There’s a theory in NBA circles saying that year-to-year stagnation is the worst possible place for a franchise to be. To be on the treadmill of mediocrity, whether that means barely missing or making the playoffs and therefore receiving a draft pick that will unlikely produce a player whose contributions will result in more games won.
Even worse, however, is to be in such a position and taking a step or two back, a situation the Washington Wizards have found themselves in over the course of the last couple of seasons. In 2014-2015, the Wizards made the Eastern Conference playoffs as the fifth seed and swept the Raptors in the First Round, thanks in part to Randy Wittman understanding modern NBA offenses and, well, Paul Pierce. They instituted a pace-and-space approach, surrounding John Wall with shooters and allowing him to operate in the open floor, often with a roll man in Marcin Gortat. The strategy worked wonders, playing to the Wall’s playmaking abilities and speed. Unfortunately, the season ended in disappointment as Wall fractured his wrist in Game 1 against the Hawks, and Washington ultimately lost in six games.
But they had found direction, or so we thought. Forward Otto Porter Jr. came into his own in the playoffs, filling the void at small forward. Wall and Bradley Beal were considered among the league’s most dynamic backcourts. They signed Jared Dudley as a replacement for Paul Pierce as an effective stretch-four. Things were looking up for Washington, but 2015-2016 would prove to be disastrous.
Both the offensive epiphany from the playoffs and their defensive success in 2015 faltered. Beal’s health problems continued as he played a career low 55 games, Wall struggled for most of the season, thanks in part to a slew of ailments and Randy Wittman was fired a day after the season had ended. For what it’s worth, they traded a first round pick, Kris Humpheries and DeJuan Blair to Phoenix for talented, yet troubled, power forward Markieff Morris at the deadline and hired Scott Brooks to take over as head coach.
The Wizards, more or less, have a similar roster to what they had last year. Nenê left for Houston but was replaced with Ian Mahinmi, Bradley Beal extended his contract and the rest of the roster was filled in with the likes of Andrew Nicholson and Marcus Thorton.
Once again, the Wizards’ success will come down largely to the play of John Wall.
The multiple-time All Star is the team’s motor on offense and their first line of defense. His passing opens up the floor for other options. Wall thrives in the pick-and-roll, where he’s a threat to score, deliver a perfect pocket pass to the screener or find teammates on the perimeter. When he gets the ball in transition, his speed and court vision make him dangerous in many ways. In terms of defenders at the point guard position, he is elite. His size and speed allow him to irritate his matchup. But he can’t do it all by himself.
Ideally, Bradley Beal will remain healthy, but that’s not in any way promised. Marcin Gortat is still solid, but he’s aging as well. Jumps from Porter Jr. and Morris would certainly help, but there is a general lack of wing depth behind them. The Wizards smell of uncertainty, having the potential to reestablish themselves in the third tier of East playoff teams or fall even further into the lottery. Pray to John Wall.