NBA Season Preview: The Washington Wizards

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john_wall_washington_wizards_summer_league.jpgLast season: 26-56, which actually sounds better than it was. The Wizards were disappointing long before two pistols ever found their way into the Washington locker room, or Gilbert Arenas unholstered his finger guns, or the Wiz started trading away their most productive players.  

Head Coach:
Flip Saunders. Considering last season’s extracurricular activities, Saunders did a fairly decent job of preventing a complete implosion. He’ll have plenty of new talent to play with this season and not all that many quantifiable expectations, so as long as Saunders does the same kind of coaching that got him the gig in the first place (creative offense, decent defense) while keeping John Wall happy, and grooming the young’ns,  making the playoffs is really secondary.

Key Departures:
Mike Miller, Randy Foye, Shaun Livingston, James Singleton, Earl Boykins, a dark cloud hanging overhead.

Key Additions:
John Wall, Kirk Hinrich, Yi Jianlian, Josh Howard (re-signed), Kevin Seraphin, Trevor Booker, members of the Cult of John Wall.

Best case scenario: Wall is an undeniable star, Gilbert Arenas’ play reminds us of the star he once was, Andray Blatche suddenly gets it, JaVale McGee looks and plays the part of a reliable starting center, Yi Jianlian looks like a regular contributor, and the Wizards live happily ever after on their way toward fringe contention for a playoff spot.

For that to happen: Well, like the prompt dictates, a lot will have to go right. Just about everything, in fact. Reaching that scenario will mostly be contingent on individual performances, because at this point, that’s what the Wizards are playing for. Appraisal. Evaluation. Individual consistency. To see which players play well and which don’t, and to see which mix of players should form Washington’s fledgling core.

How they play and perform as a team is obviously still of great import, but less so for Washington than other squads. The Wizards are not a playoff team this season. Not unless Wall is out-of-this-world good as a rook, Arenas spent his offseason becoming an alchemist that can turn bad shot attempts into gold, or one of the other rotation regulars decides to evolve into something outright nasty. 

More likely, the Wizards will: Be alright, but not playoff contenders. The gap between what the Wizards could be and what the rest of
the Eastern Conference teams already are is simply too substantial to
expect a postseason berth for Washington. Instead, they’ll begin to form the structure of something that could one day be great. Wall is a central ingredient, but Washington’s other young talent should take steps forward alongside him, even if they can’t quite keep up.

Wall is going to be a treat, the full sweetness of which we can’t even fathom at the moment. It’s going to be a hell of a show, and Wall will prove that he’s completely worthy of all the pre-draft (and post-draft, for that matter) trumpeting.

His addition just isn’t enough to push Washington over the hump. The claim that the Wizards will miss the playoffs is not a declaration of the Knicks and Bobcats as some kind of
powerhouse tandem. Hardly so. Washington just needs some work, and
expecting them to put in all of that work over the course of one season while also mounting
a serious playoff push is a bit much.

The Wizards were 25th in the league
in defensive rebounding rate last season, and their most significant rebounding addition is likely Yi, who has averaged just 7.9 boards per 36 minutes over his career. I like JaVale McGee and Andray Blatche as much as anyone, but both need to be more prolific and more consistent in their rebounding. Could happen, but color me doubtful.

Washington was horrible on offense last season, ranking 26th in effective field goal percentage, 25th in turnover rate, and 22nd in free throw rate. Having Wall and Arenas on the court should do wonders to help in each of those categories, but a rookie point guard (even one of Wall’s talents) and an unpredictable scoring guard aren’t the surest horses to right the ship, even in a poorly-conceived mixed metaphor. Both will help the Wizards thrive in comparison to last season, but jumping from an atrocious offense to a passable one isn’t likely to guarantee the Wizards a playoff spot.

Plus, as bad as the Wizards’ offense was last season, their defense may have been even worse. That kind of thing tends to happen when four of the team’s five starters (including their best defensive center) are gone by February, forcing Saunders to dig deep into his bench for potential stopgaps.

This group should be better, but man. Gilbert Arenas. Al Thornton. Nick Young. Josh Howard. Hilton Armstrong. Yi Jianlian. Please, stop me when I get to a name that encourages confidence in Washington’s defense.

The Wizards should improve by default on the defensive end this season, but again, there’s a question of how much improvement can be reasonably expected. Perhaps they’ll find a way to reconcile some of their individual defensive deficiencies with good rotations and sound decision-making on the back line. That just sounds like a lot to expect from McGee, Blatche, and the Wizards’ perimeter defenders, most of whom have been a bit light on defensive savvy up to this point.

Prediction: 35 wins. Turn the page, Wizards. It’s a new day.

Four Things to Watch in two Game 7s Sunday

during game six of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Time Warner Cable Arena on April 29, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.
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It’s what the playoffs are all about — win or go home Game 7s. Pressure, drama, unlikely stars Sunday is going to have it all. Here are a few things to watch:

1) Can Miami’s jump shooters have another hot game? Dwyane Wade got the headlines (and he earned them) for his Game 6 performance (everyone except purple shirt guy was impressed), but the real key for the Heat to force a Game 7 was they were hitting their jumpers — or at least enough of them. In their three losses, Miami shot 33.7 percent from 3 feet out to the arc, but in Game 6 the Heat shot 43.5 percent in that range, plus knocked down eight threes. The Hornets have packed the paint all series, when the Heat hit their jumpers they win. It’s that simple.

2) Does Kemba Walker have one more big game in him? Walker was fantastic in Game 6 (37 points), and he’s been very good in the Hornets’ victories. He’s going to penetrate and get some shots inside eight feet, but will he be able to finish? And, more importantly, will he hit his threes when they pack the paint on him? If Walker has a huge game, Charlotte very likely moves on.

3) Is Toronto too far into their own head? No team has more pressure on them to advance out of the first round than Toronto after two previous years of getting bounced in the first round, and they will feel that weight at home in Game 7 against Indiana. Will Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan step up with big games in the biggest moments of their careers, or will they succumb to the moment and the Pacers defense? For all the Xs and Os that do matter in this game, how the Raptors handle the pressure will be key.

4) Can the Pacers again get a few quality minutes when Paul George sits? In the Pacers comfortable Game 6 win, George got a rest in the second quarter and the Pacers were +5 while he sat. That was a huge step up from Game 5, where the Pacers were -18 when he was out for less than 7 minutes. If Indiana — by playing some starters such as Myles Turner — doesn’t have a huge bench drop off when George rests a few minutes their odds of winning go way up. We know Paul George can handle the moment.

Spurs demolish Thunder to take Game 1 of second-round series

SAN ANTONIO,TX - APRIL 30: LaMarcus Aldridge #12 of the San Antonio Spurs scores over Steven Adams #12 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during game one of the Western Conference Semifinals for the 2016 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center on April 30, 2016 in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that , by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)
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The second round was supposed to be when things got exciting. Instead, the San Antonio Spurs put on an absolute clinic at home, blowing out the Oklahoma City Thunder, 124-92 to take a 1-0 series lead.

Just about everything went in for San Antonio, particularly for LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard, who combined for 63 points. How dominant were they?

Aldridge in particular got anything he wanted against the Thunder. Oklahoma City’s stars were quiet, with Kevin Durant scoring just 16 points and Russell Westbrook 14. San Antonio controlled the game from the start and Oklahoma City never recovered from the opening punch.

It’s hard to imagine Durant and Westbrook are this ineffective again, and hopefully the rest of this series will be a little more competitive. But the Spurs did what the Spurs do, and did nothing to shake the feeling that they’re the favorites to win the west, now that Stephen Curry‘s status is unknown.

Hawks get another playoff shot at King James and Cavaliers

at Philips Arena on April 1, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.
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ATLANTA (AP) A year ago, Atlanta’s magical season ended with a resounding sweep by Cleveland in the Eastern Conference final.

Now, the Hawks have another shot at LeBron James and the Cavaliers.

Feeling confident after an opening-round victory over Boston, the Hawks returned to practice Saturday to begin preparations for the best-of-seven series.

Game 1 is Monday night in Cleveland.

The Hawks were the top-seeded team in the East last season after a record 60-win campaign. It didn’t do them much good against the Cavaliers, who steamrolled Atlanta in four straight games.

Even though they slipped to 48 wins and fourth in the conference, the Hawks actually sound a bit more confident heading into this matchup, largely because of their improved defense and rebounding.

Report: Warriors to replace Luke Walton from outside the organization

MILWAUKEE, WI - DECEMBER 12: Interim Coach Luke Walton of the Golden State Warriors talks on the sideline during the second quarter against the Milwaukee Bucks at BMO Harris Bradley Center on December 12, 2015 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images)
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For the second consecutive year, the Warriors have lost their lead assistant to another team. When the Pelicans hired Alvin Gentry during last year’s playoffs, Steve Kerr promoted Luke Walton to associate head coach and added former journeyman big man Jarron Collins to the bench. Now that Walton is headed to the Lakers as their next head coach, the Warriors will go outside the organization to find a replacement, according to ESPN.com’s Marc Stein. And one name that will likely not be in the mix is David Blatt, who very nearly became an assistant under Kerr in 2014 before being offered the Cavaliers’ head job.

Given Walton’s success this season as interim head coach while Kerr recovered from back surgery, this will undoubtedly be the most attractive assistant job in the league.