Over the next month, Blazer's Edge will be rolling out season previews for all 30 NBA teams. Continuing this feature, we discuss the Washington Wizards with Rashad Mobley, John Converse Townsend, Adam Rubin, Adam McGinnis and Dan Diamond from Truth About It. (Yesterday's preview: San Antonio Spurs)
Washington Wizards 2014-15 Season Preview
2013-14 Record: 44-38, No. 2 in Southeast Division, No. 5 in Eastern Conference
Roster additions: DeJaun Blair, Rasual Butler, Kris Humphries, Damion James, John Lucas III, Paul Pierce, Glen Rice Jr., Xavier Silas
Roster subtractions: Trevor Ariza, Trevor Booker, Al Harrington, Eric Maynor, Chris Singleton
SB Nation affiliate: Bullets Forever
Blazer's Edge: Washington could really make some noise this year in a down Eastern Conference ... what's your outlook for the team?
Rashad Mobley: A month ago during Washington Wizards Media Day, I overheard NBA.com/TNT's David Aldridge lamenting the predictions NBA writers and pundits were making about the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Chicago Bulls and even the Wizards. He said, "The Paul George injury should show everyone how delicate every team in the NBA is." That sounded eerily similar to the great Mike Tyson phrase, "Everyone has a plan until they get hit."
Wizards fans are particularly sensitive to the debilitating effect of injuries. In the past several seasons, injuries to franchise players John Wall and Gilbert Arenas led to numerous lottery appearances, fired coaches, significantly lowered expectations, and a general feeling of malaise among fans. This is why last year's playoff run was so significant. The franchise player (Wall) was healthy, as were Bradley Beal, Nene, Marcin Gortat, and the now-departed Trevor Ariza. The Wizards had a core group of players who could be depended on, they had an up-and-coming back court, along with two anchors in the middle, and any discussion of "The Curse o' Les Boulez" was replaced with thoughts of future playoff runs in an Eastern Conference which looked to be anyone's to win.
In the offseason, the Wizards responded by re-signing Coach Randy Wittman for two years, by replacing Ariza with future Hall-of-Famer Paul Pierce, and by adding interior players Dejuan Blair and Kris Humphries. The core of Nene, Wall, Beal, and Gortat was now bolstered by a notorious closer in Pierce. The Wizards bench, which already boasted Martell Webster, Andre Miller, Drew Gooden, and King of the Summer League, Glen Rice Jr., now had veteran players in Humphries and Blair who could do the dirty work against the more physical teams (mainly the Pacers and the Bulls). The X-factor in the equation is 2013 No. 3 overall draft pick, Otto Porter, who had a dreadful rookie year, but a confidence-inspiring Summer League. If I were making a prediction based on this paragraph alone, I would say the Wizards were destined to win 47-to-52 games and maybe secure the third or fourth seed in the East. Then the "Curse" started snaking its way back into the conversation.
Bradley Beal fractured his wrist and is shelved until December (maybe), Glen Rice tweaked an ankle, Pierce bruised his knee, and just this week Wall complained about tendinitis in his knee and missed a preseason game (he returned the next game). In isolation, these injuries could simply be chalked up to the hazards of preseason. But when these injuries occur on a team that is just now returning the playoffs after failing to meet expectations for so many years, it is scary-Oct. 31 scary even. More importantly, it lowers the expectations and alters any prediction I may previously have made.
Projected Record: 43-39, 6th in the Eastern Conference
Blazer's Edge: John Wall really improved his outside shooting toward the end of last season. Do you expect that to carry over? On that note, is Wall an elite point guard yet in the NBA?
John Converse Townsend: He did improve his outside shooting, as he has just about ever year. Wall shot 40 percent from 3-point land after the All-Star break, helping him finish the season at 35.1 percent, a career-high. It isn't just the makes that should stand out, it's the volume of takes in 2013-14. Over his first three season Wall fired 202 shots from downtown, making 49. He fired 308 3s last year alone, burying 108.
Wall's midrange shot (15-19 feet) has also improved every year, which is pretty clear by the numbers:
2010-11 - 33.6%
2011-12 - 34.5%
2012-13 - 36.4%
2013-14 - 36.8%
He took more shots (372) from 15-to-19 feet last season than all but four players-Dirk, DeRozan, Melo, and LaMarcus Aldridge. However, his 36.8 percent conversion rate ranked 32nd out of 34 players with at least 200 attempts. But he's clearly more willing than ever before to take the midrange J, even as defenders have begun to go over screens.
Signs of progress are there, even if Wall's far from a dead eye shooter, and we mustn't forget that pulling-up from ... well, anywhere is kind of a new thing for Wall. "I never really had to use my jumper before. I was so much better and faster than everyone, it didn't matter," he told ESPN the Magazine before his third season.
Now, as for whether Wall is an elite point guard ... I think the short answer is "no, but." He's not quite there yet, but Wall *does* have elite characteristics.
Size, for example. At 6-foot-4 he's bigger than most point guards out there, and his massive wingspan helps him make highlights with chase-down blocks. His speed is obvious, especially in the open court. In the 13th annual GM Survey (released yesterday), basketball bosses couldn't decide who was faster with the ball-John Wall or Russell Westbrook. Each player received 11 votes (out of 27).
But he's a pass-first guard and his court vision is what sets him apart. He led the NBA in total assists* (721) and finished third in assists per game (8.8), often setting up shooters in either corner with fancy jump passes or his patented behind-the-back gather.
Consistency and efficiency are the keys to success for this Wizard (fewer PUJITS, more free throw attempts, please). And he knows it. His omission from the Team USA roster didn't come to a surprise to anyone, Wall included, even with Chris Paul out of the process.
"I'm overlooked again," he said. "I guess have to prove myself one more time."
Last season, Wall joined Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson and future Hall-of-Famer CP3 as the only players to record 17.7 points, 8.3 assists and 4.3 rebounds over their first 266 appearances, but it's going to take another strong year, and a deep playoff run, for Wall to be recognized a first-class point guard in today's game.
*Wall also led the NBA with 295 turnovers, one more than Steph Curry.
Blazer's Edge: Who on Washington's bench will step up this year and contribute most?
Adam Rubin: Last season, Washington's bench was comically bad. No lead was safe with the second unit on the floor. Things got so bad that the team brought in two players that were not even playing NBA basketball (Andre Miller and Drew Gooden) to right the ship.
Thankfully, Washington continued its bench transformation this off-season by unloading the unproductive souls clogging the end of the roster (mainly Chris Singleton, somewhat Al Harrington) and replacing them with real life NBA players like DeJuan Blair and Kris Humphries. Throw in returning youngsters and Summer League stars Otto Porter and Glen Rice, Jr. and suddenly Washington has a whole bench full of legitimate options.
The easy answer to the question posed is Otto Porter. Porter has certainly generated the most preseason buzz and will get plenty of opportunities as Paul Pierce's backup. With Trevor Ariza gone, Martell Webster nursing an injured back, and Bradley Beal out at least the first few weeks of the season, Otto will get all the minutes he can handle in November. He closed out the preseason with a bang on Wednesday against New York, scoring 22 points on 9-of-12 shooting with four 3-pointers, and looks primed to erase the "bust" tag that followed him his rookie year.
But the easy answer can be a little boring. So I am going with Mr. Kris Humphries. Humphries is the only big man off the bench who can replace Trevor Booker's rebounding intensity and hit an open 15-foot jumper. He is the closest thing Washington has to a stretch 4, unless you count Paul Pierce-which you should, because he played that role well for Brooklyn last season. If Humphries can stand quietly on the baseline and consistently hit jumpers while Wall and Beal run pick-and-rolls with Gortat, he will vastly improve Washington's half-court offense, which had a tendency to sputter when Nene was replaced with the likes of Jan Vesely, Trevor Booker, and Kevin Seraphin.
Blazer's Edge: Paul Pierce seemed like an unexpected acquisition for the Wizards this past summer. What's his role on the team?
Adam McGinnis: When Trevor Ariza spurned Washington to re-join Houston, the Wizards wasted little time in acquiring Paul Pierce. The surprise signing caught many off guard because there were no rumors linking Pierce to Washington. The two-year deal was immediately hailed as a symbolic move that D.C. was finally a destination for high-profile free agents and that the franchise was legitimately ready to contend.
Pierce displayed that he still has some game left as a key cog in Brooklyn's turnaround in the second half of last season. The Truth's main role will be that of a leader, especially for the younger players. Before training camp began, he organized a team building event of watching the Redskins get blown out the by the Giants. (Welcome to D.C. sports, Paul!)
He stressed to Otto Porter that the Wizards must be better at protecting their home court, has challenged Wall and Beal to shoot a higher percentage from the free throw line, and has provided an overall sense of confident championship bravado that has become contagious amongst the players. The Future Hall-of-Famer will be counted on to make some corner 3s, possibly play some stretch 4 and be an important offensive option in crunch time.
Blazer's Edge: Bradley Beal certainly doesn't lack confidence. What are his strengths as a player? Where does he need to show improvement this year?
Dan Diamond: Here's a fun fact about Bradley Beal. He's young. Like, NBA-rookie young. Despite entering his third season, Beal's still younger than eight players taken in the first round of the NBA draft this summer.
Here's another fun fact about Beal: He's plenty good, and not just good for his age.
Beal brings a range of competencies but his calling card is scoring, averaging 17 points per game at 20 years old. And he flashed a whole new gear in the playoffs. Rather than be intimidated by the bigger stage, Beal stepped forward while franchise All-Star John Wall stumbled--Beal helped handle the ball, made big shots, and ran the pick-and-roll to perfection. In 11 playoff games, Beal scored 25 or more three times and never had less than 13. Overall, he averaged 19 points per game. Barring some deeply unusual career stagnation, Beal's going to improve in a number of key areas-creating his shot, playing team defense, reducing his reliance on mid-range jumpers.
What he needs to improve is his health. Beal missed one-third of his games in his rookie season because of assorted injuries, and more than 10 percent of his sophomore season, too. Now he's facing a wrist injury that could keep him out for the entire first month of the 2014-15 season, and maybe more.
Stray injuries are tough to avoid, and missing game time might not affect Beal's growth. After all, Steph Curry couldn't stay on the court early in his career, and now he's a sleeper MVP candidate. But the Wizards are counting on their all-world backcourt to take them deep into the playoffs, and Beal's health is one of the biggest variables of the season.
Special thanks to Rashad Mobley, John Converse Townsend, Adam Rubin, Adam McGinnis and Dan Diamond of Truth About It for taking the time to discuss the Washington Wizards' upcoming season with Blazer's Edge. They can be found on twitter @rashad20, @johnctownsend, @LedellsPlace, @adammcginnis and @ddiamond. Truth About It has you covered for Wizards news and analysis.
-- Chris Lucia | email@example.com | Twitter