In some form or another, someone from practically every team has argued the Eastern Conference is more competitive now that LeBron James has signed with the Los Angeles Lakers. From Philadelphia 76ers owner Josh Harris to Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse and Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, everyone believes now more than ever they have a chance to reach the NBA Finals.
Washington Wizards point guard John Wall was the latest to throw his hat in the ring, telling Bleacher Report’s Yaron Weitzman, “The East is more wide-open now that [LeBron James is] out of the picture.” Wall added, “I think we could have competed the last two years if we didn’t have to deal with injuries.”
But how open is the East, really?
The Wizards always feel slighted
Wizards teammate Otto Porter Jr. expressed a similar sentiment earlier this month. Washington was competitive in 2016-17, when a largely healthy squad took Boston to seven games in the conference semifinals. But that was a Celtics team without Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward and Jayson Tatum. The Wizards then fell to the eighth seed this past season, in part due to another Wall knee injury, and lost a first-round series to the Raptors in six games, in part because Porter required surgery on his leg.
Wall told Weitzman he felt like the Wizards should have won both series, but lost to better teams. This after he and teammate Bradley Beal insisted they posed the biggest threat to LeBron’s Cavs each time.
Except, the Wizards weren’t great when healthy last season. There was in-fighting, name-calling and suggestions that they might have been better without their All-Star point guard’s ball dominance. Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld traded Marcin Gortat, who along with Wall was often at the center of those conflicts, for the ever-defensive Austin Rivers. Washington then replaced Gortat with the oft-criticized Dwight Howard and capped its offseason by signing the much-maligned Jeff Green.
Together, those additions represent an upgrade from what was a horrid depth chart. Rivers takes a third guard spot that was occupied by Brandon Jennings and Ty Lawson the last two seasons, Howard should improve a defense that was a sieve at the rim, and Green is more versatile than Mike Scott, who left for the Los Angeles Clippers. But to expect the sum of those upgrades to close the gap from their eighth-place finish last season to legit Finals contender is a tall order bordering on delusional.
The Celtics, Raptors and 76ers are clear East favorites
Last season, the Wizards finished 16 games behind the first-place Raptors, who just upgraded from DeMar DeRozan to Kawhi Leonard (presuming the two-time Defensive Player of the Year is healthy), 12 games behind the second-place Celtics, who came within six minutes of reaching the Finals without the services of Irving or Hayward, and nine games behind the third-place Sixers, who should improve from the expected development of young cornerstones Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz.
The Wizards weren’t better than any of those teams last season, and they’re certainly not better now. Vegas odds list the Celtics as clear favorites, followed by the Raptors and Sixers. The odds significantly drop from there, with the Indiana Pacers and Milwaukee Bucks still slotted well ahead of Washington.
Vegas odds don’t always tell the best story, but here they do. The Celtics have to be considered favorites, with a starting lineup as talented as any outside Golden State and a bench full of playoff-tested contributors. If Leonard is healthy and engaged — a couple big ifs — he and Danny Green make what was a 59-win Raptors team more versatile on both ends, and Toronto is Boston’s biggest threat. The 76ers are as dangerous as they were when they won 16 straight to close out the 2017-18 regular season (before losing three winnable playoff games to the Celtics in the second round), if not more.
In what world do a 32-year-old Howard (on his fourth team in four years), a 31-year-old Green (same) and Rivers push a team that was average in every way into the mix with three 50-plus-win teams that should all be better? Wall saying LeBron’s departure opens the East enough to include the Wizards with the conference’s elite is just as wild as Beal suggesting LeBron ducked them the past two years.
Are the Wizards any better than the Bucks or Pacers?
The hope for Washington is that Beal is even better than he was in his first All-Star season, Porter continues his steady improvement and Kelly Oubre Jr. makes a leap in Year 4, but there is a doomsday scenario for the Wizards, too. What if the knee injuries that have plagued Wall are no better at age 28, the “tendency” for Wall and Beal “to dislike each other on the court” gets worse in their seventh season together, and adding Howard, Rivers and Green to that mix only pours gasoline on the fire?
More likely, the Wizards just aren’t markedly better than the Pacers, who pushed the Cavs to seven games and added depth of their own by signing Tyreke Evans, Kyle O’Quinn and Doug McDermott. Washington shouldn’t be better than the Bucks, whose upgrade from Joe Prunty to new coach Mike Budenholzer is as sharp as another jump from 23-year-old Antetokounmpo and the additions of Ersan Ilyasova, Brook Lopez and rookie Donte DiVincenzo — all of which offset the loss of Jabari Parker.
I’m honestly not even sure how much better the Wizards are than a Miami Heat team that will run it back with the same squad that won 44 games a year ago or a Detroit Pistons team that enters its first full year with trade deadline acquisition Blake Griffin and reigning Coach of the Year Dwane Casey.
The Wizards should finish ahead of Miami and Detroit in the standings, but even then, they face a playoff gauntlet that (at best) requires knocking off two of the East’s top three teams on the road. This from a team that’s never won more than 50 games or one series in four previous trips to the playoffs.
Slow your role, Wizards. The East is Boston’s to lose — to Toronto or Philadelphia, not Washington. LeBron’s exit leaves the door to the East no more open than it was when he was in Cleveland last season and the Celtics still probably should have beaten his Cavaliers without their two best players.
At some point, you have to accept reality. Wall is not there yet, nor should he be now, when everyone has hope for the season ahead. When asked by Weitzman whether the Wizards have already peaked as a team, Wall said, “You kind of know when … that time is up.” The clock is ticking on Washington.
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