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2014-15 Washington Wizards Season Preview

Will the Wizards continue their ascent up the Eastern Conference?

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Every year there’s a surprise team, or two, in the league that puts to shame these annual preseason previews. One of the teams that emerged on the big stage last season was the Washington Wizards, who came very close to making a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals. The Wizards snapped a five-season playoff drought in the process and point guard john Wall put it all together by becoming an All-Star performer.

With the Miami HEAT seemingly on the rebound after the loss of four-time league MVP LeBron James, the Southeast Division is wide open for the taking. On a grander scale, it’s not out of the question for the Wizards to make a strong run at 55 victories and a top three spot in the Eastern Conference.

However, many teams have crumbled under the weight of increased expectations and the Wizards won’t have the cloak of anonymity this season. Teams will give them their best shot and see if the Wizards are for real and here to stay, or in need of more tweaking.

Basketball Insiders previews the 2014-2015 Washington Wizards.

Five Guys Think

A lot of people are going to pick the Wizards to win the Southeast Division this year, and for good reason, since Bradley Beal and John Wall showed last year why they’re one of the most exiting young backcourt combinations in the league right now. Nene and Marcin Gortat also are a unique frontcourt combination that pairs two gigantic, traditional big men against a lot of teams that are rostering less physical stretch-four types as their new-age “power” forwards. In their first round matchup against the Chicago Bulls last year, for example, those two guys simply overpowered one of the league’s better defensive teams. Most organizations just aren’t equipped to deal with them, especially when Beal and Wall are so good from deeper out. No one wanted to see Trevor Ariza go, but snagging Paul Pierce as his replacement should do wonders for the team’s confidence. He’s the only player on the roster with a ring, and that leadership could help take the Wizards to the next level this year. People like Washington a lot, but that’s only because there’s a lot to like here.

1st Place – Southeast Division

-Joel Brigham

After winning 44 contests last season, the Washington Wizards won’t sneak up on any of their opponents. It’s a distinct difference going from hunter to the hunted and a position many a team have failed to successfully navigate. So how will the Wizards handle the pressure? If their young talent continues to grow and their veterans avoid Father Time, the Wizards should carry the Southeast Division and flirt with 55 wins. At the top of the ship is guard John Wall who delivered after signing a max contract before the start of last season. The team signed future Hall of Fame forward Paul Pierce in free agency to aid in handling the success and inject a proven clutch scorer into the mix. We’ll see if the Wizards are ready to be considered elite or if they still have some growing pains to endure.

1st Place – Southeast Division

– Lang Greene

Last season, John Wall proved to be worth every penny of the max deal the Wizards gave him and Brad Beal continued to make huge strides as well. There’s no question that Washington will have one of the league’s best backcourts in the near future if Wall and Beal continue to develop and stay healthy. This was an interesting summer for the Wizards, who lost Trevor Ariza, but managed to keep Marcin Gortat and add contributors like Paul Pierce, Kris Humphries and DeJuan Blair. These veterans should help Washington build on last year’s success. The future is bright in Washington, but these Wizards should be able to make some noise in the short-term as well.

1st Place – Southeast Division

– Alex Kennedy

Quietly, John Wall and Bradley Beal may be laying claim to being the most dynamic backcourt in the Eastern Conference. Last season, en route to leading the Wizards to a 44-38 record and the franchise’s first playoff berth since 2008, Wall and Beal showed NBA fans what the words “progression” and “improvement” mean. The thing to really enjoy about this duo is that their skills truly complement one another. The re-signed Marcin Gortat and Nene give the Wizards a big frontcourt that will have another year together and provide them with good size up front that many teams in the Eastern Conference will not be able to compete with. While the loss of Trevor Ariza will certainly hurt, both Glen Rice, Jr. and Otto Porter deserve more minutes in the rotation and Ariza’s departure will likely result in that. With Paul Pierce Kris Humphries added to the team, the Wizards have improved this summer and should eventually emerge as the cream in their division and, possibly, a top-four seed out East.

1st Place – Southeast Division

– Moke Hamilton

Brighter days are finally here for a Wizards franchise that had to go through some tough times to get to this point. With the backcourt of John Wall and Brad Beal, they are set for the foreseeable future. They’re also quite deep, physical and talented in the frontcourt, which is important in an Eastern Conference that now has Pau Gasol and Kevin Love featured on the two favorites to represent the conference in the NBA Finals. The addition of Paul Pierce really says a lot about how far the Wizards have come. Pierce is still a very productive player, but is at the point in his career where he only wants to play for a winner and compete at the highest level. He could have easily signed on with any contender of his choosing, but went with the Wizards, where he could potentially make the biggest impact of any of his potential destinations. Trevor Ariza was crucial for the team last year, but with Pierce, Glen Rice Jr. and Otto Porter – both of whom shined at the Las Vegas Summer League – the Wizards appear to be more than ready to take the next step forward toward becoming a serious contender.

1st Place – Southeast Division

– Yannis Koutroupis

Top of the List

Top Offensive Player: Dating back over 25 years, the list of NBA championship teams featuring a point guard as the unit’s best player is few and far between. Obviously you have the Isiah Thomas led Detroit Pistons and arguably the 2014 San Antonio Spurs as the lone examples during this time period. But for the Wizards a good bit of their success rides on the slender shoulders of point guard John Wall. The flashy guard averaged a career-high 19.3 points per game last season and his 43 percent shooting from the floor was the second best mark. The Wizards have no shortage of guys who can score in their own right, but Wall is undoubtedly the top dog in D.C.

Top Defensive Player: The loss of small forward Trevor Ariza in free agency to the Houston Rockets is going to sting this unit – big time. Ariza is one of the best perimeter defenders in the league and was an integral part of the Wizards’ defensive success last season. Expect the Wizards to take more of a committee approach this season defensively, but Wall does have the athletic tools needed to emerge as the team’s top defender.

Top Playmaker: With all due respect to veteran guard Andre Miller, who ranks ninth all-time in assists, the Wizards’ top playmaker is Wall who posted a career best 8.8 dimes per game in 2014. Wall is legitimately one of the fastest guards in the league going coast-to-coast, which gives his teammates plenty of opportunities to get out and score in transition. In fact 41 percent of the Wizards’ made field goals were assisted by Wall when he was on the floor last season.

Top Clutch Player: Sure he’s a little long in the tooth these days. Yes it’s true, he can no longer carry an offense single-handedly like he did in his prime. No, the Wizards’ offense won’t provide him with a featured role. There are a lot of things veteran forward Paul Pierce can’t do anymore but the Wizards are paying him for his leadership and proven performance when the lights are the brightest. Pierce will get plenty of opportunities to help the Wizards pull out close games. It is one of the primary reasons the team welcomed him to town and a role he should truly thrive in at this stage of his career.

The Unheralded Player: Martell Webster was the No. 6 overall pick of the 2005 Draft, selected ahead of guys such as Andre Bynum David Lee and Danny Granger. While Webster won’t live up to the hype of his lofty draft position, the forward has established himself as an extremely productive veteran who plays within the framework of a team. This is important, especially for the Wizards who already have their top dogs at the head of the rotation. Webster is counted on to play high IQ basketball, stretch opposing defenses by knocking down open three-pointers, defend and do the dirty work. It is a role Webster has perfected as the Wizards continue their rise in the standings. Webster is expected to miss all of training camp and the early portion of the season after undergoing back surgery in June. This is a huge blow for the Wizards which has flown under the radar.

Best New Addition: The Wizards spent their summer keeping the core group intact, but the addition of veteran forward Paul Pierce in free agency was huge for the program – now and in the future. Pierce’s present impact gives the Wizards a proven performer in pressure situations and a steadying locker room influence. The future impact shows how free agents are starting to view the Wizards as a prime destination. Pierce, a future Hall of Famer, could have signed on virtually anywhere but chose the Wizards. The franchise is building credibility, externally, which bodes well for the future.

– Lang Greene

Who We Like

1. Bradley Beal: The third year guard is oozing with potential and this could be a breakout campaign. The Beal and Wall backcourt is one of the league’s most exciting and both guys are under 25 years of age. Wall is the flashy slasher, Beal serves as the long range gunner and perimeter offense stabilizer. The pairing works and Beal’s presence was a strong driver in last season’s success.

2. Randy Wittman: Listen. Sometimes you just have to give credit where it’s rightfully due. There are many people who predicted Wittman would be long gone before the Wizards became a contender in the Eastern Conference. There were many skeptics who questioned if he was the right head coach for the job. Now Wittman hasn’t silenced all doubters, but he has at the very least bought himself some time with the team’s recent run of success. The questions surrounding Wittman’s offensive creativeness are valid, but the veteran coach balances that weakness with a varying array of defensive schemes. Let’s see if he can get the Wizards to the next level.

3. John Wall: Not much else we can say on Wall. The guard is the team’s top offensive option, unquestioned floor general and will play an even bigger role in the team’s defensive strategy this season all the while being counted on to deliver another All-Star caliber campaign. No pressure, John.

4. Nene: The veteran forward-center is one of the league’s class acts. He’s also one of the best players currently in the game without an All-Star appearance on the resume. The biggest concern with Nene is his health. The veteran has missed at least 21 games in each of the past three seasons. If the Wizards are going to take the next step, Nene must remain on the floor.

5. Marcin Gortat: The Polish Hammer is a double-double threat every time he laces the high tops. Gortat anchors the Wizards’ interior and was rewarded with a five-year $60 million deal during the offseason. At 30, Gortat is what he is as a player which is a very solid contributor. The Wizards need him to continue performing at the same level without much slippage in order to take it up another notch.

– Lang Greene

Strengths

The Wizards’ starting five is a thing of beauty on paper. They have the potential to outshoot you from long range (Beal), create havoc and penetrate the lane at will (Wall), pound you into submission on the interior (Gortat and Nene) or score from either elbow with ease (Pierce).  From an offensive standpoint the 2014-15 Wizards are a dynamic unit capable of playing a variety of styles on any given night.

– Lang Greene

Weaknesses

The Wizards have plenty of “name” power in their starting lineup, but their overall depth is nowhere near as strong. With the exception of Pierce, presumed starters Beal, Gortat, Nene and Wall have all missed at least 20 games due to injury over the last few seasons. Pierce, on the other hand, is 36 years old and Father Time could come calling at any minute. This puts a lot of pressure on being ready for duty on Otto Porter, Andre Miller, Kevin Seraphin, Kris Humphries, DeJuan Blair, Martell Webster and Drew Gooden.  If the Wizards are hit by injury, especially in the backcourt, the team will struggle due its lack of depth. Defensively, the loss of Ariza takes away a surefire perimeter lockdown defender. No one else on the Wizards’ roster has that type of skillset so the team will need to adjust its defensive style to compensate.

– Lang Greene

The Salary Cap

Washington had a productive summer, adding in Paul Pierce, Kris Humphries, Garrett Temple and DeJuan Blair while re-signing Marcin Gortat, Drew Gooden and Kevin Seraphin.  Humphries was acquired from the Boston Celtics via sign and trade, which (along with Pierce receiving the team’s full $5.3 million Mid-Level Exception) locked the Wizards into a hard cap at $80.8 million.  With 14 players all but locked in (second-year Glen Rice, Jr. isn’t fully guaranteed but will certainly stick with the team), Washington is still $5.5 million under that hard cap.  The Wizards can add a 15th player at the minimum while staying slightly under the $76.8 million luxury tax threshold.  The team also has a pair of traded player exceptions ($4.3 million for Trevor Ariza and $1.3 million for Emeka Okafor), but with the team close to the tax – those exceptions may go unused throughout the season.  The Okafor exception will expire in October, but the Wizards can save the Ariza TPE until July.  Washington doesn’t have access to its $2.1 million Bi-Annual Exception, used last season on Eric Maynor.

– Eric Pincus

Dunc’d On

Expectations may be higher for the Wizards this season than any in the past 30 years given their hard-fought second-round playoff loss last year.  Are they deserved?  On one hand, the Wizards overachieved in the playoffs last year relative to their regular season performance.  They were able to defeat an offensively challenged Bulls team that failed to optimize its strategy, and then hung tough with a schizophrenic Pacers squad that had played awful basketball the last third of the season and should have lost to the 38-44 Hawks the previous round.  They lost Trevor Ariza, their best perimeter defender and a solid three-point marksman, to the Houston Rockets.  Nene and Marcin Gortat both project to be worse next year as they move into their 30s.  John Wall and Bradley Beal are dripping with potential, but neither has managed a league average true shooting percentage.  Beal in particular offset his 40 percent on threes by shooting only 30 percent of his shots from there, rarely getting to the line, and making up the balance with miserable 42.6 percent shooting on twos.

On the other hand, youth abounds on this roster, with Wall and Beal the most likely breakout candidates.  Both have the talent to become more efficient players as they get more experience.  Meanwhile, mid-level exception signee Paul Pierce should pick up the offensive slack for Ariza.  While his ability to guard the three is questionable at this point in his career, he offers the prospect of opening the floor for Wall’s penetration in small lineups at the four if Otto Porter (another youngster) proves worthy of minutes.

The Wizards are firmly in the conversation for the potential third seed in the East, although a similarly young Toronto team that performed much better than the Wiz a year ago should be the favorite for that spot.  Where they finish depends on whether improvements among the smalls outpaces decline among the bigs.

Best Case

52-30

Beal becomes an All-Star (and actually deserves it) while Wall becomes the best point guard in the East.  Nene cracks 60 games played, while Gortat maintains his career-year standards of a season ago.  Pierce narrowly skirts the aging cliff, Porter starts to develop as a three and D player who can also score a bit with the second unit, and someone among the parade of backup bigs signed to replace Trevor Booker seizes the third big man spot and proves able to make a jump shot.

Worst Case

39-43

Nene gets hurt, Gortat cannot repeat his performance, and the backup big men don’t stop anyone and can’t shoot.  Without Ariza, the defense regresses into the lower half of the league. Porter proves unable to translate his solid summer league (built largely on accuracy from midrange) into solid rotation minutes.  Wall and Beal stagnate, with Beal in particular forced into too many difficult midrangers because nobody else can score.  Pierce complains a lot, and settles for too many isolations himself. The offense similarly can’t crack the top half of the league, and the Wizards finish under .500.

– Nate Duncan

The Burning Question

Will the Washington Wizards hold up under the weight of increased expectations?

The Wizards won 44 games last season as a surprise breakout team. With management opening up the wallet to keep the core group intact over the summer, expectations for improvement naturally come with the territory. One of the ways to judge how much growth the Wizards truly make is their ability to defend their home court.  Last season the team posted identical 22-19 records at home and away. While the road record was respectable, elite teams consistently get the job done at home. That’s a test for this Wizards team. For a squad that came within a sniff of the Eastern Conference Finals last season, the stage is set for a 50-plus win campaign in 2015. But it all ultimately comes down to how the Wizards handle the pressure of success.

– Lang Greene

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