The Washington Wizards were two wins away from making the Eastern Conference Finals in 2015, but finished last season with a 41-41 record and failed to make the playoffs. The Wizards were one of the most disappointing teams last season as they struggled to adapt to a faster style of play, suffered several injuries and failed to find any sustained rhythm or success.
The Wizards made some drastic changes after the season, including the firing of Randy Wittman and hiring of former Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Scott Brooks. They also added other players like Ian Mahinmi, Tomáš Satoranský, Andrew Nicholson, Jason Smith and Trey Burke, though they did lose solid veterans in Jared Dudley, Nene and Ramon Sessions. While the coaching change and shuffling of players is certainly significant, no one is more important in determining how far the Wizards can go this season than star point guard John Wall.
Early in the offseason, Wall underwent an operation to excise calcific deposits in his left patella tendon and an arthroscopic lavage on his right knee to remove loose bodies. The Wizards and Wall have been reserved in discussing the operations, and there was some concern that he may not be ready for the regular season opener later this month. However, Wall made his preseason debut on Monday night and looked as though he has recovered well from his offseason operations.
In roughly 16 minutes of action against the New York Knicks, Wall contributed eight points, four assists, three rebounds, and one steal. That’s a pretty solid night for someone who underwent an operation on each leg this offseason and has only participated in limited workouts recently. Wall was aggressive in the open court, tried executing some difficult passes and operated frequently in the pick-and-roll.
Wall certainly isn’t 100 percent yet, but the hope is that his conditioning will improve and he will get closer to full strength through the early stages of the season.
“It ain’t going to be my knees, my knees, my knees,” Wall said. “Nah, I’m past that stage. All the hard work I put in to get to where I want to be and all the hard work I’m still going to put in to make sure I don’t have the same injury recurring again — I’m fine [and] past that point. It’s just about taking care of my body and making sure I do everything the right way every day consistently.”
One player who is especially happy to have Wall back on the court is center Marcin Gortat.
“Offensively you can always catch the rhythm. You might need a game [or] two or three to get your rhythm and find those sweet spots, to get the chemistry going,” Gortat said before the Wizards’ game against the New York Knicks. “Obviously me and John, this is our fourth year together. I can read him like an open book. He knows what I’m going to do. We don’t have to worry about that.”
Having a healthy Wall is obviously important considering he is a top-level point guard, but it’s especially important for this year’s squad since they only have Trey Burke, Tomáš Satoranský and Casper Ware at backup point guard.
Burke, who was drafted ninth in the 2013 NBA Draft by the Minnesota Timberwolves and then traded to the Utah Jazz for the 14th and 21st picks, is entering his fourth season in the NBA was highly regarded entering the league out of the University of Michigan. However, Burke has yet to live up to early expectations and hasn’t proven that he can be an adequate replacement for Wall if he suffers another injury. Additionally, while Satoranský has high level experience playing in the Spanish ACB League and has shown some nice potential in the preseason, it’s unlikely that he could keep the Wizards afloat as a replacement starter if Wall’s injuries become a recurring issue at any point this season. Though Ware faces an uphill battle in terms of making the Wizards’ roster, he has had his moments in preseason (including his confrontation with Brandon Jennings) and has earned the respect of Brooks.
“I always focus on playing the game the right way and one thing about Casper, he’s trying to make the team,” Brooks said. “Whatever the other guy wants to talk about and do, [Ware’s] trying to make the team. You’ve got to respect guys like Casper. It’s not easy making this league and he’s putting himself in position to make it in the league. Whatever the other guy was saying — that’s not how we do things. We want to focus on what we need to do and play good basketball and respectful basketball.”
While the Wizards have options at point guard, no one comes close to producing at the level Wall does.
In 77 regular season games played last season, Wall averaged 19.9 points, 10.2 assists, 4.9 rebounds and 1.2 steals, while shooting 42.4 percent from the field and 35.1 percent from beyond the arc. Wall was third in assists per game (10.2), third in total assists (789), eighth in steals per game (1.9), 19th in usage percentage (28.6), 6th in minutes per game (36.2) and 16th in Value Over Replacement Player (3.7). In other words, Wall is a very productive player and is the driving force behind Washington’s offensive system. Having him healthy entering the season gives the Wizards a chance to do some damage in the wide open Eastern Conference.
As good as Wall is, he can’t lead the Wizards to anything significant without the help of his backcourt mate, Bradley Beal. Beal has struggled with injuries throughout his young career, but he will be counted on for increased production and leadership this season after signing a five-year, $128 million deal.
One of the biggest things to keep an eye on is the working relationship between Wall and Beal. Wall made headlines in late August when he made some pretty candid statements about his relationship with Beal.
“I think a lot of times we have a tendency to dislike each other on the court,” Wall told CSN’s Chris Miller. “We got to be able to put that to the side. If you miss somebody on one play or don’t have something go right … as long as you come to each other and talk. If I start arguing with somebody I’m cool. I’m just playing basketball.
“Now that you have your money, you got to go out there and improve your game. I want you to be an All-Star just as much as I’m an All-Star. If we were playing well as a tandem like the other two superstars that play together as a backcourt, play as a tandem, one night it’s going to be his night, one night it’s going to be mine, some nights it might be both of us. Those are nights it’s going to be tough to beat us.”
Since these quotes came out, it seems that Wall and Beal have made positive progress in their relationship with one another. Additionally, Coach Brooks has a strong track record for building a strong culture and relationship between his players in Oklahoma City. If Brooks could make Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook play together in an effective, though at times frustrating, manner, then he should be able to meet this challenge as well.
The Wizards are one of the harder teams to predict entering this season, but they’ve past the first obstacle – getting Wall back healthy in time for opening night.
The Case for Upperclassmen in the NBA Draft
College upperclassmen are becoming increasingly viable options in the NBA Draft, writes David Yapkowitz.
Each year when the NBA draft comes around, there seems to be an aversion to taking upperclassman with a top selection. More specifically, it’s college seniors who often find themselves getting drafted in the second-round if at all.
It can be understandable. NBA teams are clearly looking for a home run pick with a lottery selection. They’re looking for a player who they can build a foundation around for years to come. College seniors often project as solid role players to strengthen a team once that foundational superstar is already in place.
However, recent years have seen the entire first round dominated almost entirely by freshmen and sophomores. In 2017, a college senior wasn’t drafted until the San Antonio Spurs took Derrick White with the 29th pick. The Los Angeles Lakers followed that up with Josh Hart. Hart ended up having a better rookie season than a few of the underclassmen taken ahead of him.
A few other upperclassmen, Frank Mason III, a senior, and Dillon Brooks, a junior, both had better rookie seasons than many of the freshmen taking before them as well. Junior Semi Ojeleye is playing a major role for the Boston Celtics who are in the Eastern Conference Finals.
In 2016, Malcolm Brogdon, another college senior, was taken in the second-round with the 36th pick by the Milwaukee Bucks. He went on to win the Rookie of the Year award and was a starter for a playoff team.
Senior Tyrone Wallace was taken with the last pick in the draft at No. 60 that year. When a rash of injuries hit the Los Angeles Clippers this season, Wallace stepped in right away as a starter at times and helped keep the team afloat in the playoff picture.
There were a few college seniors that went undrafted in 2016, players such as Fred VanVleet Yogi Ferrell that have had better NBA careers to this point that a lot of the underclassmen taken ahead of them.
This isn’t to say that NBA teams should completely abandon taking young, underdeveloped players in the first-round. The Spurs took Dejounte Murray, a freshman point guard, over Brogdon, Wallace, VanVleet and Ferrell. That’s worked out well for them. It’s more a testament to having a good front office and scouting team than anything else.
But maybe NBA teams should start expanding their horizons when it comes to the draft. There appears to be a stigma of sorts when it comes to upperclassmen, particularly college seniors. If a guy can play, he can play. Of course, college production is often not the best means of judging NBA success, but it does count for something.
With the 2018 NBA draft about one month away, there are a few interesting names to look at when it comes to college seniors. Players such as Devonte’ Graham from Kansas, Theo Pinson from North Carolina, Chandler Hutchinson from Boise State, Jevon Carter from West Virginia and Bonzie Colson from Notre Dame are all guys that should be on NBA team’s radars.
Sure, none of those guys are going to turn into a superstar or even an All-Star. But you’re probably going to get a player that becomes a solid contributor for years to come.
Again, it’s understandable when teams take projects in the lottery. After a long season of losing, and in some cases years of losing, ownership and the fanbase are hungry for results. They don’t want a top pick to be used on a player that projects as only a solid contributor.
But after the lottery, the rest of the draft gets a little murky. A good front office will find an NBA caliber player whether he’s a freshman or a senior. The NBA Draft isn’t an exact science. Nothing is ever for sure and no player is guaranteed to become the player they’re projected to be.
College upperclassmen tend to be more physically developed and mentally mature for the NBA game. If what you’re looking for is someone who will step right in and produce for a winning team, then instead of wasting a pick on the unknown, it might be better to go with the sure thing.
NBA Daily: Are the Houston Rockets in Trouble?
Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals may have been the perfect storm for Houston, writes Shane Rhodes.
The Houston Rockets took a gut punch from the Golden State Warriors, but they responded in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals.
After they dropped the first game of the series, Houston evened things up at one apiece Wednesday night with a 127-105 blowout win over Golden State. With the Warriors struggling on the offensive end and Houston rebounding from a less than stellar Game 1, the Rockets rolled through the game with relative ease.
But was their improved demonstration a fluke? While fans may not want to hear it, Game 2 may have been the perfect storm for Houston.
The Rockets’ gameplan didn’t change much from Game 1 to 2. They attacked Steph Curry relentlessly on the offensive end, James Harden and Chris Paul took plenty of shots in isolation and their role players got shots to drop that just weren’t going down in Game 1. Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza and P.J. Tucker exploded for 68 points while shooting 66.7 percent from three after scoring just 24 the previous game. The trio averaged only 35.8 points collectively during the regular season.
Meanwhile, Golden State couldn’t buy a bucket; starting Warriors not named Kevin Durant scored just 35 points. Curry shot just 1-8 from downtown while Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguadola combined for just 19 points while shooting 35 percent from the floor. All of that will undoubtedly change.
So, going back to Oakland for Game 3, where do the Rockets find themselves? Not in a great place, unfortunately.
Golden State did their job: they stole a game — and home-court advantage — from the Rockets at the Toyota Center. Now, as the series shifts back to Oracle Arena and, assuming the Warriors return to form in front of their home crowd, Houston will have their work more than cut out for them. If Curry, Thompson and Durant all have their shot falling, there isn’t much the Rockets can do to keep up
The Warriors, aside from Curry, played great team defense in Game 2, something that will likely continue into Game 3. The Rockets hit plenty of tough, contested shots — shots that won’t drop as they move away from the energy of the home crowd and shots that Golden State would gladly have Houston take again and again and again. Harden and Paul didn’t exactly bring their A-game in Game 2 either — the two combined for a solid 43 points but took an inefficient 38 shots to get there. If the two of them play like that at Oracle, the Warriors will abuse them in transition, something that can’t happen if the Rockets want to steal back the home-court advantage.
The aforementioned trio of Gordon, Ariza and Tucker are unlikely to replicate their Game 2 performance as well, and relying on them to do so would be foolish on the part of Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni. Devising a game plan that will keep the offense moving while not leaning heavily on the role players will be of the utmost importance — if the offense returns to the bogged down effort that Houston gave in Game 1, the Rockets stand no chance.
Meanwhile, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr will likely adjust his defense in an effort to limit the Rockets effectiveness in the isolation while also trying to find somewhere to hide Curry on the defensive end. It almost certainly won’t be the same sets that Houston throttled in Game 2 which will take another toll on the Rockets offense, especially if they fail to execute.
Not everything looks bad for Houston, however. Faced with a do-or-die scenario, Harden, Paul and co. were the more aggressive team from the jump. Pushing the pace flustered the Warriors and forced some pretty bad turnovers consistently throughout the night. If they come out with the same kind of energy and pace, the Rockets could have Golden State on their heels as they did in Game 2.
Budding star Clint Capela also has plenty of room to improve his game, as he has averaged just 8.5 points and eight rebounds through the first two games of the series — the Rockets need him to play his best basketball of the season if they want a chance to win.
Still, the Warriors are virtually unbeatable at home. The team has lost three games this postseason, just four times over their last two playoff trips and not once at Oracle, making the Rockets’ task even more daunting than it already was. Like Game 2, Game 3 should be played as a do-or-die situation for the Rockets because, if they don’t come out with the same aggressive, up-tempo energy, things could be over quickly.
NBA Daily: Hope Not Lost for Mavs
The Dallas Mavericks were the lottery’s biggest losers, but VP of basketball operations Michael Finley still believes the team will land an elite talent.
Dallas Mavericks vice president of basketball operations Michael Finley knows what it’s like to be on the other side of the draft process. In 2018, he’s an executive for the third-worst team in the league that somehow slipped to the fifth overall pick in Tuesday night’s NBA Draft Lottery, but in 1995 he was a kid from the University of Wisconsin hoping to get drafted.
Finley was a first-round pick that summer, ironically selected by the Phoenix Suns, who won the first overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft earlier this week, but he says he doesn’t even remember the lottery. The lottery wasn’t the event then that it has since become.
“The lottery wasn’t this big when I was in the draft,” Finley told Basketball Insiders. “I don’t even remember how the lottery process played out when I was coming out of college. It’s grown so much, but the league has grown. It’s good for fans, and it’s good for people to get excited about this process.”
Of course, the irony in getting excited about a draft pick isn’t lost on him.
“It’s kind of weird that [fans] are celebrating the losing process, isn’t it?”
Not surprisingly, Finley wasn’t especially thrilled to see his team fail to reap the rewards of a Dallas Mavericks season that was stepped in that losing process. The lottery odds will change next year, and Finley believes that’s a good thing.
“It’s a good thing to change the system a little,” he says. “It will help keep the integrity of the game intact, especially toward the end of the year. It also will be even more suspenseful than these lottery events have been in the past.”
That’s next year, though. This year, the Mavericks are tasked with finding an elite player at a pick lower than they expected. Finley’s trying to look at things optimistically.
“It could have been sixth,” he said. “It’s still in the top five, and going on what we did this season, we don’t want to be in this position next year, so hopefully the guy we pick at #5 will get us out of the lottery and back into the playoffs.”
In fact, having that selection doesn’t preclude the team from finding a star, especially in a draft this loaded. Most agree that Luka Doncic and DeAndre Ayton are the prizes of the draft, but there are other guys available with All-Star potential. Marvin Bagley, Trae Young, Michael Porter, Jr., and Mo Bamba all have incredibly high ceilings. The Mavs may yet do something meaningful with that selection.
“It’s a strong draft, and a lot of the draft is going to go with what player fits what team in a particular system. If you’re lucky enough to get that perfect combination, the players that are in this draft are really good and have the capability of helping a team right away.”
That’s what Finley and the rest of the Mavericks’ organization hopes will happen in 2018-2019.