Following another exit in the Eastern Conference semifinals, the Wizards believe that they are capable of competing against any team in the NBA. With a superstar point guard, a rising star at shooting guard and a veteran supporting cast, the Wizards have all the makings of a team that will compete for a top seed in the East.
Believe it or not, the Wizards are the only East team to reach the conference semifinals in each of the last two seasons. They will need at least a third straight trip – and perhaps a deeper postseason journey – if they truly want to convince Kevin Durant to come home in free agency.
Here are five things to watch as the Wizards continue to build on their recent success.
1. Will Randy Wittman remain committed to small ball?
Wittman is entering the fourth season as Wizards coach. Perhaps more importantly, he is entering the final guaranteed season under his current contract. Just like players in the final season of their deals, Wittman has to prove that he is ready to take his coaching to the next level in order to stick with the organization.
I have spoken to a number of people within the organization and it is no secret that Wittman is one of the most stubborn coaches in the league. While virtually everyone on the roster has bought into his defense-first philosophy, Wittman has neglected to develop his offense.
During last season, Wittman failed to utilize his players to their skill sets, and the team’s record suffered as a result. Before the beginning of the playoffs, we rarely saw the team play “small ball.” Washington often played an archaic style that hindered the likes of guards John Wall and Bradley Beal and featured bigs such as Marcin Gortat and Nene.
But once Wittman began playing Paul Pierce as a stretch-4 during the playoffs, the team’s offense became one of the most efficient in the postseason. Wall had more space to operate, and the opposing defense was left with two choices: Collapse on Wall, leaving the shooters open, or defend the perimeter and pray that Wall doesn’t torch the lone defender.
All signs point to Wittman sticking to the small ball approach, given the team’s moves during the summer. But Pierce is gone, and Wittman has shown stubbornness in the past.
2. Will Bradley Beal’s development take “the leap”?
The Wizards will go as far as their young backcourt can take them. It has taken John Wall some time to develop his game and become a true superstar, but the former top overall pick has reached that level with All-Star berths and playoff series wins.
Recently, video was released that showed Beal created off the dribble with improved ballhandling skills – something he needs to develop before reaching an All-Star level. Now that he has three seasons under his belt, Beal has gotten the necessary exposure, so now it’s all up to him to take his game to the next level.
Beal is reportedly looking for a maximum contract extension. The shooting guard position isn’t very deep, so Beal will have a legitimate shot to make his first All-Star appearance this season – which could secure the money he wants.
3. Otto Porter’s new role
After a miserable rookie season, some NBA pundits were quick to dismiss Otto Porter as one of Washington’s core pieces. But following a fantastic stretch of games during the playoffs, Porter has proven that he is capable of contributing alongside Wall and Beal.
Pierce’s departure has left a lot of question marks around the Wizards. He was signed to a two-year contract and was presumed to be keeping the position warm for the potential arrival of Kevin Durant in 2016. But he opted out and took less money to sign with the Los Angeles Clippers.
Perhaps the biggest question created by Pierce’s departure will surround Porter and the adjustment he will have to make this season. Porter will be penciled in as the team’s starting small forward, which isn’t something anyone expected a year ago.
The former third overall pick will be tasked with things that he wouldn’t regularly be asked to do if Pierce had stuck around. Porter will start at small forward, but his future could eventually be as a stretch-4.
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With increased playing time with the starters, Porter will have a legitimate chance to compete for Most Improved Player – or play his way out of the rotation. It’s sink or swim time for the Hoya.
4. Replacing Paul Pierce’s leadership
“Veteran leadership” has become a cliche term around NBA circles, but for teams like the Wizards, having battle-tested players can make the difference between a first-round playoff exit and a championship run.
Not only did Paul Pierce hit huge shots in the playoffs, but he became a vocal leader – both on and off the floor. The team gravitated toward the future Hall of Famer, and he helped players such as Beal and Porter find their confidence when it mattered most. But Pierce left via free agency, reuniting with former Boston coach Doc Rivers in Los Angeles, his hometown.
Washington did a solid job of replacing Pierce’s production on the court by acquiring shooting wings Jared Dudley, Alan Anderson and Gary Neal. But they failed to sign a player with Pierce’s pedigree that the team can lean on for support. GM Ernie Grunfeld hoped David West would join the club, but the veteran forward opted to sign with the San Antonio Spurs, ultimately ending the Wizards’ chances of replacing Pierce’s leadership with a single player.
Washington needs to replace Pierce’s voice in the locker room, and Wall will be the player the Wizards look toward doing exactly that. It will be interesting to see how the team responds to a young leader rather than a veteran voice.
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5. Will a thin frontcourt hurt?
Last summer, Washington’s front office focused on deepening the frontcourt. Grunfeld added Kris Humphries, DeJuan Blair and Drew Gooden to bolster the big positions. But after doing so, Washington didn’t have enough wing depth.
The Wizards decided to let Kevin Seraphin walk in free agenc, even though he became their primary backup center last season. Nene has expressed disinterest in playing the center position, but he will inevitably have to if the Wizards are committed to playing small ball.
Washington might be left with two options at the backup center spot: Humphries and Blair. Both players are undersized, and the latter hasn’t played any meaningful minutes in D.C. The Wizards could potentially have a fatal flaw and it might be their lack of frontcourt depth.