Geoff Burke-US PRESSWIRE
Will the third year of the John Wall era feature the Wizards' first playoff appearance since 2008?
This is our submission to SB Nation's NBA blog previews series. You can see all NBA previews right here.
Team Name: Washington Wizards
Last Year's Record: 20-46 (14th in the Eastern Conference)
What significant moves were made during the offseason?
Bradley Beal, drafted third overall out of the University of Florida, already looks like an excellent draft pick. His jumper has been every bit as good as advertised so far, and he'll only see more open looks once John Wall and Nene are sharing the court with him. Beal's also a surprisingly steady ball handler and, in a marked contrast to his predecessor at shooting guard in Nick Young, excels at finishing through contact and getting to the line. At the very worst, he'll be a solid starter at the 2 for a decade, possibly as soon as this year.
The team also swapped one bloated contract for two, dealing Rashard Lewis to the Hornets for Ariza and Okafor. Ariza and Okafor should at least in theory be very valuable veteran defenders, but there are a few signs that both could flop in Washington. Okafor dealt with knee issues last year and isn't skilled or big enough to contribute much when he's a step slow, so his previously great defense has fallen off quite a bit and could continue to decline in 2013. Ariza, although uninjured and at his athletic peak, has spent the majority of his career playing for teams that have been more relevant than the Wizards will be and might struggle to stay motivated as a complementary piece on a fringe playoff team without a very high national profile. With newcomer Martell Webster and sophomore Chris Singleton waiting in the wings, it's possible Ariza could lose the starting job if he gets off to a slow start this year.
What are the team's biggest strengths?
Washington finished with the league's 21st best defense on a per-possession basis last year, but the numbers only tell part of the story. The defense was awful until Javale McGee was swapped out for Nene, at which point the team suddenly turned into the 76ers. While the Wizards lack a traditional rim protector -- Seraphin, Okafor, and Nene are all slightly undersized for a center -- they have a lot of length and quickness at every position, with a few players who could eventually become elite defenders. Nene, while not the shot blocker or rebounder McGee is, excels at all of the little things you want a center to do, particularly switching onto perimeter players and boxing out. All this explains why the team was fourth in the league in defensive rating from the time of the trade to the end of the season. The additions of Ariza, Okafor, and Webster, as well as the continuing development of the team's young core should make the Wizards at the very least a respectable defensive team this year.
The Wizards are also a surprisingly deep team, especially in the frontcourt. While Nene and John Wall are the only players who are above-average starters, the team has three rotation-caliber small forwards and a half dozen productive big men. Players like Jan Vesely and Trevor Booker aren't going to scare anyone, but as far as second or third big men off of the bench, you can do a lot worse.
What are the team's biggest weaknesses?
Shooting, Or rather, a lack thereof. Everyone knows that Wall's a Rajon Rondo-esque outside shooter, but the bigger problem might be the team's lack of shooting from the power forward position. All of those productive big men I mentioned earlier are productive because they're good at getting garbage buckets and rebounding, not hitting jump shots. As a result, the team's spacing is going to be bad this year. Beal, Webster and Cartier Martin will help, but this is a team that is going to struggle to score this year, especially if their opponents decide to pack the paint.
The Wizards' management and coaching staff also doesn't inspire much confidence. While GM Ernie Grunfeld has been involved with the NBA for many years, the best any one of his teams in D.C. has ever been is mediocre. A large part of the problem is a tendency to overpay in trades and free agency rather than stay patient with cap space. Ariza and Okafor will cost more than $20 million during the last year of their contracts, for example. The coaching staff also doesn't have an especially proven track record. The players took to Randy Wittman after Flip Saunders got fired, but he also has never won more than 32 games in a season as a head coach. Wouldn't the team have been better off making a Godfather-type offer to, say, Donnie Walsh and a Van Gundy?
One thing that isn't a weakness this year is professionalism. Post-McGee trade, the team is devoid of knuckleheads and is comprised entirely of high-character guys with solid work ethics.
What are the goals for this team?
On a macro level, the team is taking a playoffs-or-bust attitude this year. With a still-improving Wall surrounded by quality veterans and youngsters who actually know how to play, the Wizards have a legitimate shot at the No. 8 seed. The Raptors, Pistons, Cavaliers, and Bucks have assembled similarly talented teams, though, so simple luck might mean the difference between getting swept in the first round by Miami and the sixth pick in the draft.
On a micro level, continued development for the youngsters is the most important goal for the upcoming season. Washington has pulled together some intriguing young pieces, but the franchise's spotty track record when it comes to player development makes it hard to get too optimistic about anyone. Wall, Seraphin, Vesely, and Singleton all have significant holes in their games that, if filled, could lead to dramatic improvements in their overall production.
Is John Wall really a franchise player?
After two up and down seasons,Wall still hasn't turned the corner and staked a claim as one of the NBA's elite. He still needs to be more disciplined on defense and improve his ball handling, but he's actually become somewhere between good and great at almost everything that doesn't involve shooting. While he shot poorly from the outside last year, a lot his problems might have been mental -- no one is a bad enough shooter to only make 3 of 42 three pointers -- and he became much more effective as the year progressed. Even if he never becomes a good jump shooter, he's still demonstrated the court vision and defensive potential necessary to be a real difference maker on both ends of the court. If those jumpers start falling, though, he could very well find himself playing in quite a few All-Star games.