2016-17 record: 49-33. 4th in the Eastern Conference. Eliminated by the Boston Celtics in seven games in a thrilling second round series.
Transactions: The Washington Wizards season could not have started worse last year. They limped out of the gate to a 2-8 start and the team looked lost and listless with a disastrous 106.0 defensive rating and appeared headed to miss the playoffs for a second year in a row despite the addition of new head coach Scott Brooks.
Then everything turned around in a historic way. The Wizards became the first team to suffer such a bad start to finish the season with 49 wins as they went 47-25 the rest of the way. John Wall and Bradley Beal established themselves as perhaps the best back-court in the Eastern Conference and Otto Porter Jr. went from someone with “potential” to a legitimate star who finally realized it.
The squad road that momentum into the playoffs where they dispatched the Atlanta Hawks in six games before falling to the first seed in the East, the Boston Celtics, in a thrilling seven game series that signalled to the basketball world that this team was to be taken seriously.
Under Scott Brooks, a team that was once characterized by underachievement and unrealized potential has become one of the top teams in the East and entered the off-season looking to build on last season’s success and to bolster their depth behind their excellent back-court of Wall and Beal.
With that in mind, the first major move that Ernie Grunfeld made was to trade the team’s sole pick in the NBA Draft – the 52nd selection – to the New Orleans Pelicans for journeyman point guard Tim Frazier who was coming off a season where he averaged 7.1 points and 5.2 dimes in 23.5 minutes per game.
The 26 year old is entering his fourth NBA season and will fill two big areas of need in Washington. The first is stabilizing a back-up point guard role that has been pretty shaky the past few seasons as a revolving door of Brandon Jennings, Trey Burke, Ramon Sessions and Andre Miller didn’t quite give the Wizards what they were looking for. Secondly, Frazier offers a second facilitator off the bench that the team has lacked. Other than John Wall, they didn’t have a pass-first guard on the roster. Now they’ve got a solid play-maker running the point on the second unit.
The team further added to their depth by signing Jodie Meeks on a two year, $6.7 million deal for a player who is going to be an upgrade over deadline acquisition Bojan Bogdanovic who bolted for the Indiana Pacers in free agency. The 30 year old shooting guard averaged 9.1 points off the bench for the Magic and shot 40.9% from three point range and if he can keep it up this season should nicely complement Bradley Beal’s sharpshooting when he comes off the bench.
Meeks has battled injury woes throughout his eight seasons in the NBA, but if he can stay healthy this season he should thrive in Scott Brooks system and will be given a huge opportunity as the Wizards sixth man with his career 37% shooting from downtown.
Mike Scott saw his minutes dwindle last season after previously playing a larger role in the Atlanta Hawks rotation. The 29 year old power big man now has the chance to reignite his career in Washington on a low risk veteran’s minimum deal. Scott is a career 33.6% three point shooter who should be able to offer spacing, athleticism and hustle off the bench at either forward position.
The team also brought Donald Sloan back from China on the veteran’s minimum which adds another ball handling guard to bolster their back-court depth.
Otto Porter Jr.’s restricted free agency saw both the Sacramento Kings and Brooklyn Nets come calling with four max deals. Given Porter’s huge leap last season which saw him average a career high 13.4 points, 6.4 boards, 1.5 assists and 1.5 steals on an incredible 51% shooting including 43.4% from three point range, it wasn’t a hard decision for the Wizards to match.
Porter was lights out last season with an effective field goal percentage of 60.8% which was the fifth highest in the NBA, a true shooting percentage of 62.8% (7th highest), the 10th best two point field goal percentage at 57.6% and the fourth highest three point percentage. He also boasted the league’s second highest offensive rating at 129.1 and the third best single season turnover percentage of all time with 4.89. He was the most efficient scorer in the NBA last season and it wasn’t even close.
Even if the 24 year old falls short of last season’s insane efficiency, he is still only getting better and hasn’t come close to his peak yet. “Bubba” offers Washington the perfect complimentary piece to Wall and Beal with his ability to space the floor and his unselfishness in taking on such a role behind the two back-court superstars. He is also a very versatile and underrated defender on the wing.
Porter’s contract might seem oversized now, but the Wizards aren’t just paying for his historically efficient season last year, but what he’s going to become as he heads into his mid-20s, which if he keeps improving at the rate he’s going could be all-star level potential. “Bubba” will be a key piece of this team’s success going forward and will help Washington compete with Cleveland and Boston for Eastern Conference supremacy.
As good as Porter is, it’s hard to justify having your third option as your highest paid player so with that in mind the Wizards signed John Wall to a four year, $169 million extension that will see him paid among the NBA’s elite starting in the 2019-20 season.
The four time all-star is coming off his best season yet which saw him average 23.1 points on 45.1% shooting along with 10.7 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 2.0 steals per game. A recent poll of NBA general managers singled out Wall as the best point guard in the Eastern Conference and given his ability on both ends of the floor, it’s really hard to argue that isn’t the case.
His 157 steals was tops in the NBA last season and he’s got elite level defensive instincts when it comes to reading passing lanes. He’s got the foot speed to stay in front of any guard in the league and with his length and athleticism can hound opposing ball-handlers like few others in the NBA are capable of. Wall also lead all point guards with 49 blocks last season which is a testament to his incredible vertical leap and explosiveness.
Kobe Bryant recently challenged Wall to receive first team all defense honours this season. He’s previously been selected to the second team all-defense squad in 2014-15. While it will be tough to supplant Chris Paul or Patrick Beverly for first team honours, the fact that Wall accepted the challenge should put opposing teams on notice.
Optimus Dime has also set a personal goal this season of challenging for league MVP. Given his incredible two way play, and the fact that while James Harden and Russell Westbrook have added two superstar teammates, Wall is leading largely the same team into this season, it’s conceivable that he can get there. Especially since I don’t think the team will have the same cold start that characterized this past season.
John Wall is a point generating machine as both a scorer and a facilitator who guided the Wizards to a top ten offense. The Washington point guard was second only to James Harden last season in generating offense off of assists with 25.3 points per game coming off of his dimes. He has evolved from settling for long twos to using his athletic ability to propel him on explosive drives (third most in the NBA at 922) that often get him to the line. His explosive dunks and finishes are among the most exciting in the NBA.
The thing is that at 27 years old, Wall is just starting to enter his prime. He’s going to get even better and become even more of a force on both sides of the floor. I’d expect to see him develop a more consistent three point shot and become even more of a difficult on ball defender this coming as he looks to lead the Wizards back to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1978.
2017 NBA Draft: The Wizards traded their only draft pick and therefore didn’t have a selection in this year’s draft.
Outlook: Just like teammates John Wall and Otto Porter, Bradley Beal is also coming off the best season of his career.
Beal overcame several skeptics – including his own teammates – after being given a five year, $127 million deal last off-season despite having battled injuries in each of his first four NBA seasons. His response was to shatter all expectations by scoring with 23.1 points per game off of 48.2% shooting including 40.4% from three point range. He also set career highs in minutes per game at 34.9 and games played with 77 which also answered a lot of questions surrounding his ability to be durable over the course of an entire season.
Under Scott Brooks, Beal has grown into far more than a spot-up shooter. He often ran the offense when John Wall was on the bench and displayed an improved handle and a willingness to attack the rim as he became a consistent threat out of the pick-and-roll which caused him to emerge as one of the very best shooting guards in the league.
Despite his excellent performance, Beal was overlooked for an all-star selection. That should change this season with an Eastern Conference that’s been depleted of star power and the continued improvement that the 24 year old should show this year after an off-season full of intense work-outs with an eye toward improving his defense and rebounding ability.
Consistency is huge in the NBA and Wall and Beal are entering their sixth season as a back-court tandem. Playing together for so long has allowed them to recognize each others tendencies and play to each others strengths while off-setting each others weaknesses. That provides a very steady foundation for the Wizards to continue to grow from and with Beal’s break-out performance last season, I’d expect an even bigger output this year.
There is some question about how the Wizards big man rotation could shape up. At 33 years old, Marcin Gortat may have his best days behind him but is still a double-double machine who averaged 10.8 points and 10.4 rebounds last season, but he was outplayed by Al Horford in the Celtics series last season and in a league where big men are asked to increasingly play on the perimeter and shooting from distance, there is the danger that Gortat can be spaced out of relevance on the floor.
While the Polish Hammer can still bang bodies with the best of them, Scott Brooks might have to increasingly rely on small and modern line-ups which could open up some playing time for a slimmed-down Ian Mahinmi who can conceivably offer more mobility if he can stay healthy after his injury plagued season last year.
Markieff Morris in many ways personifies the attitude of this group and DC basketball historically with his take-no-shit persona on the court and his gritty and hard-nosed play on both ends of the floor. Unfortunately the Wizards are going to have to start the season without him due to hernia surgery.
I think the team is in a much better situation to manage Morris absence with the signing of Mike Scott and veteran Jason Smith capable of absorbing more minutes, but the biggest opportunity will be for 22 year old Chris McCullough who hasn’t shown much since being drafted but spent the summer working out with Carmello Anthony and has looked much improved in the pre-season with increased confidence and greater mobility.
Scott Brooks could also opt to deploy Otto Porter as a stretch-4 which could open up more minutes for Kelly Oubre Jr. The 21 year old seems poised for a break-out season in his third year as he’s shown flashes of being a high level and athletic defender with elite-level physicality, lateral quickness, quick close-outs and a willingness to battle it out and throw his body around.
On the offensive end, Oubre has constant energy and his frequent slashing puts him in excellent position for open looks. He’s also highly adept at cashing in on second chance points and fights hard for offensive rebounds. When deployed alongside starters last season, he saw a significant increase in production and elevated his play in tough situations during the Wizards playoff run.
Given Brooks’ ability to get the most out of young players, I’d anticipate Oubre to improve as a defender and make better decisions when driving to the basket. He may not experience a break-out on the level of Otto Porter last season, but I’m expecting big things for Oubre in his third year. Especially with the bigger role in the rotation that he’s going to start with in the absence of Markieff Morris.
Overall, I foresee big things for this team. They have a lot of improved depth off the bench which should mean a greatly improved second unit from the one that struggled much of the time last season. Meeks is going to be able to operate a primary scorer off the bench and Frazier is an excellent facilitator in behind John Wall.
In Wall, Beal and Porter, the Wizards have one of the most impressive cores in the entire Eastern Conference and unlike Cleveland and Boston, their top players have been together across multiple seasons and have grown together and thrived last season in Scott Brooks system. With that level of continuity carrying over into next season, I would expect the Wizards to not just improve on their 49 win mark last year, but to compete with the Cavs and Celtics for the top seed in the Conference.
With John Wall just entering his prime and Bradley Beal and Otto Porter coming off career altering seasons, there is no telling what this team will be capable of in a weaker East. I think that his team is poised to win 50 games for the first time since 1979 as both Beal and Wall head to the all-star game and Porter has another excellent season.
While I’ve got them slated to finish third in the conference, if the Cavs or Celtics struggle with their overhauled line-ups, I could see Washington grabbing the number one spot. They are going to establish themselves as an elite Eastern Conference team this season.
Prediction: 52-30. 3rd in the Eastern Conference with a first round play-off victory and a competitive series with the Cavs or Celtics in round two.