This time last year, the Washington Wizards were coming off a second straight run to the second round of the playoffs and believing that, if not for an ill-timed injury to star point guard John Wall, they could’ve given the Cleveland Cavaliers a run for their money. But after a disappointing 2015-16 season that ended with a 41-41 record, no playoff berth and no NBA draft picks — a first for the Washington franchise — the Wizards find themselves searching for the blueprint that will get them back on track.
Owner Ted Leonsis and general manager Ernie Grunfeld started with the decision to move on from head coach Randy Wittman, whose four-year tenure in Washington featured some regular-season acrimony, some postseason success, plenty of long 2-point jumpers, and even more fun faces. In steps Scott Brooks, who helped the Oklahoma City Thunder rise from a roster full of rugrats to a perennial contender; the Wizards hope he can replicate that success with a rotation that doesn’t feature multiple All-NBA and All-Defensive team-caliber talents. Of course, they also hope that Brooks can help their existing players reach such rarefied air.
Wall’s already a well-established All-Star talent, one of the game’s most electric playmakers and a legitimate game-changer on the defensive end when fully engaged. Two postseasons ago, there was a real case to be made that he was the second best player in the Eastern Conference playoffs, behind only LeBron James, before his shattered hand shattered Washington’s championship dreams.
The Wizards this summer bet big — like, really, really big — that 23-year-old Bradley Beal can make the leap from “promising and talented young player who always seems to be hurt” to “bona fide All-Star two-way shooting guard.” Baked into that bet: the hope that Wall and Beal can put aside their “tendency to dislike each other on the court” long enough to prove they really are one of the NBA’s best backcourts, capable of leading the Wizards to serious contention.
As unimpressive as the Wiz were en masse last season, there was evidence that a Wall-and-Beal-led lineup could carry Washington to big things. After the trade-deadline acquisition of disgruntled-but-gifted Phoenix Suns power forward Markieff Morris, Washington’s starting five — Wall, Beal, Morris, swingman Otto Porter and center Marcin Gortat — scored like a top-five offense and topped opponents by 5.6 points per 100 possessions, a “net rating” that would’ve slotted in between the 53-win Los Angeles Clippers and world champion Cleveland Cavaliers over the full season.
That strong play came in the relatively small sample of just under 200 minutes spread over 18 games, but if Brooks can coax similar production out of that core while finding consistent contributions off a bench that looks full of question marks, the Wizards could find themselves back in the mix. It all depends, though, on the ability and availability of Wall and Beal. Washington has paid them to be cornerstones. It’s time for them to earn their money and prove they can carry the load.
2015-16 season in 140 characters or less:
— United Social Sports (@PlayUSS) September 29, 2015
… to this:
— Missy Khamvongsa (@MissyKhamvongsa) June 25, 2016
… which felt like this:
… and this:
Did the summer help at all?
It certainly didn’t bring the massive lift for which Wizards fans were wishing back in the #KD2DC days. In subtler and less sexy ways, though, it might have.
Speaking of “subtler and less sexy” …
Brooks wasn’t the flashiest hire possible. But after the disappointing end to Wittman’s tenure — a season that began with conference final expectations but quickly devolved into sniping, griping, struggles to carry over the prior postseason’s small-ball success, and an ultimately dispiriting .500 finish — Brooks brings a steady hand, a winning career record and plenty of postseason experience. He’s also got a track record of holding players accountable, demanding defensive effort and developing young talent.
Despite the limitations he showed in Oklahoma City when it came to crafting creative offensive schemes to maximize his All-Star players’ unique gifts, Brooks is an established program-builder who got a young Thunder team to accept the challenge of defending, earning three top-five defensive finishes in five seasons. Moreover, he figured out how to create enough space for Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, James Harden, Reggie Jackson and others to grow; that seems like a perfect fit for a team that needs its young players to find ways to coexist and flourish.
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After the Kevin Durant dream died, Grunfeld set about remaking Washington’s bench. He shipped a second-round pick to the Jazz to import Trey Burke, hoping the former Michigan star and lottery pick turned odd-man-out in Utah’s backcourt rotation could find new life as a reserve scorer in D.C. He also brought back veteran shooting guard Marcus Thornton and took fliers on a pair of undrafted rookies — Texas A&M’s Danuel House and Miami’s Sheldon McClellan — in hope of finding a second-unit spark.
Washington’s best chance of that may come in the form of 6-foot-7 Czech combo guard Tomas Satoransky. The Wizards’ 2012 second-round pick finally joined the team this summer after spending the last four years in Spain’s ACB with Sevilla (where he played with Kristaps Porzingis, who’s a big fan of his game) and Barcelona, where he averaged 10 points, 4.3 assists and 2.9 rebounds in 24.3 minutes per game in all competitions last season.
The 24-year-old guard shot better than 40 percent from the shorter FIBA 3-point line in each of the last two seasons, and has a reputation as a physical, high-motor player who can make plays for himself and others and who’s got the athleticism to electrify in the air:
— Washington Wizards (@WashWizards) October 3, 2016
Like most European prospects, Satoransky will need some time to transition to the NBA game, but his size, versatility and high-level experience for one of the best clubs in Europe could make him a valuable contributor behind and alongside Washington’s high-priced backcourt.
Grunfeld’s primary focus came up front, as he shelled out nearly $104 million in total contracts to free-agent big men Ian Mahinmi, Andrew Nicholson and Jason Smith. If you’re thinking that sounds like a lot for three dudes who have never averaged 10 points per game, you’re not alone; there’s some cause for optimism, though.
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While it’s reasonable to be skeptical about signing two key parts of the frontcourt rotation of a bad Orlando Magic team last year, both Nicholson and Smith have the touch to be effective pick-and-pop shooters, making it very possible they could benefit greatly from sharing the floor with Wall, one of the NBA’s most gifted table-setters and high-volume creators of open jumpers. And while neither Nicholson nor Smith are likely to earn All-Defensive team votes, Orlando actually performed really well when they shared the floor last season, with lineups featuring that tandem holding offenses to just 93.1 points per 100 possessions and outscoring opponents by a very strong 7.6 points-per-100, according to NBA.com’s lineup data.
Mahinmi, the biggest-ticket acquisition, was a legitimate defensive anchor last season for an Indiana Pacers team that finished third in the NBA in defensive efficiency. Indiana allowed just 98.2 points per 100 possessions with him in the middle, thanks in part to the 6-foot-11, 250-pound Mahinmi’s menacing presence in the paint. He posted a top-20 mark in contest percentage (how frequently a defender contests attempts at the rim) among bigs to play more than 1,000 minutes, and influenced Pacer opponents to take about 2 1/2 fewer shots at the basket per 36 minutes with him in the game than when he sat, according to Nylon Calculus’ rim protection statistics.
On top of that, after years as an iffy-at-best offensive player, the 29-year-old Frenchman showed improved hands inside and even an occasional capacity to make some nifty passes on the move. The result: a career-high 9.3 points in 25.6 minutes per game on 58.9 percent shooting, and a top-15 finish in points produced per possession used as a roll man in the screen game, according to Synergy Sports Technology’s game-charting data.
Mahinmi has real value for a team hoping to make strides on both ends of the floor. It’s fair to ask whether his deal was the wisest allocation of resources for a team that looks thin on the wing and already had a starting center under contract for the next three years, but Mahinmi should be a solid addition to a club that hadn’t been able to depend on Nene in recent years, and should ensure that Washington doesn’t experience a major dropoff on either end when Gortat hits the bench. If Brooks can find a few answers among the rest of the reserve corps, it’d go a long way toward raising Washington’s ceiling.
Potential breakout stud:
The answer feels like it should be Beal, who still hasn’t played a full season through four pro campaigns, and whose total production and impact still seem to mark him as a player on the verge rather than a dyed-in-the-wool NBA star. That said, it’s hard to argue against those who’d claim that a five-year, $128 million maximum-salaried contract suggests you’ve already broken pretty far out, so let’s go with the wing combo of Porter and Oubre.
The Wizards on the whole disappointed last year, but Porter continued his growth as an all-around NBA wing. He solidified his spot in the starting lineup, averaging 11.6 points, 5.2 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.4 steals in 30.3 minutes per game, while posting career-best field-goal, 3-point and free-throw shooting percentages. (His long-range game picked up precipitously after the All-Star break, as he shot a blistering 44.7 percent from deep on more than three attempts per game.)
The Wizards were about three points per 100 possessions with Porter on the floor than off it last season, and he ranked 14th among 75 qualifying NBA small forwards in ESPN’s Real-Plus Minus statistic, which aims to estimate a player’s on-court impact on team performance on a per-possession basis, right between Andre Iguodala and Giannis Antetokounmpo. To this point, he hasn’t been much of a creator or igniter, but he moves without the ball, hits open shots, makes the extra pass, and fills multiple gaps on both ends of the floor; he’s already solid, and at just 23 years of age, he’s still got time and room to become more.
The story’s much the same for Oubre. The long and athletic Kansas product had a tough time finding his way to the floor as a rookie, logging just 10.7 minutes per game in 63 appearances under Wittman. He did play well in limited opportunities as a starter, though — a shade under seven points and five rebounds in 23 minutes per game over nine starts, knocking down 52.4 percent of his triples while holding his own defensively — and Brooks is giving him the chance to prove he deserves the starting job in the preseason.
Still just 20 years old, Oubre’s got a ways to go to establish consistency at the NBA level — he averaged 5.4 fouls per 36 minutes as a rook, and turned the ball over 4 1/2 times more often than he dished an assist. But he’s coming off a strong Summer League, and the self-proclaimed “Wave Papi” certainly isn’t lacking for confidence; if he shows Brooks he can make life difficult on opposing wings, help on the glass and convert the offensive opportunities he gets, he’ll stay on the floor.
Longtime Wiz chronicler Kyle Weidie of Truth About It likes the idea of Porter sticking in the starting lineup while Oubre gets opportunities to stretch his offensive game and hone his 3-and-D potential as a second-unit catalyst, which sounds about right to me. Whichever way Brooks leans, though, one of them — and ideally both — likely needs to bust loose for the Wizards to stand a real chance of vaulting back into the ranks of Cavs challengers. If neither can, Washington looks way too thin on the wing to match up with top-flight competition.
Wall and Beal put the summer static behind them, stay healthy, and fulfill their promise, pushing Toronto’s Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan for the title of the East’s best backcourt. Porter and Oubre form a solid rotation at the three. Gortat and Mahinmi lock down the interior enough to spark a rise up the defensive efficiency rankings. The Wiz don’t crater when the starters sit, showing enough balance to bump their win total back into the mid-40s, earning a middle-of-the-pack playoff berth and a chance to prove that, with their guards healthy, they can run with anybody in the East.
If everything falls apart:
Wall and Beal never get on the same page, as injuries once again rear their head to short-circuit attempts to develop on-court chemistry. Gortat bristles at Mahinmi’s presence, creating even more tension in a locker room that cries out for stability and leadership. Porter and Oubre underwhelm, Grunfeld’s bench bets go bust, Brooks fails to impress in his first post-KD-and-Russ gig, and the Wizards slink to the lottery after dropping back below .500 for the first time since 2013.
Kelly Dwyer’s Best Guess at a Record:
38-44, 10th in the Eastern Conference.
Read all of Ball Don’t Lie’s 2016-17 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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