Media day and the talk of mohawks and goofy photos is now over. Soon, the business of actually preparing for the biggest Washington Wizards season in years begins. Here are 10 key issues that I'm tracking as training camp begins.
1. Can Randy Wittman build a better offense?
We begin with the head coach because this is the head coach's time to install most of what he wants the team to carry out during the season. Long travel schedules and an increased emphasis on rest mean little time to practice once the ball tips in late October. Even then, most practices are spent than tinkering around the margins depending on the next opponent. Training camp is when the foundation gets installed.
And the big question for Wittman revolves around the side of the ball that should improve on paper. The freshly-extended Wizards' coach has struggled to devise an efficient offensive scheme that adheres to modern NBA principles. Under Wittman, the Wizards have launched too many long two-pointers at the expense of threes (which they convert well) and free throws (which they don't generate enough OR shoot well). That's led to below-average offenses, though things ticked up a bit last year with the addition of Marcin Gortat and better transition play.
Some have called Wittman's system simplistic, but I'm not sure that's the right adjective. Some of Washington's set plays look great when executed well, and Wittman's improved in after-timeout situations. Really, it's the opposite problem: the sets are too structured. A pick and roll must be exactly here, the setup motion must be exactly this and we try it until it works while everyone else stands still, etc. Players execute the system like robots instead of reading and react. This has a ripple effect into crunch time, when individual talent must rise above to make the right play in tighter spots.
But the struggles could always be explained away by the team's personnel, which is no longer the case. Paul Pierce can do far more things than Trevor Ariza. A full year of Gortat and Nene means there's more potential for high-post sets. Improved playmaking from Bradley Beal means John Wall doesn't need to carry the whole load.
The tools are there for Wittman to foster more offensive creativity. What alterations will we see?
2. How will Paul Pierce be used?
This applies both positionally and functionally. Based on the way the roster is set up, Pierce should play small forward. However, we all know he thrived playing as a small-ball power forward in Brooklyn last year, a fact not lost on Wittman when he spoke last week.
Functionally, Pierce's versatility should allow Wittman to open up his playbook. He can post up, handle the ball and attack the basket from many different angles. That said, he also needs to adjust and spot up in the corner to handle Wall's crosscourt whip passes.
3. How do the Wizards stay defensive?
Offense has been the main buzzword since the Wizards acquired Pierce, but the loss of Ariza presents some interesting defensive problems. Pierce is still a capable team defender, but he's not the lockdown wing Ariza was last year. That perimeter defense was crucial, because Gortat isn't the anchor Emeka Okafor was the previous season and was still learning Wittman's system.
How will Washington adjust? The good news: Wittman has proved he can change his defensive system to maximize the talent on the team. While Gortat is not an elite shot blocker, he's strong positionally and has a year in this system under his belt. Nene will be healthy, and almost anyone should be better off the bench than Trevor Booker was.
But there are still big questions. When the Wizards play a team with a top wing player, who checks him if not Pierce? Can the two guards step up and take on big defensive loads when they are also carrying so much of the offense? Is Otto Porter ready for big minutes as a wing stopper? Will Gortat plug the lane as well this year?
4. Who becomes the first big man off the bench?
The Wizards have several options, all of whom were signed essentially for the equivalent of one mid-level exception. But one probably needs to rise above the others.
Kris Humphries has to be the favorite after a strong season in Boston. He's improved his perimeter jumper and defensive positioning, and he can lay the wood on defenders trying to fight over screens. But he's never really played a big role on a good team, floundering in Brooklyn the last time he was expected to do so. Can he step up and overcome his limitations?
If not Humphries, there are plenty of options. DeJuan Blair was effective in limited spurts for Dallas, and while his defense and rim protection skills are subpar, his combination of passing, rebounding and screen-setting should really help Washington's guards get open. Drew Gooden is a forgotten man, but he gave the Wizards a big shot in the arm last year and can help stretch the floor. And ... maybe this is the year Kevin Seraphin finally puts it all together! (Probably not).
The answer likely depends on matchups, which is fine. All are vets and should be ready whenever Wittman feels the need to use them. But with Nene a walking injury risk, the pecking order takes on added importance. Whoever emerges as the de-facto "third big" will play big minutes. Who will that person be?
5. Are Otto Porter and Glen Rice Jr. ready?
They better be, because the backcourt and the wing are pretty thin. Martell Webster's back injury may be "ahead of schedule," but it's still possible he's not back until January or much later. Rasual Butler and Damion James are around, but if either is playing a big role, it's a sign that things didn't go too well with the Junior Mafia.
The Wizards are taking a leap of faith here without a ton of evidence to support their claims. We all know about Porter's lost season, which was dramatically affected by injuries, the team's goals and lack of support. Still: he looked completely lost, showing zero flashes of what he might become in the future. He was good in Summer League, but translating that to the regular season is another matter entirely. Even rising to a rotation-quality player is a big jump. Is he really able to make that leap?
The leap is even bigger for Rice. Sure, he dominated Summer League, and sure, he's shown the flashes Porter hasn't. But Rice's leash will undoubtedly be shorter for two reasons: he's the one that has to adjust his game to fit a team setting and he plays the same position as one of the team's pillars. If Rice is able to do so, it'll be a huge boon to the team's bench. If he can't adjust his game, though, he'll sit frustratingly in Wittman's doghouse as we all complain in game threads.
These are the team's two best perimeter bench players. If they have poor camps, who else is there?
6. Will we see Second Unit Bradley Beal again?
Last year, the Wizards tried compensation for a shallow second unit by staggering Bradley Beal's minutes and letting him act as the unit's primary scorer. This is a tactic used by many teams, so it's hardly original. Still, it's interesting because it meant fewer minutes for Beal with John Wall. It also meant that Beal was able to develop his playmaking, which often was rocky until a strong finish.
With Rice and Porter now expected to take on bigger roles and Webster, the normal early substitute for Beal, sidelined, will Beal's role continue as it did last year? Or will Wittman play Beal more with the starters and hope that Rice's scoring ability and Humphries' shooting keeps the second unit humming?
7. How do Wall and Beal share playmaking duties?
I don't have a ton of questions about Wall. The success of his season depends on individual factors that won't get answered in training camp (his shooting touch, his willingness to drive, his attention to detail defensively). Similarly, we know the Wizards need Beal to break out like he did in last year's playoffs, but we won't know exactly how he's doing on that path until the games start.
But one thing I'm curious to watch: how will the two split playmaking duties? Wall of course takes on the lion's share, controlling the ball for an almost-unhealthy amount of time. That said, Beal showed in the playoffs that his season-long pick and roll experimenting may bear fruit. He still settled for too many jumpers, but he also showed tricky hesitation moves that we didn't see in November and improved his passing reads.
Will Beal continue to gobble up pick and roll sets from Wall? And if so, is it in the name of resting Wall, or is it because Beal may actually be just as good, if not better?
8. Who sits and when?
This is a veteran team, so expect plenty of guys to get rest. We can pencil in Nene for at least three rested practices and 1-2 missed preseason games. Others like Andre Miller, Pierce, Gooden and Gortat will surely get breaks when needed. Balancing rest with getting those guys on the court to develop chemistry will be one of Wittman's biggest challenges.
9. Will one of the non-roster guys make the team?
The Wizards have 14 guaranteed contracts, so there's room for one more person to make the club should they so choose. All six players do not have guaranteed deals, so I'd expect the Wizards to take one for a couple months and get rid of them if a better opportunity arises. What's the harm?
Assuming they keep 15 players, the top candidates for the final spot are Rasual Butler, Xavier Silas and Damion James. The Wizards need more wing help, and Butler and James have been around long enough to be good soldiers in the locker room even if they aren't playing. Silas offers a little more upside should the Wizards prefer someone that could turn into something better.