The Washington Wizards are here to play solid but not spectacular basketball, reach the playoffs, win a series and then graciously bow out — just as they have in three of the last five years. More or less, the Wizards sport a former All-NBA point guard with an All-Star-minded sidekick and compete in the weaker conference, but they’ve never managed to defeat their massive second-round hurdles. To their credit, however, Washington keeps trying to improve wherever they can each offseason instead of fruitlessly blowing it all up.
Due to financial constraints, Washington could only make middle-tier moves this summer and did so by trading Marcin Gortat for Austin Rivers, signing Dwight Howard and drafting Troy Brown Jr. On top of that, they added Jeff Green and claimed Thomas Bryant off waivers. Those moves won’t make them championship challengers, but there’s still hope that they’ll finally become conference contenders — a fate they’ve chased since John Wall arrived in 2010.
Supported once again by Bradley Beal, Otto Porter Jr. and Kelly Oubre Jr., is this the year that the Wizards fulfill their destiny or will they be just another bump in the road on the way to the Eastern Conference Finals?
To start us off, here are some thoughts from the Basketball Insiders team about the Wizards’ upcoming season.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
The Toronto Raptors acquired Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green this offseason. The Philadelphia 76ers are already a top Eastern Conference team with two young stars on track to become superstars and a core of talented young players. The Boston Celtics are getting Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward back from injury this season. Meanwhile, the Washington Wizards acquired Austin Rivers and Dwight Howard. To be fair, Rivers and Howard are both capable players who have limitations in their respective games but could help Washington this season. However, it’s hard to argue that Washington did anything to push themselves ahead of the top three teams in the Eastern Conference. For some teams that doesn’t matter a whole lot since they aren’t currently trying to contend for a championship. The Wizards are and there doesn’t seem to be any path for them to push ahead of their top Eastern Conference rivals at this point, much less the top Western Conference teams.
1st Place – Southeast Division
– Jesse Blancarte
John Wall and Bradley Beal should be one of the best back courts in basketball. Otto Porter Jr. should be the perfect compliment to that talented duo. The Wizards should be a top team in the Eastern Conference. But they haven’t been and it’s hard to understand why. Last season, Washington was at its best when the team lived by the “Everybody Eats” mantra. If they just abide by that, they should be able to accomplish what they want. Maybe swapping out Marcin Gortat for Dwight Howard will do the trick? Who knows, but Scott Brooks is running out of time to elevate D.C. to where it’s supposed to be. Winning the Southeast Division would be a good start.
1st Place – Southeast Division
– Spencer Davies
The Wizards are going all in this season. Usually, adding Dwight Howard and Austin Rivers to your supporting cast would be seen as a good thing. Instead, most NBA audiences laughed at the Wizards because of Rivers’ and Howard’s reputations as locker room cancers. That wouldn’t have been a problem if it weren’t for the Wizards having a very tense locker room situation last season. Even if Rivers and Howard are on their best behavior, there’s no guarantee that adding them will pay off. For all the talent that they have, Washington has failed to maintain any consistency in the John Wall-Bradley Beal era. If things don’t improve, this could be it for them.
1st Place – Southeast Division
– Matt John
At this point, it seems like we have a pretty good idea of what the Washington Wizards are. At their very best, they can compete with nearly anyone in the East – but they’re rarely at that level for a number of reasons, and look like little but a middling playoff team in the weaker conference when they’re not on. Their offseason, which included bringing in the mercurial Dwight Howard as well as Austin Rivers, likely won’t do much to stem that inconsistency. It starts at the top with point guard John Wall, who shows flashes of greatness nearly every game…when he isn’t leading the league in time spent walking on the court, that is. Unless Howard is truly revitalized (long shot at this point) or the Wizards get major internal development from someone like Kelly Oubre or Bradley Beal, it’s hard to see them really challenging the Bostons and Torontos of the East – even if they take home another division crown.
1st Place – Southeast Division
– Ben Dowsett
On pure talent, the Wizards should be among the top teams in basketball; on pure talent. The problem is there is something that’s just not right with the Wizards. Maybe they break through this year and not only stay healthy, but learn how to compete as a unit. The problem is there just isn’t enough evidence to think that’s going to happen. On talent, the Wizards should be the second or third best team in the East, but until they show they can make that happen, it’s hard to put them much higher than top four.
1st place – Southeast Division
– Steve Kyler
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Bradley Beal
With Wall on the shelf from late January to the end of March, Beal thrived in his featured role. During that period of time, Beal rang up 23.4 points, 4.3 rebounds, 6.1 assists and 1.3 steals per game and earned his first-ever All-Star appearance. Despite his three-point percentage dropping from an elite 40 percent clip to a serviceable 37.5, Beal averaged 2.4 of them per contest over 82 games. In total, Beal knocked down 199 threes, even without his backcourt playmaker for half of them, and finished 13th-best in the NBA during 2017-18. When Beal is cooking, there are few players more unguardable — take, for example, the 41 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists and 6-for-11 from three-point range effort he dropped on Oklahoma City just before February.
The sharpshooter even doled out a career-best 11 assists during a narrow three-point loss to the Indiana Pacers last year — so perhaps a larger share of the offensive possessions should be on the table moving forward. It’s hard to believe that Beal is just 25 years old and his best basketball is surely ahead of him, regardless of usage, role or responsibilities.
Top Defensive Player: Dwight Howard
Although Howard has become a maligned personality as of late, he’s still a capable NBA player — particularly so on the defensive end.
Almost incredulously, Wall led the Wizards in blocks per game last season at 1.1, with Gortat trailing shortly behind at 0.7. Over 14 years, Howard has always exceeded that mark, even posting six straight seasons of two-plus blocks per game from 2007-13. Those superhuman efforts are likely long gone for the 32-year-old, but his regular presence will help to mend a sub-par defensive unit. The Wizards allowed 45.4 points in the paint per game, which registered as the 12th-worst mark in 2017-18, while their 4.3 blocks were also toward the league cellar — two places Howard can definitively make a difference in.
Top Playmaker: John Wall
Headed into his ninth season, Wall remains one of the greatest playmakers this league has. Through 41 contests last year, Wall notched 9.6 assists per game, a tally that would’ve left him trailing just Russell Westbrook (10.3) had he officially qualified for the category. In the three seasons before that, Wall averaged 10-plus assists and landed in the top three league-wide each time too. In transition, defending Wall and his lightning-quick pace remains a total nightmare. Lag off and Wall will burn you, but guard him tightly and the unpredictable trailblazer will always find a wide-open three-point shooter.
Wall continues to be a frontrunner for the best point guard in the Eastern Conference and his fast-breaking distribution qualities are a huge reason why. The Wizards went just 20-21 without Wall in 2017-18, so they’ll be anxious to get a full campaign from their five-time All-Star and floor general. Quite simply, Wall puts his teammates in position to succeed — so don’t be surprised if Howard undergoes a much-needed career resurgence next to this playmaker.
Top Clutch Player: Bradley Beal
Due to the extra volume Beal experienced sans Wall, this category comes out a little skewed. Undoubtedly, Beal made (38) and took (124) the most clutch-time shots for Washington in 2017-18 and converted on a 30.6 percent conversion rate. Of course, there’s room to improve, but with teams keying in on Beal, it’s a solid total for the soon to be seventh-year marksman. To put it in context, Beal was only beat out in overall clutch-time buckets by LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Jrue Holiday, DeMar DeRozan, Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis, Victor Oladipo, Kemba Walker, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard — so, it’s still some great company to keep, all things considered.
In addition, a special shout-out goes to Oubre, who shot 16-for-32 in such late-game situations, including a 47.1 percent clip from three-point range as well — a promising outlook for the developing wing, but more on him below.
The Unheralded Player: Kelly Oubre Jr.
While the Wizards’ current stars and big money players earn the headlines, Oubre’s development is among the most important storylines heading into the new campaign. The merits of Wall, Beal, Howard and Porter are not up for debate but if the Wizards want to take the next step, they’ll look toward Oubre to elevate his game. Oubre, 22, can be a handful for defenders and the 6-foot-7 small forward averaged 11.8 points and 4.5 rebounds on 40.3 percent last season. When Oubre scored 14 or more points in 2017-18, Washington went 17-10 — so his consistency will be key for a bench unit that recorded only 35.6 points per game, 15th-worst in the NBA.
If Oubre can improve his 34.1 percent rate from behind the arc, there’s a chance that the potential-laden professional can breakout before he reaches restricted free agency next summer.
Best New Addition: Dwight Howard
Howard arrives in Washington this fall after being traded by Charlotte to Brooklyn, wherein the Nets promptly bought him out — so he’s officially joining his fourth team in four seasons. Even if the experiment eventually comes up short, Howard appears to be a major upgrade at center. The future Hall of Famer has averaged a double-double in all 14 years of his career and, with little competition behind him, that streak isn’t in jeopardy. Gortat was no slouch (8.4 points, 7.6 rebounds), but rolling the dice on Howard is precisely the type of inexpensive, high-reward gamble this franchise must take.
Howard has played with loads of talented point guards in the past — James Harden and Kemba Walker included — but his fit next to Wall feels like its been years in the making. Howard can still (mostly) anchor a defense and catch lobs, so what else could you want? As an above average rim protector and shot blocker, Howard effectively addresses two weakness in one fell swoop.
If the locker room stays intact, this will be a no-brainer victory for the Wizards.
– Ben Nadeau
WHO WE LIKE
1. Otto Porter Jr.
One year removed from matching a max offer sheet from the Nets, the return on Porter has been acceptable, if not a tiny bit disappointing. Last campaign, his averages of 14.7 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 1.8 three-pointers on 44.1 percent from deep nearly replicated his statistics from the season prior. That type of output is a nice sign of consistency, but it’s also not the bump the Wizards would’ve wanted after committing all that precious cap space to him.
Still, there’s plenty to like about the Washington wing as he further grows into his all-around game. For starters, the economical 6-foot-8 scorer shot 50.3 percent in 2017-18, a mark only beat out by Michael Beasley (50.7), E’Twaun Moore (50.8), Kevin Durant (51.6) and LeBron James (54.2) for small forwards. Of those four, none of them shot the three at a better clip than Porter, who finished with the third-best rate in the entire NBA.
To this point, we all know what the Wizards’ stars are capable of but if they want to get past their Celtics and Raptors-sized obstacles, they’ll need Porter to take a giant leap. As one of the league’s exceedingly efficient shooters, he’s already won half the battle — but will the volume opportunities ever be there for him alongside Wall and Beal?
2. Markieff Morris
After setting a career-bests for three-point percentage in back-to-back seasons, Morris has been a steady contributor in the nation’s capital. Now just one year away from an important trip to free agency at the age of 29, expect the 6-foot-10 stretch forward to keep the good times rolling. At 11.5 points and 5.6 rebounds per game — and with the fifth-most technical fouls in 2017-18 — Morris will likely become the last option on offense with Howard in tow. Certainly, that’s not particularly ideal for Morris, but it’s a solid situation for the Wizards, both offensively and defensively.
Morris is not elite on either end, but he’ll adequately chip in, won’t take touches away from the stars and, importantly, cares a whole lot about winning ball games. For a team looking to compete at the highest levels, Washington could do far, far worse than the reliable hand of Morris.
3. Austin Rivers
No longer a punchline, Rivers should be a fantastic fit for Washington off the bench. As an improved ball handler, a solid defender and an even better bucket-getter, Rivers’ final efforts in Los Angeles turned out to be his best statistical outcome yet. Rivers averaged 15.1 points, four assists and 1.2 steals over 59 starts for the Clippers, even knocking down a career-best 2.2 three-pointers per game on 37.8 percent from long range to boot. Obviously, he’ll be behind Wall and Beal on the depth chart and he won’t hit 33.7 minutes per game again, but his acquisition might turn out to be one of the most consequential, under-the-radar moves this summer.
Rivers will join forces with Oubre, Brown and Green to revitalize a middle of the pack second unit — but don’t be surprised if the veteran starts popping up in Sixth Man of the Year discussions come March.
4. Scott Brooks
Heading into his third season as head coach of the Wizards, Brooks has done a fine job of keeping his roster of strong personalities content — this season, it’ll be even tougher. Howard and Rivers don’t come without their own personal dramas, but Brooks has succeeded in the balancing act thus far. Last year was tarnished by Wall’s injury, but 2016-17 saw the Wizards rank ninth in offensive rating (108.5). If Brooks can get them back to that level of execution, then Washington could be in the mix for home-court advantage in the first round.
Every conference contender needs a great coach: the Celtics have Brad Stevens, the Raptors had Dwane Casey and the 76ers have Brett Brown. Brooks frequently goes unmentioned in this category, but he’s proven himself in the postseason before — now he may finally have the roster to do so again.
5. Troy Brown. Jr.
The selection of Brown at No. 15 overall this June came as a surprise with their backcourt starters locked down for the foreseeable future. For now, Brown won’t help much in the three-point shooting department — 29.1 percent at Oregon — but he’ll provide plenty of bench versatility nonetheless. In Las Vegas this summer, Brown averaged 18.4 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.4 steals over five games — an exhibition of skills that’ll hopefully keep him out of the G-League and well-supplanted in Brooks’ rotation soon enough.
He’s got legitimate promise as an NBA-level scorer and at the age of 19, Brown is the fourth-youngest player in the entire league, so this might be a name you’ll see for a very long time. To start the campaign, Brown will be buried behind Porter and Oubre, but keep an eye on him. His three-point efforts will need to improve if he wants to carve out a bigger and better role this season and beyond. However, Wizards fans should be awfully excited about this rookie.
– Ben Nadeau
When Wall is healthy, the Wizards often rank near the top in transition points per game, even finishing in the top four in 2016-17. Ultimately, the previous campaign was a struggle without Wall for half the year and their record — 43-39, eighth seed — reflected that. This time around, Wall is not only injury-free but the additions of Rivers and Brown, plus the furthered development of Porter and Oubre, should conceivably have the Wizards in the conversation once again.
Out on the fast break, Wall makes the Wizards a dangerous dark horse candidate in the conference without question. Both Morris and Porter will extend the floor around Wall and Beal, while Howard is gifted at cleaning the glass. Even the bench, which has been remarkably thin in recent seasons, is looking deeper than ever.
If they stay healthy and get back into their signature transition game … you’ve officially been warned.
– Ben Nadeau
The Wizards made just 9.9 three-pointers per game in 2017-18, the 10th-worst mark in the entire league. Wall will get his teammates into high-value shot attempts, naturally, but the jury is still out on the point guard’s career-best 37.1 three-point percentage from last year. Rivers’ 2.2 three-pointers per game will help ease those worries, but they came with starter’s minutes, a number that’ll decrease playing behind an All-Star-worthy backcourt. The Wizards’ strongest competition in the conference all made three-pointers with success last season — Raptors (fourth-best), Celtics (seventh) and 76ers (12th) — so the D.C.-based team has some catching up to do.
Beyond that, those large personalities will need to be watched closely, particularly so after adding Howard and Rivers. In an already weirdly-contested locker room, all this has the potential to be a beautiful, unifying partnership or a regrettable mess.
– Ben Nadeau
THE BURNING QUESTION
Are the Wizards a member of the Eastern Conference elite?
While the Celtics, Raptors and 76ers have the best odds of controlling the top postseason seeds again, there’s definitely an argument for Washington to join the pack, if not for a few caveats. Again, they must stay healthy. Generally speaking, Wall has done so since 2013, but we’ve seen how average this team ends up being without him — and would be again, even with their improved depth this time around.
Furthermore, the locker room must keep it together — another gimme, clearly, but this is no cakewalk. It’ll be up to Brooks to build a rotation that caters to everybody’s strengths and weakness while also maximizing their window for success, which is obviously easier said than done. However, this is probably the most talented roster the Wizards have had in over a decade.
Unfortunately, the Wizards also must deal with the pesky Indiana Pacers, Milwaukee Bucks and Miami HEAT in the conference’s second-tier, so they’re no longer the same shoo-in they’ve been before. Washington will absolutely improve on their barely .500 record from 2017-18 and they’ve got an outside shot of competing with the very best the East has to offer.
But even with the measurable upgrades in Howard, Rivers and Brown, it’d be tough to pick against their conference rivals like Boston or Philadelphia in the playoffs.
– Ben Nadeau