whose future remains vague.

When the Wizards drafted John Wall with the first pick in 2010, many (including this commentator) held the opinion that he would be an instant NBA star, potentially leading the league in steals as a rookie and serving as the leading light in this generation of excellent young point guards. That has not come to pass, obviously, with Wall showing periods of greatness along with extended spells of disappointment. There are many reasons for his struggles: injury, the 2011 lockout, the general disarray of the Wizards, etc. At a basic level, though, Wall has to take a great deal of the blame. He hasn’t been the player we wanted him to be.

But he’s also pretty darn good, enough so to sign a max-level contract this summer. That deal was mostly about Wall’s still-considerable potential and the Wizards’ lack of superior options, but it would never have been a possibility if not for the fact that Wall, along with second-year guard Bradley Beal, could one day be part of the NBA’s best backcourt. He’s still figuring out how he’ll score at this level, but Wall is one of the league’s greatest open-court talents, blessed with excellent vision and an ability to make intricate dribbling moves at top speed. He may not be a star just yet, but it’s possible to watch him play a full game and envision what he’d look like if he ever becomes a perennial All-Star. The raw material is there.

It’s still a little unclear how long we can wait for Wall to become that player. In theory, the Wizards will take five years to decide, but a few more seasons of strong but not stellar play would likely convince the fan base that the team required yet another rebuilding process. Hopefully no one will have to entertain that possibility for quite some time.

Read all of Ball Don't Lie's 2013-14 NBA Season Previews:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Atlanta HawksBoston CelticsBrooklyn NetsCharlotte BobcatsChicago BullsCleveland CavaliersDetroit PistonsIndiana PacersMiami HeatMilwaukee BucksNew York KnicksOrlando MagicPhiladelphia 76ersToronto RaptorsWashington Wizards

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Dallas MavericksDenver NuggetsGolden State WarriorsHouston RocketsLos Angeles ClippersLos Angeles LakersMemphis GrizzliesMinnesota TimberwolvesNew Orleans PelicansOklahoma City ThunderPhoenix SunsPortland Trail BlazersSacramento KingsSan Antonio SpursUtah Jazz

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