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The Best of Bullets Forever 2016 Part 1: A recap of the year’s top storylines

2016 is almost finished. Let’s check in with the top storylines of the year!

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Washington Wizards Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Happy New Year’s Eve everyone! I hope you are all with your friends and family as we count down the hours, minutes, and seconds into 2017.

These end of the year roundups are kinda hard to do in the context of basketball season. The main reason why is because the NBA regular season starts in October and ends in April the following calendar year. So we are inevitably going to recap the latter half of the last NBA season (2015-16) and the first half of this season (2016-17).

At any rate, a lot happens in 12 months. So let’s take a look at some of the major story lines we had in 2016.

Randy Wittman’s tenure as head coach ends, while Scott Brooks’ begins

NBA: Washington Wizards at Detroit Pistons Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The Wizards finished with a 41-41 record in 2015-16. In recent memory, most Wizards fans would probably call that a good year. But considering that they were one injured John Wall wrist away from an Eastern Conference Finals, it was the most disappointing regular seasons in recent memory.

That regular season finish, the botched “pace-and-space” offense, and Wittman’s inconsistent treatment of veterans vs. young players contributed to his termination in April, just minutes after their win against the Atlanta Hawks.

Wittman was never the sexiest name on a head coaching short list. However, he led the Wizards to their most successful two-year run in franchise history since Dick Motta led Washington to the NBA championship in 1978 and the NBA Finals a year after that. Wittman also gave the Wizards a defense-first mindset that we haven’t seen in ages.

We should be thankful for what Wittman built in D.C., because that foundation, in particular the John Wall-Bradley Beal backcourt, was a major reason why Scott Brooks came to Washington as opposed to another franchise. Brooks was best known for leading the Oklahoma City Thunder from NBA doormat to Finals contender.

The Wizards only interviewed Brooks for their head coach position and hired him days after Wittman’s termination. Their hiring came with criticism from fans and others alike when some other notable coaches like Dave Joerger and Frank Vogel were fired from the Grizzlies and Pacers last year. There is reason to hold out before hiring someone, but if a coach of Brooks’ caliber really wants to work with the current roster right away, that’s often better than holding out on other coaches who may or may not become available.

The Wizards had a rough start to their 2016-17 season as they started the season with a 2-8 record, and a 6-11 start after November. However, they went 11-5 in December, and finished the calendar year on an eight-game win streak at home. Hopefully 2017 brings bigger crowds to Verizon Center since the Wizards are currently 6th in the Eastern Conference.

Kevin Durant’s cold shoulder kicks off an NBA free agency period from hell

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Detroit Pistons Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The Wizards’ 41-41 season in 2015-16 was unfortunately by design. And it’s one of the growing list of reasons why Wizards fans want Team President of Basketball Operations Ernie Grunfeld terminated ... last NBA season. Instead of re-signing then-starting small forward Trevor Ariza in 2014, the Wizards decided to tread water by signing others to short term deals like Paul Pierce, Jared Dudley and Alan Anderson.

Pierce’s signing in 2014 worked out as well as we could have hoped. The “I Called Game” shot, and his leadership will forever be a valued part of Wizards lore. But the 2015 signings of Dudley and Anderson didn’t work out as well. Dudley played well as a stretch four but wasn’t a Pierce replacement to begin with. And Anderson was injured until very late in the 2015-16 season.

The primary reason why the Wizards weren’t more aggressive in 2014 or 2015 was because they wanted to keep their salary cap space for the next season to make a run at Kevin Durant, who played for the Thunder at the time. By the way, hiring Brooks was a thinly veiled attempt to to bring Durant to Washington as well.

Ultimately, Durant didn’t sign with the Wizards. He didn’t even give them an opportunity for an interview. He agreed to sign his next contract with the Golden State Warriors where he would join a star-studded cast headlined by 2016 MVP Stephen Curry. Despite this, I wrote that the Wizards still have a lot to root for.

At first, that piece kinda blew up in my face over the first 10-15 games of the season were a disappointment. Instead of getting Durant, they tried to go after Al Horford and that didn’t pan out since the Rockets and the Celtics ended up winning his services.

The Wizards settled by signing Ian Mahinmi to a four-year, $64 million deal, Jason Smith to a three-year, $16 million deal, and Andrew Nicholson to a four-year, $26 million deal.

It’s not just that the Wizards signed these three players to a total of over $100 million. Mahinmi played just one game this season and has missed the rest of the season due to knee injuries. Smith and Nicholson on the other hand have struggled to be effective this season though things are turning around as of late.

To add to the frustration of what was a looooong summer, Bradley Beal was offered a spot to play for the USA Basketball men’s national team in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. He turned it down. That hurt.

Unfortunately, the biggest losers this past offseason were Wizards fans. What could have been an exciting offseason ended up being a disaster that spilled over into the regular season.

Bradley Beal signs max-level contract, continues his All-Star trajectory

NBA: Washington Wizards at Chicago Bulls Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

This storyline should come with little surprise.

But when someone is a third overall pick in the NBA Draft, plays significant minutes, and played a major roles on the Wizards’ best playoff teams since singing in falsettos weren’t a punchline:

or making the “YMCA” hand signs were actually a cool thing to do:

you know he’s getting paid.

Before free agency officially began, Beal agreed to sign a five-year, $128 million deal with the Wizards. By doing so, he became the Wizards’ highest paid player, and officially one of the team’s cornerstones ... not like you didn’t think he was already.

Some fans were concerned that the Wizards were committing so much money to him given his injury concerns with his lower right leg. In fact, he missed portions of each of his first four regular seasons due to stress reactions in that leg.

However, the Wizards couldn’t afford to lose him. Some team was going to offer him a maximum level contract. If they didn’t sign him, another would, and the Wizards could risk seeing Beal go for nothing.

This season, Beal has missed some games, but it wasn’t because of his lower right leg — and let’s hope his ankles are okay since he was injured earlier this week... But the good news is that he is turning into the all-around guard the Wizards need.

Otto Porter and Kelly Oubre accelerate their growth in the Scott Brooks Era

NBA: Washington Wizards at Indiana Pacers Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The Wizards’ two most recent first round picks — Otto Porter and Kelly Oubre — have made big strides in 2016. Better yet, they made their strides during the Scott Brooks half of the year!

Porter has been the Wizards’ starting small forward for two consecutive seasons now. Though he made the jump in 2015-16 as an effective starter, there were concerns on whether he’d be a third star for the Wizards.

This season, Porter has made a significant leap toward making that jump. He is averaging career highs in points per game (14.3 ppg), and shooting efficiency (54.8 percent overall, 44 percent from three). As a result, he’ll be on track to earn a maximum contract himself next offseason.

The Wizards unfortunately are capped out for the foreseeable future, so if they sign Porter, he will have to be an All-Star level player or the team could truly be stuck. Therefore, it may make sense to trade him for other pieces — especially if the Wizards don’t think he’ll truly be an All-Star level talent.

Oubre is another player who has improved over the course of the calendar year. He started the season as a seldom-used rookie, not unlike Porter. But this season, and especially in the last few weeks, Oubre has become an effective option off the bench as a defender and a scorer too. He even won two consecutive “Keys to the Palace” (here and here) due to his efforts when the Wizards started racking up wins.

If Oubre continues his improvement, perhaps he makes Porter a bit more “tradeable” given that they play the same position.

Mystics miss the playoffs, but start their offseason with exciting prospects

Emma Meesseman drives to the hoop against Sparks F Nneka Ogwumike. Stewart W. Small

The Mystics came off of three consecutive playoff appearances from 2013-2015 and headed into the 2016 season with hopes for a fourth. With Emma Meesseman’s continued improvement, efficiency, and a cast of mostly home-grown young players, Washington had promise to make the postseason for a fourth straight time.

Unfortunately, the Mystics weren’t able to make the playoffs as they stumbled to a 13-21 record. One of the reasons was because of untimely injuries. Ivory Latta was recovering from right knee surgery to start the season, couldn’t regain her 2015 form, and ultimately sat the last few games out. LaToya Sanders joined the team after Olympic break, but had a stress fracture in her foot soon after she arrived. And Bria Hartley missed the post-Olympic schedule altogether due to pregnancy.

But most of all, it was because the Mystics had a new WNBA-wide scheduling format. Instead of playing an Eastern Conference-centric schedule, they played ten of their opponents three times and played the Chicago Sky four times. Yes, the Mystics had success against the then-defending Minnesota Lynx and they beat them again in 2016. But the Western teams were generally stronger than their Eastern counterparts. That, and the Mystics’ trend of overachieving the last three years ultimately came to a head last year.

I wouldn’t call the 2016 Mystics season a failure though. We saw Meesseman continue to take steps toward superstar-dom, but they are more incremental than we’d like. Tayler Hill, however, had a breakout season as she scored a career-high 15.4 ppg last season and finished second in Most Improved Player voting. And this is also something to keep in mind: every regular Mystics starter on the 2016 team was on her rookie contract, and none of them were picked higher than fourth in any season’s draft. The Mystics had clear handicaps, and just seeing them 9-8 at one point in the season was remarkable in and of itself.

There’s also stuff to look forward to next year. The Mystics won the second pick in the 2017 Draft despite having the lowest odds of getting the first (also, due to new WNBA rules). And for what it’s worth, it looks like Elena Delle Donne wouldn’t mind playing in D.C. Apparently, she wants out of Chicago. Stay tuned as to whether she ends up in D.C., but you don’t hear rumblings of WNBA superstars WANTING to play in Washington while in their prime.

Ted Leonsis and Monumental Sports expand their reach beyond basketball and hockey

FloKO: The Brooklyn Beatdown ESL One NY 2016
Ted Leonsis has invested into Team Liquid, a professional eSports team earlier this year.
Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

When then-Wizards minority owner Ted Leonsis bought the remaining stakes in the team and Verizon Center to form Monumental Sports in 2010, some fans would question how he would divide his time and attention to three professional teams (the Capitals, Mystics, and Wizards), as well as other business interests.

It was a multi-year process, but Leonsis doesn’t seem to view the Wizards as a separate entity from the Capitals, Mystics, or Monumental Sports Network like the fanbases of the teams do. He wants to be a D.C. area sports and digital media mogul, which includes expanding Monumental’s reach into other sports and forms of media.

I was a little surprised to see that Leonsis didn’t go “all-out” to sever his partnership with Comcast SportsNet Mid Atlantic to air Wizards and Capitals games. However, he did get Monumental a one-third equity stake in CSN and doubled the teams’ payouts on those networks back in late 2015.

Soon after that, Monumental Sports invested into the Arena Football League in February by acquiring an expansion team, which is now the Washington Valor. The AFL suffered some trying times in recent years, where some teams folded, and others decided to move to different leagues. Monumental was awarded a second franchise for the Baltimore area in November.

Once you add the two AFL franchises, Monumental will own and operate five teams in 2017 — and the D-League team will soon follow as well.

Monumental Sports Network has also expanded its variety of live programming which includes a subscription based format. Starting next season, the Mystics, Valor, the Baltimore AFL team, and the Capitals’ minor league affiliates. However, they’re also adding high school games and other amateur sports into the mix. I personally find it a tough sells unless you clearly like one of those teams I mentioned. The Wizards’ and Capitals’ games won’t be on the network either way.

Leonsis has also made investments into eSports teams, or professional teams of video game players. Last September, he was one of several major investors who bought into Team Liquid, which plays mostly war games. If you can think of a war video game, they probably play it. Leonsis has championed that pretty adamantly over the past several months. I still think of video games as a recreational activity. But if you’re really really good, someone’s going to pay you big bucks.

Bullets Forever is 10 years old

Okay, I’m reaching for this one since it’s relevant just to us. But hear me out on this one.

Most blogs rarely see their third birthday, let alone their fifth or their tenth. On December 11, we commemorated our 10th anniversary with some throwbacks and shoutouts to those who helped us along the way.

I’m still kinda surprised that this site is over one decade old, before smartphones and HDTV were commonplace. It was well before Korean Taco Trucks like Kogi were a thing in cities like L.A. Today, I can probably find several Korean food trucks today here in D.C. and the suburbs.

And for those of you music lovers, December 11, 2006 was well before Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande had one song on the pop and rhythmic radio stations as “teenie boppers.” And well before Taylor Swift sang one of the cover songs for a “Fifty Shades” movie.

So, once again, thank you for reading this site and keeping this place running over the past decade. Without your readership, we wouldn’t be where we are today.

Once again, Happy New Year! I hope 2017 starts off (if it hasn’t already) on a great note for you all!