There are a number of factors that’ll determine the Washington Wizards’ season, but the chief one will be if head coach Randy Wittman will finally let this team play fast and small. If the early signs are correct, Wittman has seemingly repented his blasphemous ways and embraced his postseason persona, “Playoff Wittman.” It was never clear why Wittman only came to the conclusion that an optimal NBA offense needs space but once a year, but it appears that’s no longer an issue, thankfully.
This preseason, the Wizards have been pushing the pace and shooting threes. Kris Humphries has been remolded into a starting stretch 4 who fires away from long range, and while his individual numbers aren’t great, Washington as a team has had superb results with its new-look offense. They’ve played at one of the fastest paces in the league this preseason and have the best offensive rating by far, per NBA.com. Wittman has finally learned from the past, and he’s using it to further the Wizards’ goals of becoming a contender.
WHAT HAPPENED LAST SEASON
After finishing a pedestrian 46-36 during the regular season, the Wizards went on a nice postseason run. They swept (or, more accurately, eviscerated) the Toronto Raptors in the first round, but eventually lost to the top-seeded Atlanta Hawks in the second round. During Game 1 of that series, John Wall suffered five non-displaced fractures in his left wrist, making him miss the next three games and severely limiting him in the last two. If Wall had remained healthy, there’s a good chance the Wizards would’ve overcome the Hawks and continued on to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Although their postseason run ended a little sooner than expected, the team showed tremendous growth and development. The addition of veteran Paul Pierce gave the team a steadying presence that didn’t infringe on Wall’s leadership. On occasion, the young members of the team even displayed some of Pierce’s trademark swagger:
Second-year player Otto Porter had a mostly inconsistent regular season that was forever immortalized in Vine form, much to his chagrin and our amusement:
However, Porter was the one who got the last laugh come the playoffs. He went from averaging 11.2 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.1 steals per 36 minutes while shooting 34 percent from three in the regular season to 10.9 points, 8.7 rebounds and 1.3 steals per 36 minutes while shooting 38 percent from three in the playoffs, per Basketball-Reference.com. His points were slightly down, but he improved across the board in others. He spotted up, cut to the basket and defended multiple positions. The Wizards were a better team when he was on the floor, being exactly 19.4 points better per 100 possessions.
WHAT HAPPENED THIS SUMMER
Pierce decided to take his talents to the West Coast to establish Ubuntu 2.0 with Doc Rivers and the Clippers. Although his presence will be missed in the locker room, the Wizards rebounded well and acquired Jared Dudley, Gary Neal and Alan Anderson (although he just had ankle surgery). Dudley is a veteran who played for the Seven Seconds or Less Suns and most recently for the upstart Milwaukee Bucks, where he mentored a young core.
The most striking similarity between their signings and the drafting of rookie Kelly Oubre was that they’re players who have three-point range and can play multiple positions. The front office has made a concerted effort to add players who can aid the team in establishing a small-ball identity. The players are either good defenders, or in the case of Oubre, have the potential to become one. Although Washington wishes to improve the offense, they aren’t going to sacrifice their defensive identity to do so.
Below is the list of the players lost and acquired, and the current roster for the 2015-2016 season.
Key Additions: Jared Dudley, Gary Neal, Alan Anderson, Kelly Oubre
Key Departures: Paul Pierce, Rasual Butler, Kevin Seraphin
2015-2016 Camp Roster: Alan Anderson, Bradley Beal, DeJuan Blair, Jared Dudley, Drew Gooden, Marcin Gortat, Josh Harrellson, Kris Humphries, Jaron Johnson, Toure’ Murry, Gary Neal, Nene, Kelly Oubre, Otto Porter, Jaleel Roberts, Ramon Sessions, Ish Smith, Garrett Temple, John Wall, Martell Webster
The funny thing about the Wizards is that the team has multiple X-factors in Bradley Beal, Otto Porter and Jared Dudley. If Beal converts some of those long twos he likes into threes or shots at the rim, the ceiling for this team jumps up a level. The same can be said of Porter in terms of his continued development. If he can improve his shooting and hone his defense, he can become the 3-and-D guy every team dreams of. But my under the radar pick is Dudley. Even though he’s currently recovering from a back injury, he’s the key to unlocking the small-ball potential of the Wizards, and the good news is he’s about to return to the court.
Dudley is the only true stretch 4 on the roster. Drew Gooden was surprisingly effective last year, but he’s getting up there in age and not totally reliable, and Humphries is still refining his shot. Dudley, on the other hand, played as a stretch 4 at times for the Suns, and he spent the majority of last year playing as one for the Bucks. He’s an excellent spot-up shooter who can move without the ball but still create off the dribble if a defender closes:
As well as being a proficient shooter, Dudley is also an accomplished team defender. He played the fifth-most minutes for the Bucks, who finished with the second-best defense in the league. He’s the Wizards’ best chance to have an equally excellent offense and defense while they deploy small-ball.
OUTLOOK FOR THE SEASON
I’m in on the Wizards this year. I may be drinking the Kool-Aid, but this team has considerable upside. To be clear, there will be hiccups. It’s going to be a process to weed out some of the bad habits from the last few years, but we’ve seen plenty of glimpses of how this revamped offense can work. Depending on where they end up seeded, Washington can make a deep run in the playoffs.
Ultimately, Cleveland is just too stacked with talent for them to overcome, but the same can’t be said for the rest of the East. The Wizards almost beat the Hawks last year, but faltered because of Wall’s injury, and Atlanta could take a step back with the loss of DeMarre Carroll. The Miami Heat and Toronto Raptors made upgrades, but they’re question marks until proven otherwise. The Chicago Bulls are adjusting to a new coach, and with the exception of Jimmy Butler, their most important players are rarely healthy. There’s an opportunity for the Wizards to have a big year.
Prediction: 53-29 record, No. 3 Seed in Eastern Conference and a loss in the Eastern Conference Finals.