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.

Thunder’s Taj Gibson providing scoring help for Westbrook

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Taj Gibson often describes his role for the Thunder as doing whatever the team needs.

For now, scoring is playing a bigger part than usual. The versatile 6-foot-9 power forward has found his way since being traded from Chicago and has emerged one of Oklahoma City’s few consistent offensive weapons alongside Russell Westbrook in the playoffs. He may need to keep it up to give the Thunder a chance of winning the first-round series with Houston – Oklahoma City trails 2-1 heading into Game 4 Sunday at home.

Gibson built a sterling reputation in Chicago, but the Brooklyn, New York native is more concerned with the respect he’s earned since his arrival.

“They see I’m in here late nights, early mornings, just constantly working with my teammates, constantly putting work in,” he said. “The confidence is going to be there because they understand you do the work, but I’m just trying to do whatever I can to help my team.”

Gibson has done a little bit of everything since coming to the Thunder. He has provided experience and versatility to an already stacked frontline that includes emerging young players Steven Adams and Enes Kanter. He also has added toughness, and at times, scoring punch. His athleticism and ability to guard on the perimeter against outside-shooting big men and on switches fills some of the void created when the Thunder traded Serge Ibaka on draft night this past offseason.

“Great vet,” guard Victor Oladipo said. “Great man, first and foremost. Very positive and does what it takes to win. It was a great pickup for us.”

Domantas Sabonis was the starting power forward when Gibson arrived in Oklahoma City, but once he got settled and began to understand coach Billy Donovan’s system, the Thunder improved. Gibson replaced Sabonis for the first time March 9 against San Antonio, and the Thunder went 11-5 with him in the starting lineup. He averaged 9.0 points and 4.5 rebounds in 21 regular-season games for the Thunder.

He is averaging 11 points on 65 percent shooting in the playoffs. He was effective on offense in Game 2, establishing himself early and helping put the Thunder in position to win. Oklahoma City went away from him late, and Houston rallied for the victory.

In Game 3, the Thunder went back to him consistently. a href(equals)’https://apnews.com/dab4b99c496a4450906c11a9c72132d1/Westbrook’s-triple-double-leads-Thunder-past-Rockets-115-113?utm-campaign=SocialFlow&utm-source=Twitter&utm-medium=AP-Sports’He finished with 20 points on 10-for-13 shooting in Oklahoma City’s 115-113 win/a on Friday night.

“Taj is a great post player,” Westbrook said. “He does a great job of getting in great position down low. When we see a matchup that we like we are going to keep going to him. Whether it is a miss or a make, it gives us the opportunity to score the basketball in the paint.”

Gibson did damage inside and out and punished the Rockets with his mid-range jumper.

“It’s no shock to me, just because that mid-range is automatic for him,” Thunder forward Doug McDermott, who also joined the Thunder in the trade with Chicago, said. “He’s tough to guard on that block too.”

Gibson also had a fast start in Game 2, but once the Thunder began to struggle, they went away from him. Gibson knew he didn’t need to change much going into Game 3.

“Just continue to be aggressive,” he said. “I felt like I had good shots in Game 2. Just got to stay with it and play the game as it flows to me.”

On defense, Gibson has been a better option than Kanter and Adams, who have struggled to keep up with the more athletic Rockets. Gibson performed well in all facets in Game 3, and Donovan needs more of that in Game 4.

“I was happy for him last night,” Donovan said Saturday. “I thought he gave us a great lift in both the first and second half. He’s professional, he’s a man, and he’s a reliable guy.”

Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP .

Watch Kawhi Leonard, Mike Conley in epic playoff duel Saturday (VIDEO)

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Kawhi Leonard scored 16 straight points for the Spurs at the end of regulation to give San Antonio the lead and a chance. Then Mike Conley hit a floater in the lane forced overtime.

There Mike Conley hit a floating bank shot that had the Grizzlies up three with :47 seconds left, only to have Leonard answer with a three to tie the game. Marc Gasol would break that tie and get Memphis the series-evening win.

Conley and Leonard traded blows through the clutch parts of Saturday’s epic Game 4 between Memphis and San Antonio. It’s worth checking out the highlights again.

John Wall goes coast-to-coast, behind-the-back for lefty dunk (VIDEO)

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There’s not going to be many plays better than this in the entire playoffs.

There wasn’t a lot for Wizards’ fans to cheer in Game 3, the Hawks took control early and routed Washington, making it a 2-1 series. But there was this, John Wall going coast-to-coast with the ball, going around-the-back and throwing it down left handed.

Wall is just so fast end to end.

Warriors take 3-0 series lead over Blazers with 119-113 win

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Stephen Curry scored 34 points, Klay Thompson added 24 and the short-handed Golden State Warriors overcame a slow start to take a 3-0 lead in their playoff series against the Portland Trail Blazers with a 119-113 victory on Saturday night.

The Blazers led by as many as 17 points in the first half, but couldn’t hold off the Warriors, who can clinch the series with a win Monday night in Game 4 at the Moda Center.

Golden State was without Kevin Durant, who was sitting for a second straight game cause of a left calf strain, and coach Steve Kerr stayed back at the team hotel because of illness.

The Warriors took a 108-100 lead after Andre Iguodala‘s dunk with 4:05 to go.

Noah Vonleh‘s dunk got Portland within four at 110-106 with 1:29 left, but Curry answered with a 3-pointer that all but sealed it, sending fans streaming for the exits.

CJ McCollum led the Blazers with 32 points, while Damian Lillard added 31.