The Washington Wizards digital staff share their thoughts on the upcoming season.
1. What are realistic expectations for the Wizards in 2017-18?
Jeremy Hyman: One of the toughest parts about becoming a “good” team in the league, is that expectations will rise every year. With where the Wizards finished last season and with how they have been assembled for 2017-18, anything short of the Eastern Conference Finals would have to be disappointing for this group. With that said, while a title is every team’s ultimate goal, the next step in this team’s progression would first be a trip to the Conference Finals, and anything beyond that would at this point still have to feel like extra credit. Cleveland and Boston may be the two favorites in the East, but the Wizards shouldn’t feel like they are a rung below those two and shouldn’t feel like they too can’t compete for the Eastern Conference.
At the very least, the Wizards should certainly be one of the top teams in the conference, and winning 50 games this regular season will be one of the team goals before the playoffs begin, something this franchise hasn’t done in nearly 40 years.
When the playoffs do roll around, the Wizards’ continuity is the one thing they will have that some of those other top teams may not. LeBron James has never played a playoff series with Isaiah Thomas, and Kyrie Irving has never played one with Gordon Hayward, while much of this core Wizards group has now played together in three of the last four playoffs. That should be worth something for Washington and should make reaching the NBA Finals as a realistic goal for this season. If they make the Conference Finals and lose a hard fought series, it would feel disappointing at the time, but would prove that this team is one step closer to that ultimate goal. Since the core is locked up for the next five plus years, they’ll have more shots at that ultimate goal if they fail to make it this year.
Chris Gehring: The Wizards showed last season that they’re one of the East’s best teams when healthy, especially where the starting five is considered. John Wall and Bradley Beal form an elite backcourt, and Otto Porter put the league on notice last season to a point where he was clearly an asset opponents game-planned to limit come playoff time.
With that said, the bench has had its issues, and this year’s edition will need to prove itself with some new members that will play important minutes. Jodie Meeks and Tim Frazier both appear ready to fill needs as a sharpshooter and playmaker, respectively. Jason Smith’s game has had a renaissance that started last year, and it will be evident this season. Kelly Oubre has continued to gain confidence as an outside shooter, and nobody questions the energy he brings to the floor.
All of those things considered, this team is poised to be better than last year’s, which means a 50-plus-win season. I think that’s both the goal and the expectation this year, which carries with it the expectation that the Wizards will be a top-3 seed in the Eastern Conference. Because of that, a trip to the conference finals that’s been elusive to date is squarely in the crosshairs of Wall, Beal and company this season. Speaking of Beal, look for him to finally earn a well-deserved trip to the All Star Game in February.
Zach Rosen: Last season was certainly a success. With 49 wins (most since 1978-79), a top-four seed (first since 1978-79), and a 17-game home winning streak, there were plenty of highlights from the 2016-17 campaign to celebrate. The expectations going into last year were not very high after a disappointing 2015-16, but now the Wizards have high expectations from the fans and themselves.
I think a minimum of 45 wins and a top-four seed in the East are realistic expectations. I’m not sure this team will be able to get past Cleveland and/or Boston to make it to the Eastern Conference Finals, but that’s definitely the team’s goal. The Cavs and Celtics seem to be all anybody is talking about in the East, which makes sense. They conducted a mega trade in the offseason with two All-Star point guards and both brought bigger names to their teams.
But, don’t sleep on the Wizards. They have the talent, size, length, and chip on their shoulders to compete and will take the lack of respect they’re getting personally.
2. What is one thing that must happen this year for the Wizards to make a deeper playoff run than a year ago?
JH: For the Wizards to make a deeper run, one thing that must happen this year is they must get more consistent play from some of their reserves. Tim Frazier and Jodie Meeks have a chance to play a big role on this team and those could be two crucial pieces that were not on this roster one year ago. Not only would their production be valuable for the second unit, but if Scott Brooks can trust them in the backcourt, he would be able to lessen the load on John Wall and Bradley Beal. One of the big talking points from the end of last season was that Wall ran out of gas in Game 7 of the conference semifinals, something he has been determined to rectify this season. But, if he’s in even better shape, and the team can lean on some of their other guards at times throughout the season, it should only result in good things for the Wizards in 2017-18.
CG: Health is the key for any team competing to be in the NBA’s stratosphere because the margin for error is razor thin. Beyond that, I’ll go with Kelly Oubre becoming a game-changer off the bench. The good news here is that he’s already proven to be capable of that on the defensive end, but we’ve seen him put a ton of work in on his offensive game over the past two offseasons. Oubre’s confidence and consistency from 3-point range are still on the rise, but perhaps more importantly are his strides when putting the ball on the floor. He’s learning how to utilize his big-time athleticism and long frame, and I’m interested to see how it impacts the second unit this season.
ZR: This is the key for most teams in the NBA, but the Wizards must stay healthy. They’re already starting the season without Markieff Morris, but you’d rather lose a starter at the beginning of the year than towards the end. The team clearly can’t afford to lose John Wall or Bradley Beal, both of who should be All-Stars this season. The guys that really need to stay healthy in order to solidify a deeper run are veterans Jodie Meeks, Mike Scott, and Ian Mahinmi. Those three players are difference-makers off the bench, and the health, and effectiveness, of the Wizards’ depth has to be the key to making a deeper playoff run.
One other thing I’ve talked about a few times on our Off The Bench podcast is getting the No. 1 or 2 seed so the Wizards would have home court advantage through the first two rounds. That would likely put Cleveland and Boston up against one another in the second round and give the Wizards an even better chance at the Eastern Conference Finals. Still, you can’t worry about how other teams perform, which is something Brooks preaches. Worry about our team and only us.
3. What’s a bold prediction for this year’s team?
JH: One bold prediction for this year’s team? They win the Eastern Conference and finish as the 1 seed.
CG: This may not seem bold seeing as they were just a couple of wins off last season, but I’ll go with the Wizards losing nine or less at home in 2017-18. Plenty of teams came close to this feat last season, but the Warriors (five losses) were the only ones to lose a single-digit amount of games in their building. Washington won 17 straight at home last year, and the buzz around Capital One Arena grew to give the Wizards a real home court advantage. I think that keeps going this year.
ZR: Kelly Oubre Jr. will play a majority of the team’s crunch time minutes. We saw the success of the team’s “small-ball” lineup with Wall, Beal, Oubre, Porter, and Gortat last season (top 10 in terms of Net Rating according to NBA.com/stats). I expect that lineup to play a lot, especially until Morris comes back. Oubre may not start in Morris’ absence, but it makes more sense for him to play at the end of games than Jason Smith, Mike Scott, or whoever else may start. Once Morris returns, I think he will replace Gortat in crunch time and the Wizards will go extra small. It’s just the direction the league is going and all five of those guys are long and tough players who can stretch the floor and guard multiple positions when it counts.
4. Which player will take the biggest leap from last year to this year?
JH: I’ll take Kelly Oubre Jr. as the player who takes the biggest leap this season. He was good in certain spots last year, he showed plenty of flashes, but he’s still only 21 years old and has the athleticism and the body type to be a very good player in the modern NBA game. On the defensive side, he has the ability to be the team’s best on ball defender this year and he can guard four positions on the floor. From an offensive standpoint, he changed his shooting motion this summer and feels a lot more comfortable shooting from the perimeter, which would make him an extremely valuable contributor this season. He could start in certain games, he could play the sixth man role, he could finish games guarding the opposition’s best player, or he could be the energy player off the bench. We probably won’t see the best of Oubre Jr. for another few years, but now in year three of his career, he could develop into one of this team’s most valuable players in 2017-18.
CG: For those who watch Bradley Beal a lot, it may not seem like another big leap is coming, but consider this: Beal is only 24 years old, has yet to be named an All Star and just finished only his second season with 70 or more games played. He also just averaged over 20 points per game for the first time in his career. Beal’s been in the NBA awhile and has established himself as a star, but I wouldn’t sleep on him reaching an even higher echelon. He’s good enough to be a top-10 scorer or better in this league, and having a gifted passer like John Wall on his side doesn’t hurt, either.
ZR: Otto Porter Jr. showed at training camp and in preseason that he got even better over the summer after getting a new contract. It’s clear that his teammates have more confidence in him as well and noticed his growth. The Wizards will give him more touches this season as he’ll become more than a spot-up shooter. Porter will get chances to run the pick-and-roll and score off the dribble. People also forget that he’s a solid defender, but still has plenty of room to grow. Porter should average over 15 points per game in his fifth season in the league.
Honorable mentions also go to Oubre and Tomas Satoransky, who will both become x-factor defenders for the Wizards in time.
5. What areas could limit the Wizards in reaching their goals?
JH: Defensive consistency and defending the 3-point line. That was talked about last year and with much of the same roster back, that will probably be one of the key points we keep an eye on throughout the season. It did improve as the season went on, but showing up on the defensive end on a nightly basis will be something that could be the difference in whether or not this team can finish atop the Eastern Conference.
CG: This may sounds like an echo from my coworkers here (we didn’t read each other’s responses, I promise), but it’s all about defense and health. Injuries are nearly impossible to predict, but if the Wizards can lock down opponents more often, they’ll reach another level. Where this question is concerned, the opposite could lead to them dropping games they shouldn’t.
ZR: As aforementioned, health can limit any team. Most teams are an injury away from one of their key players from even missing the playoffs. But besides that, defensive consistency was the team’s biggest hurdle last season. We know this team can score at will. Focusing and locking in will be the difference between 45 and 50 wins. We saw some struggles from the starters during stretches, but the starters have made a commitment to defense. This season’s second unit will also be much more defensive-minded with guys like Tim Frazier and Mahinmi anchoring the back and front courts.
6. How will the team benefit from having Scott Brooks in his second year?
JH: Just like having much of the same roster back, having Brooks and his entire staff back for another year will be a huge benefit compared to how things began last season. While the 2-8 start last year shouldn’t only be pinned on the fact that the team had a new coach, there’s no question it played a role, and that’s something they won’t have to think about now that everyone is back this year. They know the system, they know the play calls, they know what to expect on and off the court, and now they just have to go out and play. It’s not just the players, but Brooks also should feel more comfortable now that he doesn’t have to deal with everything that goes into starting a new job in a new city. He already talked about how much more fluid everything has been through camp and preseason, so hopefully all of the continuity leads to a fast start to this season.
CG: This will be an underrated part of this season’s story. The locker room really gets along with Coach Brooks, and I think that’s an important thing for teams trying to push into the championship conversation. Aside from that, the shorter learning curve after a full season under Brooks should help the Wizards jump out to a better start despite being without Markieff Morris. If they get out of the gate hot, we could be on track to see a rather historic regular season in Washington.
ZR: With a full year under Brooks and his system, we saw at training camp just how much more comfortable the players and coaching staff were with one another. He knows his players better than most coaches in the league and prioritizes those relationships. You can see it in the way the players and Brooks interact and how they work together to get better. This team will not start the season 2-8 again now that Brooks is beginning his second season in D.C. The Wizards have one of the best young cores in the league, but people always forget to mention Brooks as one of the team’s most important assets.
7. How will the Wizards fare against the top of the Eastern Conference?
JH: As we saw last year, home court played a huge role in the playoffs and may very well have been the difference between the Wizards advancing in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. The home team won every game in the series with Boston and the Wiz won all six of their home playoff games during last year’s playoffs. If they can put an emphasis on winning the regular season and finishing as either the one or the two seed, it would give them home court in the first two rounds, which may very well result in their first trip to the Conference Finals since the 78-79 season. This group has the versatility to match up well with their top competitors and they proved last season they could go toe-to-toe with LeBron and the Cavs, even though it was during the regular season.
CG: It’s important to not understate Boston and Cleveland in the East, as both teams have plenty of bonafide star power that doesn’t need to be explained or defended here. Both of those squads are very talented and well-coached, making them hard to unseat. With that said, John Wall’s elite ability to collapse a defense (and what that opens up for his teammates) is the starting point on a fairly solid list of ways that the Wizards are equipped to challenge both. Of course, Toronto won 50 games last season and is another picture of continuity in the East that can’t be written off.
ZR: Again, the Cavs and Celtics are obviously the talk of the Eastern Conference, but the Wizards match up well against both of them. Both teams have defensive weaknesses at point guard, which Wall and Beal can take advantage of. The Wizards can go small against those lineups, and they have the length and athleticism to compete. The Cavs are the deepest team in the East, while the Celtics may have the most talent. The Wizards hope to be a mix of both, a team of undeniable talent and veteran depth with the continuity to succeed through a full regular season and playoffs.
Don’t sleep on the Raptors either, a team with plenty of continuity and a strong backcourt. They lost some important pieces, but they know how to win. The Bucks are a young team that has a chance to make a big leap this season, but they’re still a year away in my opinion from being among the elite teams in the East.
8. Win Total Predictions
JH: The Wizards top the 50 win mark and win 52 games.
CG: I’ll take 53 Wizard wins.
ZR: Mark me down for 51 wins.