ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: Washington Wizards

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Last season: The Wizards were pretty good when healthy, so they were pretty terrible.

John Wall, Nene and Bradley Beal all battled injuries, and Washington finished 29-53. But looking closer, the Wizards actually weren’t half bad when their good players were healthy.

  • With Wall: 24-25
  • With Wall and Nene: 22-19
  • With Wall, Nene and Beal: 15-7

Signature highlight from last season: At home last season, the Wizards beat the Eastern Conference’s top six teams and four of the Western Conference’s top five teams (Spurs excepted). That impressive show for the home fans included Washington’s play of the year:

Key player changes: The Wizards drafted Otto Porter and Glen Rice Jr., adding two players who could crack the rotation this season. They also signed Al Harrington and Eric Maynor to fortify their depth. Otherwise, Washington stood pat.

Keys to the Wizards’ season: 

1) Has John Wall taken the next step? Quietly, Wall shot well from the perimeter late last season, perhaps filling the biggest hole in his game. But it’s also possible that was too small a sample to mean real improvement. The Wizards gave Wall a max contract, because they believe he can at least be the best player on a playoff team, and so do I. But Wall is so dynamic, his ceiling is superstar. If he reaches that level, expectations will ramp up in a hurry for the Wizards.

2) How healthy will Washington be? John Wall (33 games), Bradley Beal (26 games), Trevor Ariza (26 games) and Nene (21 games) all missed a substantial number of games last season. This year, Emeka Okafor is already hurt and so is Chris Singleton. Ariza and Nene have a history of injury , and they’re at the age when bodies sometimes breakdown. Wall and Beal are more likely to play a full season, but between the bunch, Washington is probably relying on too many players whose odds of being injured are higher than the average NBAer. 

3) Will the Wizards make the playoffs? Obviously a lot of smaller questions will determine this large one, but a postseason berth would be huge in Washington. The Wizards have sacrificed long-term upside to build a team capable of winning as soon as possible. A sixth straight season ending before the playoffs could mean big changes, from general manager Ernie Grunfeld to coach Randy Wittman and on down.

Why you should watch the Wizards: John Wall, for my money, is the NBA’s fastest player end-to-end with the ball in his hands. Watching him whir can be jaw-dropping, and shooters like Bradley Beal and Martell Webster ensure Wall has space to operate.

For those into ruin porn, Jan Vesely has a great combination. He plays with energy and without skills, increasing the odds something crazy happens when he nears the ball.

Prediction: 44-38. John Wall has gotten better in each of his three seasons, and he’s my pick for 2013-14 Most Improved Player. The Wizards have surrounded him with a well-balanced team, meaning they’ll get the most out of their talent, because everyone can play to their strengths rather than having to compensate elsewhere. If they stay relatively healthy, the Wizards should make the playoffs. Unlike last year, I think they’re deep enough to suffer slightly worse-than-average injury and still reach the postseason – and with Okafor already out, they might have to prove it.

Warriors’ Matt Barnes on facing Kings: ‘I’m trying to kill ’em’

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The Kings were very good to Matt Barnes.

They signed him to a two-year contract worth more than $12.5 million when it seemed he wouldn’t come close to that on the market. Then they waived him, allowing him to receive all his salary and escape basketball hell for the Warriors, who make him much happier.

Yet, he’s going into tonight’s Golden State-Sacramento game with an edge.

Connor Letourneau of the San Francisco Chronicle (hat tip: CSN Bay Area):

Matt Barnes holding a grudge? Why, I never.

Surging Heat have playoffs in sight after dreadful start

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MIAMI (AP) — They have won 24 times in their last 31 games. They put together the NBA’s longest winning streak this season, a 13-game run that was beyond surprising. They are on the cusp of doing something never accomplished in NBA history.

This Miami Heat comeback tale has been an epic one.

And now comes the toughest part – finishing the job.

None of the other 125 teams in NBA history who started 11-30 or worse made the NBA playoffs. The Heat, with 10 games left on their regular-season schedule, are in position to change that. They held the second-worst record in the league in mid-January, are tied with San Antonio for the best record since, and hold a one-game lead over Chicago and Detroit for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot entering Friday’s games.

“These guys want this so bad,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra – a reluctant coach of the year candidate who cringes when players lobby on his behalf – said Thursday after a loss to the Toronto Raptors. “They want this opportunity to be in the playoffs. We’ve fought, scratched, done everything we possibly can to put ourselves into a position to fight for it.”

More fighting and scratching awaits.

Of Miami’s final 10 games, a stretch that starts Sunday in Boston, eight are against teams still battling for either a playoff spot or playoff positioning. The only two exceptions are a home-and-home next week with New York, which earlier this season was seven games ahead of the Heat in the standings and now are eight games behind Miami (35-37).

“We’ve dug ourselves out of a deep ditch,” Heat center and NBA rebounding leader Hassan Whiteside said.

True, but they’re not on firm playoff footing yet.

Under normal circumstances, Whiteside almost certainly would not have played Thursday. He needed 13 stitches to repair a cut in his right (shooting) hand on Tuesday, and a similar injury two years ago left him sidelined for three games.

Not only did he start Thursday, he led the Heat with 16 points and 14 rebounds. Afterward, he had icepacks strapped to both of his knees, covered his right hand in a clear plastic bag so the stitches wouldn’t get wet in the shower, and had his newly sprained left ankle wrapped.

“He’s a tough dude,” Heat point guard Goran Dragic said.

He hasn’t been the only one.

Factoring in that Chris Bosh‘s on-court tenure with the Heat was declared over when he failed a physical in September, Miami has had at least two players unavailable to play in every game this season because of health reasons. Since Jan. 1, it’s been at least three every game – and often more.

A huge blow came last week when shooting guard Dion Waiters sprained his left ankle. He’s at three missed games and counting, and the Heat offense has struggled since.

“This is that time of the year,” Spoelstra said. “Everybody is feeling it, so this is the mental toughness we have to get to.”

The Heat have no practice Friday, though most players will be in the training room for treatments. Practice resumes Saturday, preceding the flight to Boston. And then Sunday, the 10-game sprint to the finish begins.

“I want our guys to enjoy this,” Spoelstra said. “I don’t feel that we’re putting any undue pressure, but everybody will feel like when they lose that the world is collapsing. This playoff race is still going on. And I think we need a day to get away from it, to decompress and to get back to work on Saturday.”

Remember when Shaq started practice naked? His former Lakers teammates do

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The Lakers are unveiling a statue for Shaquille O’Neal tonight, a perfect opportunity for his former teammates to share their favorite Shaq stories.

Mark Medina of The Orange County Register:

“We had a rule you can’t be late to the center huddle,” said Lakers coach Luke Walton, who played with O’Neal as a rookie in 2003-04. “He got here where he didn’t have time to get his clothes on. So he made sure he was on time in the center circle.”

“I’m just scarred by the one where he ran out into the middle of the court naked before practice,” said former Lakers forward Rick Fox, who played with O’Neal from 1997 to 2004. “I can’t get that image out of my mind.”

“Shaq walked onto the court, put his hands up and said ‘I’m ready to practice,’ said Lakers assistant coach Mark Madsen, who was O’Neal’s teammate from 2000 to 2003. “He had not one inch of clothing on. So he was there in all of his glory.”

“He would start running around looking for guys to hug. Everybody was trying to get out of the way,” mused former Lakers guard Derek Fisher, who played with O’Neal from 1996 to 2004. “That’s’ why when I hit that shot in San Antonio in 2004, that’s why we were so good at sprinting off of the court.”

As much as he toed the line with his wardrobe choices before practice started, O’Neal always practiced with his actual uniform. Fox expressed the views of many saying he’s “not guarding him, not doubling down in the post and digging for the ball” sans uniform. As Madsen mused, “that would’ve been the day I would’ve submitted my resignation papers.”

Want to criticize Shaq for not setting a better tone of punctuality? It’s a fair argument, and you might have had Kobe Bryant on your side.

But Shaq keeping the Lakers loose was instrumental in their high-pressure pursuit of championships. Don’t discount that contribution to their three titles with him.

Florida State’s Jonathan Isaac, probable top-10 pick, declares for NBA draft

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Jonathan Isaac explored bursting through a loophole to declare for the 2016 NBA draft straight out of high school.

Instead, he went to Florida State. Now, he’ll enter the 2017 draft.

Isaac:

If he doesn’t hire an agent, Isaac can maintain college eligibility, but this message seems pretty final. Expect Isaac to remain in the draft, and expect him to go in the top 10.

What I like most about the 6-foot-11 forward: Despite being so lanky, he was an elite defensive rebounder. That shows an underlying technical proficiency and physicality that should serve him well.

And then there are the drool-inducing flashes – his ability to go up and get alley-oops above the rim and a sweet-looking jumper.

He’s still a work in progress, and he deferred a lot at Florida State. But he’s just 19, and he has the tools to do more. I’d love to get him on my team as he learns to assert himself.