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Washington Wizards season preview: Can this team be great?

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The Wizards surpassed expectations last year. With a returning core, a deeper frontcourt and a future Hall of Famer, are they really ready to take the next difficult step?

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Hi everyone. This is our entry in the SB Nation NBA Blog preview series. View all teams to date here. -Mike

Last Year's Record: 44-38
Key Losses: Trevor Ariza, Trevor Booker, Chris Singleton, Al Harrington
Key Additions: Paul Pierce, Dejuan Blair, Kris Humphries

1. What significant moves were made during the off-season?

Priorities 1 and 1A for the front office were supposedly retaining Marcin Gortat and Trevor Ariza. But in reality, keeping Gortat in Washington was always more important, as the Wizards demonstrated by their words and actions. Gortat was locked up early in free agency with a five-year, $60 million contract that doesn't look quite as big in light of the new TV deal.

Meanwhile, Ariza kept his options open, negotiating with several suitors before deciding to return to Houston on a 4 year, $32 million deal. This set the stage for the surprise of the summer:

Yes, Paul Pierce agreed to come to Washington for two years at the mid-level exception. With some convincing from the soon-to-be-Clipper-bound Sam Cassell, Pierce put his faith in a Washington franchise that appears to be on the rise.

Later, the Wizards put a trade exception acquired for Ariza and other random assets to good use, acquiring Kris Humphries (3 years, $13 million) and DeJuan Blair (3 years, $6 million) for much-needed frontcourt depth. Both players signed deals with third-year team options, for obvious reasons.

The Wizards "AARP Squad" was also broken up. Andre Miller (team option for $4.6 million) and Drew Gooden (veteran's minimum) were retained, but fellow squad member Al Harrington was let go. Trevor Booker's qualifying offer was not tendered, so he left for Utah. Kevin Seraphin's qualifying offfer, meanwhile, was signed, keeping him in Washington for one more year. Utility man Garrett Temple also returned to Washington on a guaranteed two-year minimum deal.

Overall, the Wizards were able to add to their core group of players while maintaining flexibility for a certain free agent in 2016.

2. What are the team's biggest strengths?

Depth and experience. Though it seems odd to have said this a year ago, the Wizards should have one of the deeper teams in the East. This should be a marked improvement over last year's team, which had one of the more effective starting units in the league, but a bench that hemorrhaged points when in the game. A backup frontcourt that consisted of Jan Vesely, Booker, Chris Singleton and Seraphin for two-thirds of the year now has Gooden, Humphries, Blair and the possibility of playing Pierce as a stretch 4. Andre Miller will back up Wall for the entire year, and Glen Rice Jr. and Otto Porter come off stellar Summer League performances and are expected to contribute.

Contrary to what many national commentators say, the Wizards are far from a young team. This year's roster includes three starters that are at least 30 years old, four with NBA finals experience and a backup point guard whose college career started the same year Dante Exum was born.

Even the youngsters aren't really young. John Wall is now is fifth year, and he and Bradley Beal now have experience playing -- and winning -- in the NBA Playoffs. Only Porter and Rice are green..

3. What are the team's biggest weaknesses?

Offensive strategy and execution. There's a common misconception that the Wizards are fast-paced and offensive-oriented. Sure, they can look fast when Wall wreaks havoc on the break with his incredible speed. But the reality is that the Wizards ranked 18th in pace last year.

That deliberateness didn't result in a ton of offensive success. Washington sported a below average offensive rating and frequently had difficulty scoring down the stretch of close games. While their offensive rating was dragged down by the awful bench for much of the season, one would expect a team with Wall, Beal, Ariza, Nene and Gortat to field an at least above-average offense.

The problem: Washington's half-court game was stagnant and far too dependent on taking long-range two-pointers, shots it wasn't particularly good at making.

Worse, the things the Wizards actually did well weren't done enough. They finished fourth in shooting percentage from within five feet ... but 18th in attempts. They were fifth in three point percentage ... but 19th in tries. Settling for jumpers also meant that the Wizards didn't get to the foul line often, finishing 25th in attempts. Then again, they weren't very good when they got there anyway.

Not every team can be the Houston Rockets, and the Wizards personnel probably isn't ideal for that style. Still, Randy Wittman needs to craft a better strategy to get his players shots in positions where they can be successful. In turn, his players have to stop settling and work for better attempts. Pierce should help the Wizards execute better down the stretch, but Wall and Beal have to stop taking so many mid-range shots if they can't make them at a higher rate.

4. What are the goals for this team?

Top 4 seed, 50-plus wins.

Playoffs or bust was an obvious ambition last year, but it's harder to figure out the next step. Making the Finals is a longshot in LeBron's East, and even making the conference finals will be challenging.

That said, improving on last year's record and earning home-court advantage in the first round will be a big step forward for the franchise. Getting to as high as third place and/or avoiding a potential second-round matchup with Cleveland would also be ideal, because the Wizards have proven they match up well with the Bulls. To do this, the Wizards need their veteran front line to stay healthy and their young backcourt to continue developing.

There's another smaller, yet significant goal: winning consistently at the Verizon Center. For perspective: the Wizards' 22-19 home record was the same home mark as the 12th-place team in the Western Conference. It got even worse in the playoffs, where the Wizards went 5-1 on the road, but just 1-4 at home.

Pierce made winning at home a priority with this now-famous line.

"Hey, we got to protect home court this year. Anybody who come up here, they're going to get beaten up."

5. Can the Wizards continue to showcase an elite defense?

Deride Randy Wittman all you like. Point to his awful career record (and ignore the poor teams he inherited) and his antiquated offensive philosophy (no arguments here).

But don't ignore the fact that Wittman has established something that has been lacking here for years: "A commitment to playing f---ing defense."

Even when the Wizards started 4-28 in 2012-13, they had an above-average defense while missing multiple key parts. They ultimately finished fifth in the NBA in defensive efficiency, a major achievement. Last year, they finished ninth even after losing defensive centerpiece Emeka Okafor to injury.

But getting back to that level will require Wittman's best coaching job yet. Ariza is gone and he was critical to the Wizards defensive success last year. Whether it was covering like LeBron or chasing around a small point guard like D.J. Augustin in the playoffs, Ariza took the opponent's toughest perimeter assignment and made them earn their points. Paul George may have minimized Ariza as a "just a deny guy," but denying the other team's best players is important!

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.