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Proved You Wrong: Wizards Postseason Success Not a Fluke

The Washington Wizards have proved all of their doubters wrong. Their success in the 2014 postseason was not a fluke.

Jessica Camerato

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A 23-year-old leader who had never been to the playoffs, a second-year standout who wasn’t old enough to drive the last time the team made it out of the first round, a 12th-year big man who suffered a sprained MCL this season and a point guard two years shy of 40.

Their stars were too young and inexperienced, their veterans were too old. At least that’s how they looked on paper.

The Washington Wizards erased all judgments of age and experience with their attention-grabbing 4-1 first round upset over the Chicago Bulls. Aside from the Miami HEAT’s sweep of the Charlotte Bobcats, they were only the team in the NBA to wrap up their series in five games.

As the rest of the league plays on, battling through neck-and-neck matchups, the fifth-seeded Wizards will prepare for their next opponent they are looking to upstage.

“I am proud of those guys,” said Wizards head coach Randy Wittman. “For a lot of them it is the first time dealing with all this. Not only being in the playoffs, but closing off the series. They realize how hard it is. They never lost their focus of being satisfied with a couple wins.”

This season the Wizards are anchored by a backcourt of young guards who are hungry to take the playoffs by storm. Former 2010 top pick and All-Star John Wall is the face of the team; right alongside him is 20-year-old Bradley Beal. Neither had played in the postseason as of two weeks ago. Neither let it show.

In the first round Beal led the team in scoring with 19.8 points along with 4.6 rebounds and 4.2 assists in 41.0 minutes. Wall added a one-two punch with 18.8 points, 4.6 rebounds and 6.8 assists in 38.6 minutes.

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“They are growing up, there is no question about that,” said Wittman. “I was not really concerned that this would be too big of a stage for them, you never know though. With the way they handled it, both of them being 18 or 19 years old when they came into the league, I knew they were a little different than other 18 or 19 year olds. They grew through something like this and now they can grow some more as we move forward.”

Bring on the spotlight. Beal and Wall are not shying away from the pressures of the playoffs. For Wall, this was a natural progression in his career. His teams had struggled in the past but he was viewed as one who could change the direction.

“It was a great feeling,” said Wall. “It was an opportunity I was looking forward to. Coming to the Wizards and being drafted number one and going through the tough times with my teammates, I was given enough rope to be the leader of this team and given trust to run the offense.  I don’t know why it took so long.  The main thing is to focus in and knowing what this team is capable of.  I just give a lot of credit to my teammates and the coaching staff with the great game plan and making adjustments and committing ourselves to team play on every given night.”

Beal didn’t have to wait as long as Wall. The third overall pick in the 2012 draft experienced a 15-win turnaround in his second season, a change which he impacted. Beal called proving naysayers wrong “a humbling experience” and now understands what his team is capable of dong in the playoffs.

“We’ve had continued growth,” said Beal. “We played great basketball in this series and we can only continue to get better no matter who we play in the next round.  We are going to approach each game the same way with our defensive presence and the offense will take care of itself.  For now we can be proud of what we accomplished and at the same time staying humble and moving forward.”

On the flip side 38-year-old Andre Miller adds invaluable veteran experience to the Wizards. In addition to the coaching staff, the younger players have a built-in mentor and adviser to guide them on the court. 15 seasons into his career, Bulls head coach deemed him “ageless” and credited him for how well the team is run.

That proven know how is paying dividends in the frontcourt as well. The Wizards were powered many times in this series by their veteran big man, veteran Nene. He averaged a postseason career high 17.8 points in the first round to go with 6.5 rebounds. Nene, 31, set the tone of the series by scoring 24 points in Game 1, the most of any player.

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“He can score, he can shoot, he can post, he can dribble, he can pass, and he can defend,” said Wittman. “When he is not (in) there, we cannot put in one guy who has all those things.”

And so it is a total team effort for the Wizards. Center Marcin Gortat, 30, continued to be a quiet threat with a team-best 9.6 rebounds and 10.8 points, including two double-doubles. Swingman Trevor Ariza, a 10-year vet, averaged a career-best 15.6 points and 8.6. He scored 30 points in Game 4 while shooting 6-for-10 from long range. The Wizards are also getting almost 10 points a game from nine-year veteran Martell Webster.

Solid performances like that trickle down the roster. Among an experienced-heavy front court, fourth-year role player Trevor Booker has delivered 5.6 points and 6.6 rebounds.

Given the Wizards previous five sub-.500 seasons, the fact they made the playoffs in the first place was noteworthy. They had not reached the postseason since 2008 with a team that featured Antawn Jamison, DeShawn Stevenson, Brendan Haywood, Antonio Daniels, and an oft-injured Gilbert Arenas. It has been nine years since the Wizards made it out of the opening round, only to be swept by the Miami Heat in 2005.

This season’s team has no intentions of history repeating itself.

“A couple of years ago, with the guys that were here, we could never could have won a game like this,” Wittman said following the decisive Game 5. “Now this team believes in defense, what we do, and how we do it.”

The Wizards will now await the winner of the Indiana Pacers — Atlanta Hawks matchup. They will either face a top-seeded team that fought back from a series deficit or another spoiler team who knocked off the favorite. Whatever the final result of their playoff run may turn out to be, the Wizards believe each game will give them experience to continue being a contender from here on out.

“We will get a big jump from this,” said Wittman. “They know the intensity of how you have to play in the playoffs. Until you experience that, I think it helps you in the regular season and that is how you jump from 44 wins to 50 wins and getting homecourt advantage. Wherever this ends, you hopefully have that growth and experience through the playoffs.”

Jessica Camerato is a bilingual reporter who has been covering the NBA since 2006. She has also covered MLB, NHL and MLS. A graduate of Quinnipiac University, Jessica is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association and the Association for Women in Sports Media.

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NBA

Gregg Popovich Continues To Be The Gold Standard For Leadership

There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and Gregg Popovich.

Moke Hamilton

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There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and the San Antonio Spurs.

Okay, let’s be honest, it’s probably not the first time that you’ve heard that one, but it also won’t be the last.

Behind the genius of Gregg Popovich, the Spurs have qualified for the NBA Playoffs 20 consecutive years. In hindsight, they appear to have been the only team to legitimately frighten the Golden State Warriors during their 16-1 playoff run last year, and this season, well, they’ve been the same old Spurs.

That’s been especially amazing considering the fact that the team has been without Kawhi Leonard. Although Popovich recently said that Leonard would return “sooner rather than later,” he himself admitted to not being certain as to what that meant.

Best guess from here is that Leonard will return within the next few weeks, but at this point, it’s entirely fair to wonder whether or not it even matters.

Of course, the Spurs don’t stand much of a chance to win the Western Conference without Leonard thriving at or near 100 percent, but even without him, the Spurs look every bit like a playoff team, and in the Western Conference, that’s fairly remarkable.

“A team just has to play in a sense like he doesn’t exist,” Popovich was quoted as saying by Tom Osborn of the San Antonio Express-News.

“Nobody cares if you lost a good player, right? Everybody wants to whip you. So it doesn’t do much good to do the poor me thing or to keep wondering when he is going to be back or what are we going to do. We have to play now, and other people have to take up those minutes and we have to figure out who to go to when in a different way, and you just move on.”

In a nutshell, that’s Popovich.

What most people don’t understand about Popovich is what makes him a truly great coach is his humility. He is never afraid to second-guess himself and reconsider the way that he’s accustomed to doing things. Since he’s been the head coach of the Spurs, he’s built and rebuilt offenses around not only different players, but also different philosophies.

From the inside-out attack that was his bread and butter with David Robinson and Tim Duncan to the motion and movement system that he built around Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the latest incarnation of Popovich’s genius isn’t only the fact that he has survived without Kawhi Leonard, it’s what could fairly be considered the major catalyst of it.

There are many head coaches around the league that take their roles as authority figures quite seriously, and that’s why a fair number would have been threatened by one of their star players requesting that things be rebuilt in a way to maximize his potential.

So when LaMarcus Aldridge proactively sat down with his coach to discuss the ways that he felt he was being misused in the team’s schemes, it wouldn’t have come as a shock for Popovich to meet him with resistance.

Instead, he did the opposite.

“We have talked about what we can do to make him more comfortable, and to make our team better,” Popovich acknowledged during Spurs training camp.

“But having said that, I think we are mostly talking about offense. Defense, he was fantastic for us. Now, we have got to help him a little bit more so that he is comfortable in his own space offensively, and I haven’t done a very good job of that.”

Just 11 days after those comments were printed, the Spurs announced that they had signed Aldridge to a three-year, $72 million extension.

Considering that Aldridge’s first two years as a member of the Spurs yielded some poor efforts and relatively low output, the extension seemed curious and was met with ridicule.

Yet, one month later and 15 games into the season, the Spurs sit at 9-6. They’ve survived the absence of Kawhi Leonard and the loss of Jonathon Simmons.

Behind an offensive system tweaked to take advantage of his gifts, in the early goings, Aldridge is averaging 22 points per game, a far cry above the 17.7 points per game he averaged during his first two years in San Antonio.

Coincidence?

I think not.

Death, taxes and the Spurs.

So long as Gregg Popovich is at the helm, exhibiting strong leadership while remaining amazingly humble, the Spurs will be the Spurs.

Sure, Kawhi Leonard will be back—at some point.

But until then, the Spurs will be just fine.

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NBA AM: Atlanta’s Dewayne Dedmon Is Letting Shots — And Jokes — Fly

Dewayne Dedmon’s emergence has been an unexpected positive for the rebuilding Atlanta Hawks.

Buddy Grizzard

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It’s been a brutal season for the Atlanta Hawks, they’re just already 3-12 with the worst record in the Eastern Conference.

Wednesday’s franchise-record 46-point win over the visiting Sacramento Kings was a rare chance for Atlanta to have a laugh in the postgame locker room and reflect on things that have gone well, including hot shooting for the team and a potential breakout season for center Dewayne Dedmon.

The Hawks trail only the Golden State Warriors in three-point shooting at just over 40 percent. Prior to joining the Hawks, Dedmon had attempted only one three-pointer in 224 career games. As a Hawk, though, Dedmon is shooting 42 percent on 19 attempts. Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer explained after Wednesday’s game how his staff decided to encourage Dedmon to extend his range.

“You do your research and you talk to friends around the league, you talk to people who have worked with him and you watch him during warmups,” said Budenholzer. “We had a belief, an idea, that he could shoot, he could make shots. We’re kind of always pushing that envelope with the three-point line. He’s embraced it.”

Dedmon is currently averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, blocks and minutes, and set season-highs in points (20), rebounds (14) and assists (five) against the Kings. He’s also brought an offbeat sense of humor that has helped keep the locker room loose despite the struggles. It became apparent early on that Dedmon was a different type of dude.

At Media Day, when nobody approached Dedmon’s table and reporters instead flocked to interview rookie John Collins at the next table, Dedmon joined the scrum, holding his phone out as if to capture a few quotes.

“This guy’s going to be a character,” said a passing Hawks staffer.

Those words proved prophetic, as Coach Bud confirmed after Wednesday’s win.

“He brings a lot of personality to our team, really from almost the day he got here,” said Budenholzer. “I think he’s getting more and more comfortable and can help the young guys and help everybody.”

Dedmon took an unconventional path to the NBA. Growing up, his mother — a Jehovah’s Witness — forbade him to play organized sports. Once he turned 18, Dedmon began making his own decisions. He walked on to the team at Antelope Valley College, a two-year school in Lancaster, Ca., before transferring to USC and eventually making it to the league.

His personality, which formed while Dedmon forged his own path, shone through in the locker room after the Sacramento win. Asked about conversations he’s had with Budenholzer about shot selection, Dedmon turned to teammate Kent Bazemore at the adjacent locker.

“What’s the phrase, Baze? LTMF?”

“Yep,” Bazemore replied.

“Yeah, LTMF,” Dedmon continued. “Let it fly. So he told me to shoot … let it go. I’m not going to say what the M means.”

Amidst laughter from the assembled media, he explained that ‘LTMF’ is Budenholzer’s philosophy for the whole team, not just part of an effort to expand Dedmon’s game.

“Everybody has the same freedom,” said Dedmon. “So it definitely gives everybody confidence to shoot their shots when they’re open and just play basketball.”

With the injury bug thus far robbing Atlanta of its stated ambition to overachieve this season, Dedmon’s career year and team success from three-point range are two big positives.

Rebuilding or retooling can be a painful process. But with a unique personality like Dedmon helping keep things light in the locker room, Atlanta should make it through.

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Covington’s Contract Extension Adds Value On and Off the Court

Robert Covington cashed in for himself while also allowing the Sixers to potentially cash in this summer.

Dennis Chambers

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The Philadelphia 76ers are keeping their X-factor in town for the foreseeable future.

Wednesday night, hours before the Sixers were set to tip off against the Los Angeles Lakers, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Covington and Philadelphia were finalizing a contract extension for four-years and $62 million.

But what the Sixers did to preserve their financial flexibility for the future, while still rewarding Covington, was potentially what makes this deal so valuable. In addition to his current $1.57 million salary this season, the Sixers will renegotiate an additional $15 million into Covington’s salary for this year.

As Wojnarowski reported, that chunk of change the Sixers coughed up this season allows them to still have $25 million in salary-cap space next summer. Along with paying a large portion of the deal upfront, the four-year extension Covington will wind up agreeing to pays him around $45 million over the duration, as reported by The Athletic’s Derek Bodner.

For Covington, coming from his undrafted status out of Tennessee State, to being sent down to the D-League after a short stint with the Houston Rockets, to a team-friendly Sam Hinkie special four-year contract with the Sixers back in 2014, now finally culminating in a big payday as one of the NBA’s premier 3-and-D players, is nothing short of an amazing story.

It’s duly noted what Covington brings to the table for the Sixers on the court. After leading the league in deflections last season, along with his ability to guard 1-4 spots on the court, Covington secured votes in the Defensive Player of the Year race. This season, without sacrificing any of his defense (registering the same 105 defensive rating as last season), Covington is experiencing a renaissance on the offensive end.

Along with averaging a career-high 16.5 points per game, Covington is shooting an absurd 49.5 percent from deep on 7.2 attempts per game. Believe it or not, he has made more threes than Stephen Curry and is shooting a higher percentage from beyond the arc—Covington is 50-of-101 from three-point range, while Curry is 47-of-121.

It’s only the second week of November, but that is nonetheless impressive, and a testament to how on-fire Covington has been this season.

Playing along Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and another sharpshooter like J.J. Redick gets Covington open looks. He’s learned to maximize those opportunities.

Now, with his new extension, Covington is just as big of an impact off the court, as well.

By renegotiating his salary for this season, the Sixers are left with enough money to be serious players next summer when some marquee free agents will hit the open market. It was a stroke of genius for the front office, and also a rare occurrence, as ESPN’s Bobby Marks pointed out that a move similar to this has occurred just seven times since 1998.

As reported last season, the Sixers made a significant push to acquire Paul George from the Indiana Pacers at the trade deadline. Part of that package included Covington. Although they love Covington in Philadelphia, they believed giving him up for George would have been worth it. Obviously, that didn’t pan out, but the good news now is that the Sixers will have the cap space to pursue George should he opt for free agency this summer.

It’s been no secret that George would like to test the open waters and find the best fit for himself. Although George is playing alongside the most talented players he’s ever had by his side with Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony, he is just one of many impact free agents on the market.

Covington’s brilliant extension gives Philadelphia the option to meet with a player like George, and not only offer him the promise of playing with budding stars like Embiid and Simmons, but with quality starters like Covington. And if George isn’t amenable to the possibility, someone else might be.

On a personal level, Covington embodies “the process” in Philadelphia. From his humble beginnings to now being a multi-millionaire whose efforts are being handsomely rewarded, his story is a good one. 

Not only for him, but for the Sixers, too.

Yes, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid hold the keys to the Sixers’ championship hopes, but once again, Covington is proving to be the X-factor.

This time, he’s extending his intangibles off the court as well.

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