Washington Wizards season preview: Can this team be great? - Bullets Forever
Replacing Ariza with Pierce, who will be 37 and spent most of last year playing power forward for the Nets, will pose a challenge for Wittman. Though Pierce is a solid team defender, it's asking a lot at his age to chase around opposing small forwards from night to night, let alone take Ariza's role as the best perimeter defender. In response, Wall and Beal to step up on defense. They'll have more energy in theory because Pierce, in turn, will shoulder more of the ball handling on offense. Nevertheless, to maintain that defensive intensity that Ariza brought to Washington, the Wizards need big contributions from The Truth. If they don't get them, the team's bedrock could suffer.
2013-14 IN REVIEW
5th in Southeast Division - 5th in Eastern Conference
Lost to IND (4-2) - Eastern Conference Semifinals
Nobody really knew what to expect from the Washington Wizards heading into last season. Randy Wittman's club was coming off of an apathetic 29-win year and despite all of the promising talent on the roster, it was time we started seeing some results.
Just days prior to opening night, Washington drastically improved their squad with a late-October trade that would send Emeka Okafor's insurance-covered expiring contract to Phoenix in return for the highly-productive Marcin Gortat. The big fella would play some of his better basketball as a pro, giving the Wizards one of the best centers in the Eastern Conference and a double-double threat on any given night.
rontcourt partner Nene was out of action for 29 games, but complemented Gortat beautifully when he was on the floor. With their ability to play off of one another from the box to the elbow, along with their pick n' roll play, Gortat and Nene would form one of the most productive frontcourt duos in the entire league, combining for over 27 points and 15 rebounds per game.
As skilled as those two are up front, the thing everyone wants to talk about with this team is the guard tandem of John Wall and Bradley Beal, who are quickly establishing themselves as one of the most dynamic backcourts in basketball. Wall appeared in all 82 games for the first time in his career and earned his first All-Star selection behind career highs 19.3 points and 8.8 assists per game. The 6'4" playmaker lead the league in total assists, finished sixth in steals and put himself into the conversation about the best point guards in the NBA.
In addition to Wall's best season, Bradley Beal exploded in his sophomore year and became a much more reliable weapon than he was as an inconsistent, yet promising rookie. Beal put up over 17 points, three boards and three assists per game while shooting at a 40% clip from three-point territory, and even better, he performed at a higher level as the season progressed. In the playoffs, Beal averaged 19.2 points, five rebounds and 4.5 assists per game while shooting more efficiently from the floor.
Beal is lights out and is turning himself into a big time all-around player, certainly on his way to becoming one of the best wings in the NBA.
Wall and Beal weren't the only ones getting it done on the perimeter, however, as Trevor Ariza entered his contract year locked in and put together his best season in the NBA thus far. Ariza made a tremendous impact on both ends of the floor all season, providing a consistent defensive effort and shooting the ball as well as ever. The lanky 28-year-old scored 14.4 points per game along with a career high 6.2 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game, shooting 40% from beyond the arc for the first time in his career.
Washington finished above .500 for the first time since 2007-08, securing the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference. Although they were looked at as somewhat of an underdog heading into the series against Chicago, the up-and-coming Wizards ate their Wheaties and took on the challenge with a vengeance. Not only did they hold their own, they were able to dominate the series virtually the entire way through, surprisingly winning the series in five games. Granted, the Bulls were without Derrick Rose, but enormous performances from Bradley Beal, Trevor Ariza and Nene brought the Wizards to a place they haven't been in quite some time.
For the first time in nine years and only the second time since 1982, the Wizards advanced to the second round of the playoffs.
Waiting for them in the Eastern Conference Semifinals would be the east's top-seeded Indiana Pacers, who struggled through the second half of the season hovering around the .500 mark, but were on a mission to rebound from it and finish the season strong.
The Wizards would struggle from the field in the series, particularly John Wall, and Indiana simply outmatched them on the court. Washington put up a fight and even stole Game 1 and Game 5 in the Pacers' building, but ended up falling in the series 4-2.
Coming into last season, not many people predicted the Wizards to reach the second round of the playoffs and there were a lot of people who expected them to struggle to even make it. However, they have quickly transformed into one of the best young teams in the league and Washington basketball is finally... finally on the rise.
SUMMER OF 2014
Key Additions - Paul Pierce, Kris Humphries, DeJuan Blair
Key Losses - Trevor Ariza, Al Harrington, Trevor Booker
The biggest news of the summer for the Washington Wizards came as soon as NBA free agent negotiations began on July 1, as the club re-signed center Marcin Gortat to a five-year, $60 million contract. In his first year with the Wizards last season, Gortat put together one of his best campaigns as a pro behind 13.2 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. At 29 years of age, The Polish Hammer has developed into one of the best centers in the Eastern Conference and may still have his best basketball ahead of him.
The Wizards lost Trevor Ariza this summer after arguably his best year in the NBA, but they'll be just fine at small forward. In a move to add some veteran leadership to a young team on the rise, Washington reeled in our beloved Paul Pierce on a two-year, $11 million deal. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever envision The Truth on the Wizards, let alone the Nets; this is going to take some time to get used to.
With that said, our former captain is joining a formidable squad that has a chance to compete in the Eastern Conference this season. Pierce isn't as lethal as he once was with the ball in his hands, thanks to the undefeated Father Time, but he still has something left in the tank and his leadership will be appreciated at an unprecedented level. He also brings Washington another reliable option down the stretch of ballgames as we all know, Pierce has been there and done that in just about any situation you can think of.
Pierce will also serve as a much-needed mentor to the young guys, especially Otto Porter, who has yet to get a chance to break out after the Wizards drafted him third overall two years ago.
In addition to adding Pierce, Washington focused on upgrading their frontcourt rotation this offseason. Old friend Kris Humphries will be the first big off the bench for Randy Wittman this season, and should act as a productive backup that can step in and produce in a starter's role if need be. Humphries is coming off of a solid year in Boston, where he put up eight points and six rebounds in an average of 20 minutes per game. The scrappy high-volume rebounder can provide a lift at both power forward and center, and has really made strong improvements towards his mid-range jumper over the last few years. On a three-year deal worth over $13 million total, you can expect to see a lot of Humphries on the floor going forward.
Speaking of high-volume rebounders, the Wizards also picked up free agent DeJuan Blair on a three-year, $6 million contract with the third year coming as a team option. Blair's relentless tenacity on the boards is more than impressive, as he manages to eat the glass at 6'6" without an ACL in either knee. Blair's opportunities came sporadically in Dallas last season and that may very well be the case this season when the Wizards are at full strength, but this is a guy that will stay ready to produce when his number is called. Not to mention, Nene has missed an average of 31 games per season over the last three years, so Blair may have a chance to make a solid impact off the bench.
To fill out the interior rotation, Washington re-signed Drew Gooden on a $1.5 million one-year deal. Gooden was a late-season addition in 2013-14 and played very well when given an extended opportunity, as he resurrected his NBA career after appearing in just 16 games for Milwaukee in 2012-13. Through 22 games with the Wizards last year, the 12-year veteran produced 8.3 points and 5.2 rebounds in under 20 minutes per game.
Behind Gortat and Nene, the Wizards should have a consistently healthy battle for minutes between Humphries, Blair, Gooden and Seraphin all season long.
PROJECTED DEPTH CHART
C - Marcin Gortat / Drew Gooden / Kevin Seraphin
PF - Nene / Kris Humphries / DeJuan Blair
SF - Paul Pierce / Otto Porter / Rasual Butler / Damion James
SG - Bradley Beal / Martel Webster / Glen Rice Jr.
PG - John Wall / Andre Miller
X-FACTOR - Team Defense
Randy Wittman has a lot of serviceable options on the offensive end of the floor, as his team performed in the top third of the league last season in terms of efficiency. The Wizards finished fifth in three-point percentage and rounded out the top 10 in overall field goal percentage in 2013-14; now, they've added Paul Pierce and a pair of free agent bigs that shoot above 50% from the floor. Add those factors to the rapid maturation of Bradley Beal and John Wall, not to mention one of the most skilled big man duos in the league, the Wizards should be able to get the job done offensively.
However, none of that will matter all that much if they can't get stops on a consistent basis in the playoffs. Last year's run to the Eastern Conference Semifinals was fun to watch, but they won't exceed that plateau unless they lock in as a team on the defensive end of the floor. The loss of Trevor Ariza's defensive impact will be missed, but this team has the personnel to get much better on that end of the floor.
Washington finished in the middle of the pack last season in opponent field goal percentage and while they were often able to control the pace of the game, they couldn't always get the big stops in the big moments down the stretch of certain games. As the Wizards improve defensively, their chances of making a deeper playoff run will only increase.
WHAT TO EXPECT IN 2014-15
The Wizards are going to be a legitimate competitor in the Eastern Conference this season. Coming off of an exciting second-round appearance, they've strengthened their bench and added some experience to help the up-and-coming club get to the next level.
Cleveland and Chicago are universally looked at as the top two targets in the east this season, but the Wizards will be in the mix at the top of the conference and may even have a chance at winning the Southeast Division. As long as they stay healthy, the Wizards should lock up a top four seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs and could realistically make even more noise than they did last year.
For the first time in what feels like forever, the Wizards are on the rise.
2nd - Southeast Division
5th - Eastern Conference
Keep your eyes peeled for the San Antonio Spurs preview, coming later today.