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.

Kyrie Irving rubs salt in wound, gets 42nd point with behind-the-back ball fake (VIDEO)

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Kyrie Irving was awesome Tuesday night.

Unless you are a Boston Celtics fan, in which case it was hard to watch him carve up and embarrass your team for a career-best 42 points. He did a lot of that damage after rolling his ankle.

Particularly embarrassing was the final play of the game, when he drove past Marcus Smart and Kelly Olynyk, then went with the behind-the-back ball fake that burned Jae Crowder and opened up a lane for an uncontested layup.

Check out Irving’s entire night here.

Utah Utes forward Kyle Kuzma reportedly rising up draft boards

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Kyle Kuzma wasn’t sure how things would play out when he announced plans in late March to test the NBA draft. The Utah Utes junior forward was well aware of the doubters and didn’t immediately hire an agent to keep open the option to return for his senior year.

A month later, Kuzma has hired an agent and is rising up the pre-draft rankings after a superb NBA combine and strong individual workouts. He’s considered an early to mid second round pick.

“I just got more confident, I’m not going to lie, throughout the whole process,” Kuzma said Tuesday. “Working out every day with the NBA ball and just imagining yourself down the road. Once I declared with an agent prior to the combine, people’s ears raised up. But I just knew it in my heart it was the right decision for me. Everything’s really falling in line right now. It’s looking good.”

The Flint, Michigan, native had a pre-draft workout with the Utah Jazz on Tuesday and continued to show evaluators an ability to shoot the ball from NBA 3-point range. Kuzma was named first-team All-Pac-12 after a 2016-17 season during which he averaged 16.4 points, 9.3 rebounds. The 6-foot-9, 223-pounder has a versatile game that allows him to handle the ball on the perimeter as a playmaker with good size, but he shot just 32.1 percent from behind the arc last season.

Kuzma turned heads with 20 points and four-for-five shooting on 3-pointers in his lone 5-on-5 scrimmage at the combine.

“I changed my jump shot up a little bit,” Kuzma said. “Being more fluid and more comfortable shooting the ball from the NBA 3. I feel like I’m more comfortable shooting from that 3 than from college 3 right now. A lot of people were surprised, but I really wasn’t. I put a lot of work into my game every single day.”

Kuzma had another quality workout Tuesday, according to Jazz vice president of player personnel Walt Perrin, and continued to shoot the ball well. Perrin said Kuzma was by far the best player at the six-man workout and that he wished he could have brought Kuzma in to face a more talented group.

The versatility of Kuzma’s game is a positive even though he falls into a tweener category – a little slight to be a true power forward and not quite quick enough to be a pure small forward. That may not matter in today’s NBA.

“We’re going more and more toward positionless players,” Perrin said. “You look at Golden State … they don’t have guys that play certain positions. They have the best players on their team playing. … We’ve gone to nobody posting up, basically, to everybody being able to put the ball on the floor and create shots on the perimeter, penetrate and kick to guys wide open in the corner for threes.

“The guys on the floor have to be able to guard their so-called position. And I think we’re looking more and more at that in terms of he can have an advantage on offense, but where is his disadvantage or advantage defensively?”

The Utes were well represented at the workout with forward David Collette joining the group.

The 6-foot-8, 220-pounder hasn’t hired an agent and is expected to return to school. Perrin couldn’t discuss Collette because of that, and he couldn’t talk to the media, but Kuzma said the rising senior showed off a newly refined midrange jump shot. The Utes will rely heavily on Collette as the lone returning starter, who averaged 13.6 points and 5.1 rebounds last season.

Utah will lose its best player to the NBA draft for a third consecutive season as Kuzma follows Jakob Poeltl and Delon Wright. The process has kept Kuzma smiling as he met childhood idol Magic Johnson, watched his stock rise and is on the verge of playing basketball for a living.

“I feel like you’ve got to be two feet in with everything you do,” Kuzma said. “I definitely looked at the pros and cons, but my heart was in getting to this level and trying to prove people wrong again like I’ve done my entire life.”

Celtics’ coach knows the difference in this series: LeBron James and Kyrie Irving

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For 24 minutes Tuesday night, Boston showed Game 3 was not a fluke.

“I thought we played as well as we have played these entire playoffs in the first half,” Celtics coach Brad Steven said. “We were really good defensively. Offensively I thought we moved, and cut, and played together.

“Then, for whatever reason, all those things became a little bit more difficult. That’s what great teams do, they make it really hard on you.”

Whatever reason? What was the difference in this game?

Kyrie Irving and LeBron James, would be your two answers,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said.

Those two Cleveland All-Stars took over Game 4 Tuesday night for stretches — Irving in the third when he had 21, LeBron in the fourth — and for the game they combined for 76 points on 49 shots.

LeBron and Irving were they reason Cleveland won Game 4 Tuesday night, and they have been the difference in this series — Boston is a good team, but the Cavaliers have the two best players in this series (one could argue Kevin Love makes three) and the Celtics have no answer.

The Cavaliers are a championship team. However, they are not one that is not about the system, not one where their success is about franchise culture.

The Cavaliers are great because they have one of the game’s all-time great players, surrounded by a couple other All-Stars. They thrive by forcing teams to switch mismatches then going at right at them — Irving and LeBron were sixth and seventh in the NBA this season in percentage of isolation plays for them. Cleveland doesn’t run a motion offense like the Golden State team it will see in the finals, the Cavaliers are simple but efficient.

The mindset is straightforward: We have the better players, just try to stop us.

Boston had little success in this series playing that way — when Isaiah Thomas tried to pick apart the athletic Cavaliers defenders off the pick-and-roll both he and the Celtics struggled. Thomas had an offensive rating of 83 points per 100 possessions in this series before he was sidelined with an injury.

Without him, Boston had to rely on a more balanced, egalitarian offense — move the ball, move without the ball, find the open man, and trust him. The Celtics’ improved defense without Thomas was forcing more turnovers, and the Celtics were gang rebounding well. The result was a 123.4 points per 100 offensive rating in Game 3, then a decent 106.7 in Game 4 (despite the rough second half).

It just wasn’t enough.

Because the Cavaliers have LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. Two of the elite players in the NBA.

And in the NBA, talent wins out.

Charles Barkley tells Shaq he had to ride the coattails of Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade (VIDEO)

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Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley can sometimes get into it on TNT’s programming surrounding NBA games, but Tuesday night after the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Boston Celtics in Game 4, 112-99, was something different.

The two got testy — even more so than usual — as Barkley and Shaq traded insults.

Most notably, O’Neal went after the fact that Barkley only once made the NBA Finals, while Chuck told Shaq he had to ride the coattails of Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade to get his rings.

It felt at least partially real, especially if you watch Ernie Johnson’s reaction during the back-and-forth.

Via Twitter:

Game 4 was more interesting, but a 30 minute special where Chuck and Shaq actually do move the furniture and throw down might draw more viewers than these playoffs.