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.

What happened to Willy Hernangomez’s minutes with Knicks?

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When talking about the Knicks’ young core going forward, Willy Hernangomez was one of the names that got mentioned by the front office (alongside players such asFrank Ntilikina and Tim Hardaway Jr.). The Knicks are crowded at the center spot — Enes Kanter got the start in the opener Thursday night, and Kristaps Porzingis should get minutes there (it’s ultimately going to be his NBA position), and this isn’t even mentioning Joakim Noah — but Hernangomez looked like a developing young player who needed some run.

He got just 3:46 minutes in the opener, and that was during fourth quarter garbage time. Kyle O'Quinn got nearly 22 off the bench at the five. That follows a preseason where Hernangomez saw his minutes drop seemingly game-to-game.

What gives? Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News asked the same question.

“We have a lot of bigs,” Hornacek said. “(O’Quinn) and Enes earned the minutes in training camp. Willy’s not far behind. He’s got to keep working. When you got that many bigs, you can’t play them all. The other guys earned the minutes. I told all three of them it doesn’t matter if you’re in the rotation or out of rotation. If you’re in it, you’ve got to earn it to keep it.”

“I can score. It’s not difficult for me. I think the coach wants to see my effort on defense. That’s why I have to keep working hard everyday,” said Hernangomez, who is also Kristaps Porzingis’ best friend on the Knicks.

Without question, Hernangomez needs to work on his defense, but then again this is a Knicks team starting Kanter so it’s obviously not a requirement.

Hornacek needs to find a balance here — it’s early in the season, he wants to win games, he wants to put his best foot forward. But the Knicks are not a playoff team this season, and they are in the player development business. That means Hernangomez — as well as rookie point guard Ntilikina — need to get minutes, need to be thrown to the wolves a little, and need to learn from their mistakes. Hornacek needs to be coaching for a few years down the line… the problem is he knows he may not have this job that far down the line, so he’s coaching to get wins now.

Patrick Beverley talks a lot of smack, taunts Lonzo Ball in opener

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LOS ANGELES — Welcome to the NBA Lonzo Ball. Guys are gunning for you.

“He’s a great talent, but he’s got to go through the tough times. I just had to set the tone,” the Clippers’ Patrick Beverley said of his physical play on Ball from the opening tip. “I told him after the game, due to all the riffraff his dad brings he’s going to get a lot of people coming at him. He’s got to be ready for that, and I let him know after the game…

“(I had to) welcome his little young a** to the NBA.”

Beverley said a lot more than that.

Beverly is known as a physical defender who talks a lot and tries to get under the skin of opponents. Throw in an overhyped rookie — one who other players feel hasn’t earned his place yet, one with a Facebook reality show, one with a father who talks a lot — and you get the full Beverley treatment from the opening tip.

Maybe Snoop Dogg put it best, as he often does.

Both Lakers coach Luke Walton and team president Magic Johnson said they warned Ball what was coming, but words don’t always do justice to the reality of a guy in your grill all night.

In the second quarter, Beverley stole the ball from Ball from Ball shouted “first team!” three times while holding up his index finger — a reference to him being First Team All-Defense last season.

Thing is, it wasn’t just Beverley. When he sat Austin Rivers had the Ball defensive assignment, and on a couple of occasions Ball tried to drive past Rivers but couldn’t. All night long a Clippers team that always prioritizes getting back in transition took away the look-ahead passes that Ball was known for over the summer (he had a couple, but there were few opportunities).

Ball sat the entire fourth quarter and finished the night 1-of-6 shooting with four assists and nine rebounds. The Lakers were blown out by Beverley’s Clippers 108-92, a game the Clippers led by 30 at one point.

To his credit, Ball handled it well.

“He plays 94 feet,” Ball said of Beverley. “That’s what you’re supposed to do. He’s a good defender. I just tried to do what I can.”

“It was good for (Lonzo),” Walton said of the rough first night. “Beverley is as good as anyone, if not the best, at the point guard position of getting into other people and getting under their skin. I thought Zo kept his composure.”

Ball is going to need that composure over a long season — Beverley is right, other guys will come at him. Lonzo’s father LaVar wrote a lot of checks with his mouth this summer — he called out LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and others — that will come due on Lonzo. There are more learning experiences ahead for the rookie, especially on a young Lakers team without nearly enough shooting around him to create the space he needs for his passing to thrive.

However, hold his own this season, improve, and keep that composure and he will win over NBA players. Respect is earned in the league, and Ball is just starting that process as far as other teams are concerned.

 

Former Celtic Justin Reed passes away from cancer at age 35

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This is depressing.

Justin Reed, a second-round pick of the Celtics back in 2004, the former Ole Miss star, has passed away from cancer at the age of 35.

Angiosarcoma is an aggressive form of cancer of the inner lining of blood vessels, his happened around his spine.

Reed played in 136 NBA games, both for Boston and then the Timberwolves after he was traded in 2006. He had played four years at Ole Miss and led the school to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.

Our thoughts are with Reed’s family and friends.

NBA Three Things to Know: Russell Westbrook is back to triple-double ways

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Every night in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, and that was certainly true on the first TNT Thursday night games of the season. Every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Another game, another Russell Westbrook triple-double — but this time he had two 20+ point friends to help. If all you saw was the box score, you’d think this was the perfect opening night for the Oklahoma City Thunder — they won by 21 (105-84), their defense looked dominant in stretches (allowing 17 points in the third quarter), and their stars had big nights. Russell Westbrook had 20 points, 16 assists and 10 rebounds for another triple-double, Paul George had 28, and Carmelo Anthony 22.

However, if you watched the game, you saw a very good team that had some work to do. The Thunder big three combined for 71 points, yet they were just a +8 when on the court as a trio. The Thunder halfcourt offense wasn’t impressive, there was still a lot of them playing next to each other — “you take a turn in isolation, now I go” — and not the ball switching sides into quick action that they need. It’s not all bad, these are three very good isolation players, but to make the whole more than the sum of the parts that’s the next step. But the Thunder got a lot of transition buckets, the three of them played well, and Stephen Adams was able to set a physical tone. The OKC bench is a bit of a concern, but it’s not like the Knicks could exploit that.

It was a good start for OKC fans, they got a win and their stars racked up impressive numbers. Nothing wrong with that.

For New York, Kristaps Porzingis looked good scoring 31. Beyond that… just watch some Kristaps Porzingis highlights, that’s the best we’ve got for Knicks’ fans.

2) Blake Griffin, Patrick Beverley bring a dose of reality to Lonzo Ball, Lakers’ hype machine. I live in Los Angeles, and I had a Lakers’ fan friend trying to pitch to me how they were good enough to be a playoff team in the West. I just shook my head at the idea, but the Lakers and Lonzo Ball hype machine had been in overdrive all summer, and some Lakers’ fans were not just drinking the Kool-Aid, they were chugging it.

Blake Griffin, Patrick Beverley, and the Los Angeles Clippers woke Lakers fans up to reality Thursday night. They showed those Lakers’ fans what a playoff team in the West looks like. The Clippers cruised to a 108-92 win that wasn’t that close, the Clippers led by 30 at one point.

Griffin had 29 points and played as moved as well as we’ve seen him in a year (get to No. 3 on our list). Patrick Beverley was physical and in Lonzo Ball’s face from the opening tip, ““(I had to) welcome his little young a** to the NBA.” DeAndre Jordan had 24 rebounds, 14 points, and owned the paint. The Clippers defended while the young Lakers struggled on every front on that side — they don’t have a lot of talented defenders, their young players often don’t know where to be, and there was a real lack of effort on that end.

Griffin did a good job protecting the rim (the most active I have seen him down there in years), that was in addition to Jordan’s usual efforts in that phase of the game. Lou Williams did what he does and gave the team a dozen points off the bench. Danilo Gallinari struggled a little with his shot (3-of-11) but played hard on the defensive end. The Clippers got solid bench games from Austin Rivers and Willie Reed.

The Lakers are still a young team learning to play. Ball has to become more comfortable scoring to open up the passes he wants to make in the half court, but he was just 1-of-6 as a reluctant shooter (and admitted after the game he needs to be more aggressive). More concerning, Brandon Ingram was 3-of-15 shooting, he continues to struggle from everywhere — he was just 1-of-5 at the rim, 1-of-7 in the paint overall, and 2-of-8 outside it. As a team the Lakers shot 35.4 percent in the first half, and for the game were 11-of-42 outside the paint.

As young teams will do, the Lakers let their missed shots effect their defensive effort, and that’s what did them in.

It’s going to be a long season filled with some harsh lessons for the young Lakers. The Clippers were just happy to provide the first one.

3) If you think Blake Griffin doesn’t dunk anymore… we suggest you ask Julius Randle about that. Or, just watch this video. Maybe he doesn’t throw it down as often, but he still brings the power when he goes to the rim.