Bradley Beal, Ernie Grunfeld, Randy Wittman

NBA Preview: Washington Wizards

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Last season: It wasn’t pretty, 20-46 never is, but the Wizards made some moves to push this team in the right direction. This was as dysfunctional a locker room as there was in the league, so trading JaVale McGee and firing coach Flip Saunders made sense. The team needed to bring in professional players and an old-school coach to change the culture. That started to happen.

Key Departures: The Wizards threw in the towel on the Andray Blatche experiment and amnestied him. They stuck with him longer than they should have. Also gone was athletic but erratic backup two guard Nick Young, and not much missed Rashard Lewis. We can mention JaVale McGee here, even though that happened last season at the trade deadline (a move that was part of the culture change).

Key Additions: Washington took on money to get the stabilization they wanted, trading for solid veterans Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza. They will pay those two a combined $43 million over the next three years, so they better bring something to the table. Remember they got Nene for JaVale McGee late last season, too.

The Wizards also drafted Bradley Beal, who they picture as the future two guard playing next to John Wall. That was a smart pick.

Three keys to the Wizards’ season:

1) When will John Wall be healthy, and can he make the leap? There are two more keys discussed below, but this is THE question for the Wizards. If you’re going to be a title contender, an elite team in the NBA, you need one of the dozen or so elite players in the NBA. When drafted No. 1, it was thought Wall might be that guy. So far he hasn’t been.

Wall will be out until around Thanksgiving (maybe a little earlier) with a stress fracture in his patella. This is something he should come all the way back from. However, missing that month, that 10 or so games, could be the difference between the Wizards making the playoffs and missing out. Again.

Whenever he returns, Wall has to prove he is the promised franchise player. If he can’t, the Wizards need to treat him like a role player and not keep paying for potential. But we want to see him bust out. Wall hasn’t had a reliable jump shot, has been slowed by injuries, couldn’t seem to lead the team. He has to push the tempo and make plays in transition, he needs to hit jump shots consistently, and he needs to really be more of a force in the half court offense and work better off picks. He has to step up his game. The time is now.

For a couple seasons he has been good. The Wizards need great.

2) Their defense should be good, will they get enough offense? With Nene in the paint, Okafor lurking around there too and now Trevor Ariza on the perimeter, plus old-school Randy Wittman as coach, you can bet the Wizards will play pretty good defense.

The question is where do the points come from and do they have the shooters to stretch the floor when Wall drives. Wall has to get and create points, and he should get help inside from Nene and Okafor. But the Wizards need Ariza to bury corner threes consistently and they need the rookie Beal to be a sharpshooter. Do that and they will get enough points to win some games. If they remain a bottom 10 offense it’s going to be a long, long season.

3) How much does the culture change mean? Gone are McGee, Blatche, Young and before them Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton. Let’s just say that the Wizards locker room was not the most professional in the league before and preparation was not their forte. Wall could not lead that group. Now they have a team of real professionals, guys like Okafor and Ariza.

It matters, in part because with the contracts now on the books these are their guys — this roster is basically their team for a couple years.

What Wizards’ fans should fear: If Wall does not pan out to be a superstar No. 1 pick you can build a franchise around, you still need to go get one of those guys. But they will have a team with veterans who can play and so they are not going to fall to the bottom of the lottery. What is scary is moving into the league’s middle ground, where the Wizards consistently finish between 7 and 10 in the conference, never get a game-changing lottery pick but are never real threats to contend either. The Wizards could slip into that realm.

How it likely works out: The Wizards are going to be better. How much better really falls to Wall, and how good you think the Wizards will be this year really depends on how good you think Wall can be. If he can leap up into the tier of top point guards in the league, the Wizards become a playoff team and a tough out. If not, if he just improves a little, they likely miss out.

I think they are going to be a good defensive team, not great but good, and the nights the points come they can be dangerous. I’m not totally sold on Wall. But they are going to be solid.

Prediction: 35-47 and like the 9 or 10 seed in the East, hanging around the playoff hunt but just missing out. Their playoff chances are really damaged by not having Wall for the first month of the season. They do not have a lot of margin for error. They are going to be better, they are going to be more entertaining, but if they are going to surprise us it’s on Wall when he gets back.

Report: Las Vegas also in contention for 2017 NBA All-Star game

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Where will the NBA hold the 2017 All-Star game?

Charlotte? No.

New Orleans? Probably.

New York/Brooklyn or Chicago? Maybe.

One more maybe: Las Vegas.

Scott Kusher of The Advocate:

The NBA held All-Star Weekend in Las Vegas in 2007. By all accounts, it was wild.

I’d be surprised if the league returned the event to Las Vegas, but at this point, I’d really be surprised by any option besides New Orleans.

Report: 76ers, Sam Hinkie’s ‘handpicked analytics crew’ splitting up

Ben Mikesell/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP
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The 76ers hired Bryan Colangelo, and Sam Hinkie bounced.

Now, much of Hinkie’s front-office is also heading out the door.

Zach Lowe of ESPN:

that regime — including deposed GM Sam Hinkie’s handpicked analytics crew — will be mostly gone by the end of August, league sources say.

If Colangelo hires his own analytics staff and integrates numbers into his decision-making, this is no big deal.

If Colangelo leaves those positions vacant, Philadelphia will be working from behind.

I’m betting on the former. He isn’t Hinkie, but Colangelo has discussed the importance of analytics. Let Colangelo hire his own staff, and everything might even flow more smoothly.

Mike Krzyzewski: Team USA having too much fun, needs to tone it down

OAKLAND, CA - JULY 26:  DeMar DeRozan #9 of the United States Men's National Team looks on during a break in the action against the China Men's National Team during the second half of a USA Basketball showcase exhibition game at ORACLE Arena on July 26, 2016 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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Mike Krzyzewski hates fun (even more than he admits).

So, the coach wasn’t thrilled after Team USA’s exhibition win over China, which included DeMar DeRozan nearly 360-degree dunking on someone.

Marc J. Spears of ESPN:

I want to see Team USA make highlight plays. Dunk from the free-throw line. Shoot from halfcourt. Throw behind-the-back passes. Show up weaker competition.

So, it’s hard for me to get behind Coach K’s criticism.

But I also want to see the Americans win gold medals in the Olympics, and I’ll blame Krzyzewski if they’re not adequately focused.

Fair? Not one bit.

Doesn’t change what I want, though.

Report: Kevin Durant told Russell Westbrook he’d re-sign with the Thunder

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 28:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Russell Westbrook #0 look on prior to game six of the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 28, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. 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 Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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Kevin Durant said he had to distance himself from Russell Westbrook entering free agency. Yet, Durant listened to the Warriors recruiting him all season and had clearly been interested in Golden State for months.

The writing was on the wall.

Except, a few days before taking meetings in the Hamptons (which led to signing with the Warriors), Durant dined with Westbrook.

Royce Young of ESPN:

Three weeks ago, Kevin Durant’s sitting there at dinner, telling him “Hey, I’m coming back, man. Don’t worry about it.” And now, Russell Westbrook has been kind of thrown into this in having to decide his future a summer earlier than expected.

Kevin Durant, more so than even that, was telling people, “Hey, yeah, I mean I’m coming back.” Like I said in there, a week before Kevin Durant sat down in the Hamptons, he was in Oklahoma City ready to make an offer on a multi-million-dollar house. So, the guy was pretty serious about coming back, and then things turned rather quickly for him to leave. And there’s no doubt that the organization felt a little bit burned by this.

Maybe Durant said that. Maybe he meant it in the moment. Maybe he was just trying to appease someone he didn’t want to let down. Maybe he was unclear. Maybe Westbrook read too much into a more clear statement.

There’s a lot of room for imperfect recollection/interpretation. We’re dealing with human beings.

Likewise on the house. Who says Durant was “ready” to make an offer? That’s an awfully difficult assessment to make outside his head. Just as the Celtics had a list of players Durant wanted them to add, it seems he was preparing for all contingencies. It’s hard to nail down whether he was house hunting because he was certain he wanted to stay in Oklahoma City or whether he just wanted a new place if he stayed in Oklahoma City.

So much of what we know about Durant’s process for picking the Warriors suggests a rational decision. He considered them for months, met with multiple teams, conferred with his inner circle then made a choice.

If Durant told Westbrook or anyone else he’d re-sign with the Thunder, that obviously changes the equation. But I’m left wondering:

How many people in Oklahoma City heard what they wanted to hear rather than what Durant actually said?

How many people are incentivized to paint Durant as impulsive, because the alternative — Durant thoughtfully deciding the Thunder weren’t his best option — indicates deeper flaws in the franchise?