There’s real reason for optimism in Washington, D.C., for the first time since the late 1970s, and that’s not an endorsement of the Jimmy Carter administration. The Wizards have NBA Finals aspirations.
A five-game dismantling of the Derrick Rose-less Chicago Bulls may not have provided the battle testing necessary for playoff newcomers John Wall and Bradley Beal to lead a leap large enough to unseat the murderer’s row out West, but the addition of Paul Pierce brings championship pedigree to the nation’s capital. And it’s not like the Eastern Conference’s other contenders are known commodities, either.
As Boston Celtics president Danny Ainge conceded when asked to forecast a conference his team once commanded with Pierce, “Washington is really becoming good right before our eyes. They improved a lot last year, and I think they’re going to be a team that’s going to be very good in the East. I think Chicago is terrific, and of course Cleveland — I think those are probably the top three teams in the East.”
Top-tier teams on their side of the league are merely a midseason addition or injury elsewhere away from an NBA Finals appearance, so why not the Wizards? Marcin Gortat and Nene Hilario may not live up to the standards set by Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld, but they anchor a seasoned frontcourt behind an explosive young guard tandem capable of running (Wall) and gunning (Beal) with the best of them.
Washington’s backcourt may not actually be the NBA’s best, as Beal declared (I see you, splash bros), but they’re probably the East’s top tandem (sorry, Dion), and they’ve both got chips on their shoulders as two-thirds of Team USA’s first round of cuts over the summer. The Wizards will need another step forward from both, since they did little else to improve upon last season’s middling offense.
After failed tours of duty in Cleveland and Minnesota, coach Randy Wittman’s first playoff appearance in eight seasons improved his career winning percentage to all of .367 — still the worst of any coach ever to man an NBA bench for more than 300 games. Perhaps he deserves more credit for winning 44 games and a playoff series sitting beside one of the league’s worst benches in 2013-14 — a group that should be bolstered by the summer signings of Kris Humphries and DeJuan Blair— but legitimate questions remain about whether he’s game for the task ahead, a concept not lost on Washington, D.C.
2013-14 season in 140 characters or less:
Nene: “Tchau, Emeka; Oi! Marcin.”
A John WAll-Star season.
Hey, the Wizards are a real live basketball team again.
How u, Chicago?
Did the summer help at all?
The Wizards replaced Trevor Ariza’s contract year with a 37-year-old Pierce, exchanged 235 pounds worth of Trevor Booker for the same bruising weight worth of Humphries and swapped Al Harrington’s knees for Blair’s, so … we shall see? Depending on health, all three could rate anywhere from upgrade to lateral move to fell-off-a-cliff, and any projection otherwise is an exercise in futility.
Go-to offseason acquisition:
Pierce has plodded his way through NBA lanes since 1998, so the old man game is nothing new to the future Hall of Famer. In his first experiment outside Boston, a 36-year-old version of the former NBA Finals MVP averaged fewer points than any other season in his 16-year career. Although, some of that might be attributed to what old friend Kevin Garnett described as erstwhile coach Jason Kidd’s inability to define roles for veterans whose NBA identities were evolving.
Unrivaled footwork and that self-described “natural-born scoring” ability don’t fade so fast with age, and Pierce plodded his way to another remarkably efficient offensive season, submitting a true shooting percentage (59.5) in line with his 2008 title campaign. And vintage Truth returned for the playoffs, delivering the dagger in Game 1 of Brooklyn’s first-round series against the Raptors and extending the Nets season with a buzzer-beating block in Game 7.
Still, Ariza proved equally efficient, shooting 40.7 percent on 442 3-point attempts in 2013-14, and Pierce didn’t receive a pair of First Team All-Defensive votes, as the 29-year-old he’s replacing did while guarding the NBA’s wealth of exceptional wings. Pierce’s savvy makes up for some of Ariza’s freelance work on that end, but the former’s overall production may not be a marked improvement. Still, Pierce’s locker room presence as captain of a Celtics team that reached three Eastern Conference finals in five seasons is worth a large portion of that two years and $10 million he chased to stave off the ghosts.
Ariza’s departure may prevent the Wizards from cracking the league’s top-10 defenses again, but they should still be serviceable on that end, so Washington’s weakness remains the same as it ever was.
The depth behind the stellar starting lineup of Wall, Beal, Pierce, Nene and Gortat is a hodgepodge of the NBA’s tired, poor and huddled masses. Their best bench performer, Martell Webster, returns after a third back surgery in four years — a chronic problem that has the 27-year-old already contemplating retirement. Andre Miller is 38. Blair has been on borrowed time since his NBA arrival. And Otto Porter just … well, we’ll leave that one alone for now. For better or worse, their Sixth Man could be Humphries, whose 18.2 PER led the Celtics last winter. Hump was a good solider during a trying season in Boston, and a playoff-caliber roster has him eager to perform, but he too is on his sixth team in 11 seasons.
Contributor with something to prove:
Marcin Gortat certainly falls under this category after signing a five-year, $60 million extension at age 30, as do Nene and Humphries, who might as well change their names to “contributor with something to prove” at this point in their careers. But Wall basically volunteered for this label in 2014-15.
Upon being the first point guard cut from Team USA, Wall declared, “I guess I’m overlooked again. I guess I have to prove myself one more time.” He goes so far as to log any perceived criticism in his phone for future motivation, telling The Washington Post, “I don’t get why I’m overlooked. I’m still trying to figure it out.” So, despite an All-Star campaign that vaulted him into any sane conversation about the game’s best point guards, he’ll always have something to prove, even if only to himself.
Potential breakout stud:
Describing Beal as Washington’s potential breakout stud is a little like watching “Silver Linings Playbook” and thinking, “Hey, that Jennifer Lawrence might do all right for herself one day.” Beal is already a breakout stud, and yet he’s only scratched the surface of the potential that so many compared to Ray Allen before he ever wore a Wizards uniform. He shot 40.2 percent from distance as an NBA sophomore, still could stand to improve from the corners and has a whole lot of room to grow inside the arc if he wants to be cast as the next Jesus Shuttlesworth. His 50.7 true shooting percentage didn’t reflect his sweet stroke, and there’s a 20-25-point scorer somewhere in that 6-foot-5, 207-pound frame.
The Wizards took an extra step further last season than most anticipated, and this always seemed their more likely season to reach the Eastern Conference semifinals. That’s the most realistic end to their road again in 2014-15, but they have the assets (future picks, $8.5 million in expiring contracts and $5.6 million in trade exceptions) to add reinforcements. The Cavaliers and Bulls present problems, and it’s too much to ask the Wizards to get through both, but a conference finals run isn’t out of the question.
If everything falls apart:
Injury risks litter the roster, but as long as Wall and Beal remain relatively healthy and the frontcourt isn’t completely decimated, the Wizards feel like a lock as a playoff team in the East. Still, failing to build on considerable momentum, losing in a landslide to the opposition elite and realizing they peaked in their previous campaign isn’t just a worst-case scenario, it’s entirely possible. Just ask Jimmy Carter.
Kelly Dwyer’s Best Guess at a Record:
Washington will finish 48-34, fourth in the Eastern Conference.
Read all of Ball Don't Lie's 2014-15 NBA Season Previews:
Atlanta Hawks • Boston Celtics • Brooklyn Nets • Charlotte Hornets • Chicago Bulls • Cleveland Cavaliers • Detroit Pistons • Indiana Pacers • Miami Heat • Milwaukee Bucks • New York Knicks • Orlando Magic • Philadelphia 76ers • Toronto Raptors • Washington Wizards
Dallas Mavericks • Denver Nuggets • Golden State Warriors • Houston Rockets • Los Angeles Clippers • Los Angeles Lakers • Memphis Grizzlies • Minnesota Timberwolves • New Orleans Pelicans • Oklahoma City Thunder • Phoenix Suns • Portland Trail Blazers • Sacramento Kings • San Antonio Spurs • Utah Jazz
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