Enemy: Washington Wizards
3SOB Forecast*: 39-43
What’s the story in the Nation’s Capital?
If I was looking for a team to help further my argument that the NBA’s middle class was simply changing and not dying (which I loosely began with the Atlanta Hawks preview earlier in the week), I would need not look any farther than the Washington Wizards.
The Wizards performed the perfect anti-tank last season, all contingent upon the health and stability of the knees of today’s birthday boy, crazy-quick fourth-year guard John Wall.
Most teams spending a year in the gutter taper off to an even greater degree of shame when they hit the point at which you know your team is out of contention. That is just about the time of the year where the tantalizing promise of inflated lottery odds begins to outweigh the drive of competitive nature, compelling teams to “ease up on the gas pedal,” if you will, and look to the future.
For the Wizards, however, their tale of two seasons was reversed. Wall began the year on the injured list due to a stress injury in his knee, and the Wizards stumbled wickedly out of the gates without a floor general to give them a sense of direction, securing a sorry five wins and only one road victory, coupled with 28 losses, through January 7th.
Then Wall returned. Individually, he was sensational, registering a career high 20.91 PER, but moreover, with him reclaiming the reins, it took the team a mere eight games to compile five more victories to double the season total. Rarely has the infusion of a single player spurned such an immediate turnaround, but his return just seemed to kick the Washington machine into motion. With Wall in the lineup, the Wizards nearly went .500, bumping their season record to 29-53, which still sounds pretty abysmal, but considering where they came from, falls just short of a miracle.
Even the 24-25 post-Wall-return number is skewed by a six-game losing streak to close the year, where five of which games came against Eastern Conference playoff teams jockeying for seeding. Team management certainly took notice of its point guard’s contribution to the team’s vitality this summer, and in turn awarded him an $80 million maximum extension.
Anyways, luckily for the Wizards, the nobility of their attempt to turn the season around was not punished by the lottery gods, as they wound up lucking their way into the top 3. Falling right into their lap at the third pick was the incredibly polished for his age Otto Porter, who happened to be a perfect fit to plug into the roster. In a draft characterized by pure chaos, this was the one pick that was figured to be a given.
With Wall settling into his new $4.9 million D.C. mansion, and all reports painting him ready to go for the 2013-14 season, the outlook is looking rosy in Washington for the first time since “Wild Bill” Arenas was calling the shots.
Who are they cooking with?
If you have not been paying attention, you might find it surprising that the Wizards ranked among the top ten defenses in the league last season with a defensive rating of 100.6 points per 100 possessions. To put the number in perspective, the staunch trap defense of the Miami Heat gave up 100.5 points per 100 possessions in 2012-13. With the girth of the currently — though seldom — healthy veteran duo of Nene and Emeka Okafor in the paint in combination with the quickness of Wall chasing on the perimeter, the continued growth of the Wiz will depend on their ability to continue to hang their hat on the defensive end. Adding a defensively-speaking NBA ready Porter, with his 7’1 wingspan, to the unit to clamp down on opposing scoring threats only helps their cause.
As collectively good as they were defensively is as inefficient they were on the other end. They ranked dead last in the NBA in offensive efficiency, posting 97.8 points per 100 possessions. Offensively speaking, there was not much that went right for Washington. They were 20th in the league in assist ratio, had the 6th worst turnover ratio, and logged the fourth-worst true shooting percentage as a team.
Regarding the offensive woes, a full year and training camp with Wall at the helm should help matters, but even more so the emergence of second year off-guard Bradley Beal could work wonders. Wall is still not a threat from beyond the arc, and is not likely to become one any time soon, so it is important that he is complemented by guys that can spread the floor. Beal shot 38.6% from three in his rookie year, which should only get better, while Martell Webster, who lives in the corners (roughly 25% of his shots), was retained for the same purpose as last year, and D-League draft pick Glen Rice Jr. can stroke it from beyond. Lastly, young journeyman point guard Eric Maynor was brought on board very early in the free agency process, and allows Wall not only the opportunity to get some rest, but to play off the ball a bit as well.
How do the good guys stack up?
The Wizards are building something that could be special down the road but likely won’t be more than a .500 team this year. Good enough for the playoffs in the East but not a serious contender to go far once there. Led by John Wall (who had a career game against the Grizzlies last season) and Bradley Beal, the Wizards have a healthy Nene and Emeka Okefor to the front line and promising rookies Otto Porter and Glen Rice Jr. should help off the bench.
The Wizards lack depth inside however with only Kevin Seraphin expected to contribute much. If Nene or Okefor succumb to injuries again the team is in trouble. Wall and Beal have also battled with injuries in their short careers. Since the Grizzlies don’t play Washington until the dogs days of the season (February 11 and March 3), that is a factor that could make a big difference in their games. If the Wizards gel and remain healthy they will be a handful for any team. If not then the team could collapse like previous seasons. If the Grizzlies rely on their depth and stop career nights from anyone early they should be able to win both games and anything less than a split would be disappointing. The Wizards have plenty of talent but haven’t yet figured a way to make that individual talent work as a team. When they figure it out watch out.
Any NBA team has to rely on the health of its principal players to hold any hope of playing past about April 15th or so, but for a team like the Wizards that is still growing and developing, health is like oxygen. The prominent role that Wall, Beal, Porter, Seraphin, and others will play shows plainly that youth is being served in DC, and that’s a good thing-but Nene, Okafor, Webster, and the other “old guys” will have to avoid the triage tent if the Wizards are to make the postseason.
There are several matchups that will be major fun to watch when these two teams meet, probably chief among them the Beal/TA duel. Beal’s perimeter game and shooting ability, if they grow like one would expect, will provide a nice task even for a top-flight perimeter defender like Tony Allen. Wall and Conley will be fun-Conley, a bit more heady, and Wall, a bit closer to the speed of light. Conley will need help from his DPOY buddy in the lane to have ANY chance of containing Wall. Conley’s a good defender, but if Wall is in one piece, he makes lightning look like a turtle hooked up to a morphine drip.
Inside, Gasol and Randolph will do what they do, although Okafor is a somewhat overlooked and very, very good inside defender-his footwork is good enough to stay with anyone, but he still plays with his upper body too much sometimes, and the Grizzlies could make him pay in FT attempts if he’s not careful. As for the benches, Seraphin and Vesely are competent, but not on the level that will allow the Wizards to run away from Koufos, Pondexter, Davis, and the rest of the Grizzlies’ reserves. Beal is another challenge I’d love to see Jamaal Franklin get a shot at defending, but who knows if that will happen.
The Wizards will be one of the East teams I’ll watch most intently this season, and not just when they meet the Grizzlies-Vesely, Wall, Beal, Porter, and the rest will be a fun bunch to watch grow up together.
Kyle Weidie (of Truth About It):
Not one man Memphis could throw at him could stop John Wall on that late March Monday night. Not Mike Conley. Not Jerryd Bayless. Not Tony Allen. If you want to know how the Grizzlies match up with the Wizards, just remember who Wall dropped his career-high 47 points against.
OK, let’s have a quick reality check. Wall’s jumper was unconscious that evening (for the first time ever), and one of the NBA’s best defenses was without DPOY, Marc Gasol. Of course the Wizards were without: Nene Hilario, Trevor Ariza, Martell Webster, Bradley Beal, and A.J. Price that night. There’s balance somewhere in this story.
Memphis is a unique team in this current NBA landscape. Not a lot of squads are equipped to handle the Gasol/Z-Bo tandem in the paint. Washington is, however, one of the more equipped teams … when healthy.
Nene and Emeka Okafor, both somewhat undersized centers, still form a rugged enough combo to put up a fight. Much more of a fight than JaVale McGee used to put up. The time Gasol scored 10 of Memphis first 12 points against McGee and the Wizards over a span of three minutes and nine seconds during the first period comes to mind. JaVale is now Denver’s problem, thankfully.
So with the above-average abilities of Wall, Beal, Ariza and Webster helping out from their respective positions on the boards, control of the front court isn’t totally in Memphis’ favor. Add Tony Allen’s inability to offend (scoring-wise) and a grizzly 3-point shooting outlook for the Grizzlies team otherwise (can you honestly trust the rickety Mike Miller?), Memphis will have to worry more about how it can score and match-up against Washington than the other way around.
At least that’s my changing-tide prediction. Again, with the caveat of health. The Wizards always seem to be a breath away from a silly, post-whistle dunk attempt-turn-injury. (Oh, hi Tony Allen!)
When and Where do they square off?
February 11th: 7:00PM at the FedEx Forum
March 3rd: 6:00PM at the Verizon Center
For more Wizards content, check out our TrueHoop comrades at Truth About It.
*3SOB forecast projections are derived from an average of the contributing staff’s predicted win totals.