After a profoundly disappointing season full of inconsistent play and off-court drama, can the Wizards bounce back and become a threat in the East?
There was a time not so long ago when the Washington Wizards and their youthful, dynamic backcourt duo captivated the imagination of NBA diehards everywhere. After giving the 60-win Atlanta Hawks hell during round two of the 2015 playoffs, the Wall-Beal Wizards and seemed poised to develop into a perennial contender in the East. If management could only surround John Wall and Brad Beal with the proper complementary pieces, perhaps Washington could even pose a real threat to LeBron’s Cavs going forward.
After winning 49 games and taking the Celtics to seven games behind masterful performances from Wall and Beal in 2017, Washington seemed to be on the right course. They won a ton of games despite calamitous bench play. With a few prudent additions, they could potentially catapult themselves into contention for the Eastern Conference crown. And yet, the Wizards seemingly took two steps back last season and the hopeful expectations of the past remain conspicuously unfulfilled. Beyond their on-court disappointments, the Wizards are also in precarious financial territory. With John Wall’s supermax extension kicking in next summer and numerous big money deals on the books, Washington will have little financial maneuverability over the next few seasons. The Wizards aren’t stuck in the mud just yet, but they are quickly getting there.
Of course, constant internal turmoil has played a pivotal role in stagnating the progress of this team. Even with contentious locker room presence Marcin Gortat gone the Wizards don’t exactly exude an aura of calmness. Adding Dwight Howard and Austin Rivers, two guys that haven’t received glowing reviews as teammates, into an already combustible atmosphere seems risky at best. The Wizards could have an all-out war on their hands by the end of the season.
Despite the very real possibility that this situation becomes toxic, the Wizards have some reasons to be cautiously optimistic this year. They have legit star talent and their summer transactions improved the team’s depth. They may not have the upside of the Celtics, Raptors, Sixers triumvirate at the top of the East, but the Wizards have the potential to compete for home court in a first-round series. In order to accomplish such a feat though, Washington will have to establish some semblance of consistency. Last year’s iteration of the Wizards played a wildly erratic brand of basketball. On some nights they would dispatch a legit playoff team, only to lose convincingly to a lottery team a few nights later.
John Wall’s uncharacteristically poor season, by his lofty standards of course, certainly didn’t help in that respect. Wall needs to get back to his scintillating 2017 form for the Wizards to develop a real identity as a team (though his viral Team USA photo casts doubt on whether that’s actually possible!). He missed half of the 2018 season due to a knee injury, but he never really looked right when he was on the court. Wall wasn’t getting to the rim as frequently and consequently relied far too heavily on the mid-range jumper. That reliance proved catastrophic to Wall’s efficiency as he converted about 30 percent on such looks; a shockingly poor percentage for such a talented player. If Wall can’t find his jumper and his driving ability is compromised, Washington’s offense could struggle mightily this upcoming season. If Wall can recapture his All-NBA form, however, Washington has the tools to craft a fun offense. Brad Beal is a dynamic offensive weapon that provides deadly long-range shooting and expert off-ball movement. With Beal, Otto Porter and Markieff Morris starting alongside Wall, this team has enough shooting to give Wall room to operate.
Seeing how Dwight Howard replaces Marcin Gortat in the starting lineup will be particularly fascinating. Gortat was a sturdy presence for the Wizards on both ends and was especially important to Washington’s offense as a screen setter. Dwight isn’t known for his selfless play on offense. But if he can be a willing and effective screen and roll player, developing some chemistry with Wall, the Wizards won’t miss Gortat for long. In terms of second unit offense, the attack should be able to survive when most of the starters sit. One of the Wall-Beal pairing will always be on the court, while Satoransky and Rivers are both capable backup guards that can handle some of the creation burden for the offense. This team will miss Mike Scott, who lit the world on fire from mid-range and 3-point land, providing much-needed spacing for Washington’s second units. At the very least though, Kelly Oubre, Jeff Green and Austin Rivers are willing shooters from deep.
Washington’s capability on the other end of the floor raises some concerns as well. The hire of Scott Brooks during the summer of 2016 inspired the belief that this Washington team could turn into a disciplined defensive machine. That transformation hasn’t happened. The Wizards were average on defense last season, but they exhibited some alarming tendencies and flaws. This team was near the bottom of the league in protecting the rim and was only average in 3-point attempts allowed. Again, John Wall needs to take the initiative here. He was once an All-Defense caliber player and he has essentially given up on that facet of the game, frequently delivering lackadaisical efforts on that side of the ball. If Wall improves his effort and focus, Washington’s defense at the point of attack will be much better; excising some of the easy looks that this team gives up on a routine basis will be vital if they are to establish a stout defense.
Beyond Wall, the Wizards have numerous guys with proven defensive talent. Oubre, Morris, Beal and Rivers are all rock solid defenders that Washington can unleash on opposing wings and guards. They have the mobility and athleticism to protect the 3-point arc better than they have in the past two seasons. Dwight Howard is not the anchor he once was, but he can still play tough defense at the rim. Having lost much his mobility due to aging and injury though, Dwight doesn’t hold up well against stretchier offenses. He struggles when he has to venture out of the paint to guard guys and contest shots. In that respect, Howard might not be such a big improvement over Gortat. Even so, the Wizards have the potential to improve substantially on defense, but they have into a cohesive whole on that end. That will take effort from the players and astute scheming from the coaching staff.
Ultimately, this season feels like a sort of reckoning for John Wall. He needs to redeem himself after a subpar year in order for this team to reach its full potential. Wall is set to make nearly $200 million over the next five years; that’s a gargantuan long-term commitment to a guy that has only made one All-NBA team. If he can galvanize this wacky bunch and return to his past form, the Wizards could approach the high 40s in wins, perhaps even crossing the hallowed 50-win threshold for the first time in an eternity. If Wall is at the same level he was last year, this franchise is in serious trouble and major changes will likely follow.