Young teams are expected to make a certain leap every season lest they end up as middling playoff teams rather than full-bodied contenders. By that standard, the Washington Wizards are still a ways off from challenging the Cleveland Cavaliers for Eastern supremacy, let alone a title. After handling the Chicago Bulls 4-1 in the 2014 first round and taking two games off the top-seeded Indiana Pacers, the Wizards added Paul Pierce and entered 2014-15 with an outsider's chance of nabbing a conference title. Naturally, they improved their record by just two wins to 46-36, moved from No. 6 to No. 5 in the East, swept the Toronto Raptors with ease, and ended their season by winning two games against the top-seeded Atlanta Hawks. It was a near-repeat of the previous season in terms of performance and finish, right down to head coach Randy Wittman potentially saving his job with a strong showing in the postseason.
At the same time, some improved injury luck could have made the season look altogether more impressive. If not for several hand fractures that sidelined All-Star point guard John Wall from Games 2 through 4 vs. the Hawks, the Wizards very well could have faced the Cavs in the conference finals and maybe even improved on Atlanta's woeful play in that series. If that were the case, we'd probably come into this season expecting even bigger things from Wall and talk up Washington as if they were Cleveland's only real competition.
Or maybe that finish just would have obscured ever-present issues with the team as currently constructed. Playoff Wittman aside, the Wizards coach often appeared to employ an antiquated style of ball dependent on the individual brilliance of Wall and Bradley Beal and regular post-ups for Nene and Marcin Gortat inside. Early returns from the preseason suggest that Washington is ready to play the pacier, space-heavy style that did so much for them in the postseason, but there is no telling what will happen under the pressure of the 82-game grind. For that matter, it's hard to know how the Wizards will fare without the late-game brilliance of the departed Pierce, who won them several playoff games that may have otherwise given voice to serious concerns about their postseason readiness.
If it's not clear enough already, this season is one in which the Wizards need to see some forward momentum. Having just turned 25 years old, Wall should be nearing his prime and can stake a claim to being the best point guard in the East. Beal, his backcourt partner, has been tabbed as a potential Most Improved Player candidate. Otto Porter, Jr. could finally become a meaningful contributor. Nene and Gortat have a chance to bully smallball lineups inside. The raw material is there.
The stakes are high, particularly with the non-Cavs East in a dead period and Wittman possibly coaching for his job yet again. (I am also contractually obligated to say that D.C. native Kevin Durant is a free agent next summer.) Another uninspiring second-round exit could bring much bigger changes to the franchise.
2014-15 season in 140 characters or less:
Regular Season Randy Wittman vs. Playoff Randy Wittman pic.twitter.com/h6ZicPysKZ
— sreeky wap (@sreekyshooter) May 9, 2015
Did the summer help at all?
Not in terms of which players came and went, although the changes probably aren't quite as bad as they look at first glance. The loss of Pierce will sting, particularly when Washington needs someone to hit shots in a playoff game. But the Truth averaged only nine field goal attempts over 26.2 minutes per game with a career-worst 15.2 PER, so it's not as if his regular-season contributions are irreplaceable.
To that end, general manager Ernie Grunfeld focused on adding wing help this offseason. The Wizards moved up four spots in the draft to No. 15 to take Kansas wing Kelly Oubre, Jr., a rangy shooter and scorer who's still raw enough that he couldn't get more than 21 minutes per game last season. He's pretty clearly a long-term value pick, so the Wizards also brought in vets Jared Dudley and Alan Anderson. Dudley figures to take on much of Pierce's role as a stretch four, while Anderson rates more as an occasional shooter and glue guy.
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Elsewhere, the Wizards took on Gary Neal as a spot-up shooter and brought back Drew Gooden to serve as a reserve who reminds us all of our own mortality. Kevin Seraphin is now a New York Knick, but the team can probably withstand the loss of interior depth if they embrace smaller lineups.
Go-to offseason acquisition:
The 30-year-old Dudley is pretty much the definition of a solid veteran role player, the kind of guy who contributes in clearly defined areas and does not stray from them. It just so happens that what he does best fits very well with the Wizards' plans to go small and spread the floor. A career 39.6-percent three-point shooter, the 6-7 Dudley can knock down shots without sacrificing too much defensively against bigger forwards. It would be silly to expect him to replace Pierce's production by himself, but he will be counted on to make threes in the postseason and space the offense accordingly.
While the team's offseason moves could very well work out, the Wizards' options on the wing depend on a series of ifs — if Porter carries out the promise of last postseason and becomes a necessary contributor, if Dudley stays healthy and can take on a larger role than he's occupied in recent seasons, if Oubre fulfills a shred of his potential as a rookie, etc. While many of these hopes are warranted, not one of these players is particularly well established as a consistent contributor to a contender. The Wizards want to go small, but that will be impossible if one or all of these players can't play at the necessarily level of quality to make it work.
Contributor with something to prove:
Porter had improved upon his disastrous rookie campaign even before last postseason, but it was those games that have convinced the basketball world he could be ready for a big jump in his third campaign. The player who excelled last postseason is everything the Wizards need — an adept scorer (10 ppg) and outside shooter (37.5 percent) with strong rebounding (8 rpg) and defensive skills. Grunfeld looked for several players to replace Pierce, but it seems apparent that the front office and coaching staff are banking on Porter to replace the bulk of his contributions.
The optimism continued in the preseason opener as Porter scored 22 points with 4-of-4 shooting from deep in 24 minutes. It's not fair to expect Porter to develop into a legitimate star, but the No. 3 pick in the 2013 draft can become a no-doubt starter. Such a progression would allow the small-ball plan to flourish and likely cement Washington as the second-best team in the conference.
Potential breakout stud:
Can Bradley Beal stay healthy? Now entering his fourth season, Beal has averaged 64 appearances per season as a pro, derailing hopes that he and Wall would simultaneously develop into stars to form the best backcourt in the league. Yet Beal has faced persistent right ankle problems and saw his production either plateau or regress in every key category in 2014-15. However, those issues did not prohibit Beal from scoring at least 28 points in four of 10 playoff games. The talent is clearly there, and Beal can still become one of the league's best shooting guards with the ability to score in various ways.
The continued rise of Stephen Curry provides hope that Beal can withstand his early-career ankle troubles and get back on a more standard development path. Yet it's apparent that his ability to stay healthy will affect Washington's ceiling. If he can stay healthy, he could make his first All-Star team.
Porter makes the necessary leap to solidify the wings, Beal plays 75 games and makes the All-Star team, Wall looks more and more like a superstar, Nene and Gortat live with sharing minutes and getting fewer touches, the new role players take to their roles with ease, Playoff Wittman becomes Standard Wittman, and the Wizards give the Cavs a serious challenge in the conference finals.
If everything falls apart:
Porter impresses in spurts but with little consistency, Beal misses six weeks or more with another ankle injury, the new role players don't play well enough to justify extended use of the small lineups, Wittman employs the offense of old, and the Wizards play just well enough in the postseason to convince everyone that 2016-17 will be the year everything comes together.
Kelly Dwyer's notoriously unreliable crystal ball:
52-30, 2nd in the East
Read all of Ball Don't Lie's 2015-16 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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