Is it still too soon to be thinking about Kevin Durant? Eh, maybe. That time is rapidly approaching, though. Should Durant opt to sign with the Washington Wizards as an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2016, Twitter will melt and Washington will automatically be elevated to title contender status.
However, could one make the argument that Washington is already in title contending position? By virtue of playing in the Eastern Conference (otherwise known as the NBA’s minor league) they sure could. So before we go hypothesizing the level of destruction a Big Three of Durant, Bradley Beal and John Wall would cause, let’s start by compartmentalizing the present and near future.
Washington’s 2015-16 roster, baring an unforeseen trade, is going to look extremely similar to the one we saw in 2014-15. They’re guaranteeing $64 million to nine players, most of which make up Washington’s rotation. If Paul Pierce were to decline his player option worth $5.5 million then that creates a little maneuverability, but who is to say Washington would be better off without Pierce? After all, he was simply marvelous in the playoffs this year.
And speaking of the playoffs, that’s where things really start to get interesting because, like, what the heck happened to the Wizards of the regular season? Seemingly overnight, the Wizards went from an outdated NBA offense to a modernized one. Consider this: Washington’s regular season team three-point rate was .203, which ranked 28th in the league. An anti-three team, if you will. In the playoffs, however, that rate jumped to .276, which represents — by far — the largest jump among playoff teams.
Did Wizards’ head coach Randy Wittman suddenly decide that his take-what-the-defense-gives-you approach won’t cut it in the playoffs? Was his game plan against Toronto (and to a lesser extent, Atlanta) just perfectly crafted and well executed? The answer isn’t exactly clear. But what is becoming undeniable is that Randy Wittman’s doing something right come playoff time.
It’s so strange. Like, Wittman’s regular season winning percentage (.464) is dwarfed by his playoff winning percentage (.571). Although, it should be noted that Wittman’s three seasons spent in Minnesota during the mid-2000s aren’t necessarily a reflection of his coaching abilities because that franchise was in complete-and-utter disarray at the time. But still, it feels weird saying Randy Wittman holds a better playoff winning percentage than contemporaries like Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau and Indiana’s Frank Vogel.
But then again, Wittman also has two incredibly talented guards in Wall and Beal. Both are young, both are athletic and both are capable of great things in the league for years to come. I mean, this postseason, only Beal, James Harden, Blake Griffin and LeBron James averaged at least 23 points, five rebounds and four assists, according to Basketball Reference. And in fact, Beal joined an even more exclusive list by becoming the fourth player — James, Tracy McGrady and Michael Jordan being the others — in NBA history to average 23, 5 and 4 for a postseason before turning 22 years old.
For Beal, the playoffs were his national coming out party. As for Wall, he’s already an established commodity. Depending on who you’re talking to, Wall is top five point guard in the league today. And I, for one, would consider him top five because he’s elite in two essential categories for a point guard in today’s NBA: passing and defense.
Through five NBA seasons, Wall has accumulated three of which with a three-point rate below .200, an assist rate above 36 percent and a steal rate above two percent. Now, to put it in perspective, greats like John Stockton, Isiah Thomas and Chris Paul are also on this list at least three times. Impressive company, to be sure.
Wall might be the most physically gifted point guard in the league today. He’s an unstoppable force in the open court. Yet, his style of play is arguably more conventional than not. He doesn’t like to take threes (mostly because he hasn’t developed a steady shot from that range), he’s more than a willing passer and he’s also a tremendous defender.
In many ways, Wall and Beal fit one another as ideal backcourt mates. And the rest of the roster comprises of a damn solid defensive team, too. Which is precisely what made Washington so intriguing after they finally figured out how to run a consistent, productive offense in the playoffs.
Three big question marks remain: can Washington count on Marcin Gortat again? Will Otto Porter make the leap to full-time starter? And can Nene prove he’s not quite finished yet? If the answer is ‘yes’ to all three of those questions, then the Wiz are sitting pretty next season. Especially if Porter can replicate the level of play he showcased in this postseason on a regular basis.
But given a healthy Wall and a healthy Beal, Washington’s going to compete in the East next season regardless. And if the ancillary parts produce then a top three seed isn’t out of the question. Nothing about Cleveland’s future is for certain. Atlanta needs a collective regroup. Chicago blew a golden opportunity and isn’t getting any younger. Toronto is stuck between a rock and a hard place. Indiana, with a healthy Paul George, could make some hay. But ultimately, the East figures to be wide open.
And the Wiz are in good shape. Next season could be the start of something really big, and that’s before thinking about the dream scenario of adding Durant.
* All stats from NBA.com/stats unless indicated otherwise