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Three questions the Washington Wizards must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last Season: 49-33, advanced to the second round of the playoffs but fell in seven games to Boston.

I know what you did last summer: John Wall was dreaming big, he was trying to recruit Paul George to come to Washington. It’s a nice thought, but the Wizards never had the cap space or assets to come close to a deal for another star player. What the Wizards could do was lock up their own and make small moves to try to improve a 49-win team. Wall got a four-year, $170 million contract extension that keeps him in Washington through his prime. When Brooklyn came in with a $106 million offer for Otto Porter the Wizards matched it, not that they had much of a choice — it was match or create a massive hole in their roster (without the money to replace him with anywhere near the same quality). The Wizards got Tim Frazier for the 52nd pick to give them some needed help at the point behind Wall. Mike Scott is a bit of a gamble but a low-cost one and maybe he can be a stretch four. They picked up Jodie Meeks, who if he’s healthy can knock down shots.

THREE QUESTIONS THE WIZARDS MUST ANSWER:

1) Will there be any help off the bench this year? Last season the Wizard’s bench play was flat-out terrible. Don’t take my word for it, Marcin Gortat said they had one of the worst benches in the league. Or, think back to the playoffs when the Wizards were falling to the Celtics in Game 7 and Wall was obviously exhausted, walking back on defense, but Scott Brooks couldn’t take him out for a rest because he didn’t trust anyone off the bench for even a few minutes.

To help, Washington picked up Tim Frazier as a backup point guard this summer, he is solid and will be better than Trey Burke was last season (or Brandon Jennings, who was brought in to take Burke’s minutes mid-season because Burke was that bad). Jodie Meeks was signed this summer and can space the floor and knock down shots if he’s healthy. Mike Scott maybe plays some minutes as a stretch four.

However, what the Wizards are really counting on to help the bench this season is internal improvement. Kelly Oubre should take a step forward going into his third season, have a good one and he can push for a contract extension next summer. Tomas Satoransky was up and down as a rookie and faded as the season went on, hopefully his shot can improve and he can contribute more. Then there is Ian Mahinmi. If his knees let him — and he recently had another surgery on them — he certainly can help get some stops off the bench, providing a presence in the paint.

Notice there is a lot of betting on health and players developing, still if a couple of those bets pay off the bench will be less of a black hole than a season ago. However, it’s likely still going to be a weakness and the Wizards will lean heavily on a strong starting backcourt of Wall and Bradley Beal.

2) Can the Wizards play more consistent defense? For the month of January last season, the Wizards had the sixth best defense in the NBA allowing 103.5 points per 100 possessions, and not so coincidentally they went 12-4 that month. After the All-Star break last season, the Wizards were the fourth worst defense in the NBA, allowing 110.7 points per 100 possessions (worse than the Kings without DeMarcus Cousins, worse than the tanking Suns, and worse than the Knicks). They were just above .500 in that stretch.

The Wizards are capable of good defense, but they don’t bring it night in and night out. This is a team that is by far at its most dangerous when Wall is leading them in transition, but for the best running teams (including the current Warriors) that starts with stops and steals on the defensive end. If Washington gets more stops, Wall gets out in transition more often, and the Wizards are just better.

With most of the same players back in the same system, an improved defense will be more about focus and effort than some dramatic change. Coach Scott Brooks has to get through to them and get them focused on that end.

3) Is Kelly Oubre ready to step up? Earlier in this preview we talked about how the Wizards are banking on internal development to push them past the 50-win mark and deeper into the playoffs. The biggest question here is Kelly Oubre. There was a time when some around the Wizards thought he could develop into a guy who would push Otto Porter and give them more wing options, but last season Oubre played 20 minutes a night scoring 6.3 points and pulling down 3.3 rebounds a contest. He shot 28.7 percent from three and had a single digit PER of 9.1. His defense gives him some value (he can defend pretty well on the wing), but last season he was still a slightly below average NBA player.

This is his third year and the Wizards are counting on him to take a big step forward. Do it, and he can start to push for a contract extension next summer, but he’s got a lot to prove first. If he’s going to be a quality 3&D guy in the NBA, he has to shoot better than the 28.7 percent he did from deep last season. His defense can get him on the court, but he needs to score more consistently to stay there. In theory, and improved Oubre could play in a small lineup with Porter and Morris, and that would have potential. But Oubre has to be more of an offensive threat for any of that to work.

It’s a tight market recently, and teams are not paying on potential the same way they used to. Oubre needs to show he’s ready for the next step, then the rest of it will fall in line for him.

Wizards confident in how John Wall will develop during super-max extension

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The NBA’s new designated-veteran-player rule hasn’t exactly worked as intended.

DeMarcus Cousins, Jimmy Butler, Paul George and Kyrie Irving have all been traded before eligible to sign a designated-veteran-player contract. Though each situation is unique, teams might be leery of paying the super max well into a player’s 30s. If eligible, players would likely demand the maximum available salary, though. And, obviously, not all players are enticed by the possibility of a super-max deal, anyway.

But the Wizards signed John Wall to a designated-veteran-player extension, which projects to be worth a whopping $169 million over four years.

Chase Hughes of CSN Mid-Atlantic:

In brokering this deal, the Wizards had to project how Wall’s game will develop over the course of the next five or six years. That’s a long time, but as team president Ernie Grunfeld explained in detail, they feel very comfortable about Wall’s future.

“Thirty is still very young in the NBA nowadays. But we’ve seen John grow every single year. He’s improved every year he’s been in the league. The last four years he’s been an All-Star. This past year he was an elite-level player making the All-NBA team. He’s improved his shooting, he’s improved his knowledge of the game. The game has really slowed down for him. His first two or three years he was just up and down the floor trying to get to the basket and get layups. Now he reads the floor and he reads the situations and makes the right plays at the right times,” Grunfeld said.

There are three primary reasons a designated-veteran-player extension makes more sense for Wall and the Wizards than most cases:

1. Wall is particularly young for someone with his experience level. He was just 19 when drafted. Players can’t receive a designated-veteran-player salary until their ninth season, when many of them are already or close to declining. Wall’s extension will kick in for his 10th season, when he’ll be just 29.

2. Wall’s extension added just four years to his contract. A designated-veteran-player extension must bring a player’s contract to a total of six years. Because Wall still had two years left on his deal (not possessing a player option on his rookie-scale extension), his latest extension added just four years at the super-max salary. That’s far less risky for the team. It would have been risky for Wall to wait until next summer to sign, as he’d have to make another All-NBA team to remain eligible for the super max.

3. Washington already committed to max contracts for Otto Porter and Bradley Beal that run through the first two seasons of Wall’s extension. Ian Mahinmi is still on the books for more than $15 million during the first. Even without extending Wall, the Wizards might not have had significant cap flexibility. Better to keep their franchise player.

Will Wall be worth $47 million at age 32? Probably not. Will he be worth $44 million at age 31? I wouldn’t take that bet.

But Washington might get enough surplus value during the first two years of the extension, when Wall projects to earn $38 million and $41 million, to make it worthwhile. More importantly, players of Wall’s caliber aren’t easily attainable. Even if his salary outpaces his production, the Wizards couldn’t simply find a fair-value replacement who even nears Wall’s output. There’s simply value in having him.

John Wall: “I’m the best two-way point guard player in the league”

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John Wall has never lacked for confidence.

Wall has developed into one of the best point guards in the NBA, lightning fast with the ball and a quality defender. Wall probably think that sells him short, just like when he finally made the All-NBA team last season and thought being on the third team was him being disrespected. So it should be no shock that when asked during his workout with LeBron James this summer Wall said he was the best two-way point guard in the NBA.

Did anyone expect Wall to say anything less?

As I’ve written before, I’m not a fan of the term “two-way player” because of what it implies. Most of the time “two-way” is used to knock down more offensive-focused players. To me, you’re either a valuable player or you’re not — James Harden is a valuable player, Russell Westbrook is a valuable player, irrespective of their level of defense.

If you want to have this debate, I think Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, and Chris Paul are more valuable and better point guards than Wall (and all three were in front of him on my All-NBA ballot last season, I had Isaiah Thomas and Wall on the third team). And that’s not an insult to Wall, we are talking about the very elite of the game, and all three of those other guys look headed to the Hall of Fame. Wall has risen to be elite in a golden era of NBA point guards, although his defense took a slight step back as he took on more offensive load last season (which is normal). Also, his three-point shooting, while improved, holds him back a little and he still takes to too many long twos (23.8 percent of his shot attempts last season were from 16 feet to the arc, and he shot 38.9 percent on those, opposing teams will take that compared to how dangerous he is when he drives).

If Wall wants to use all this for fuel, go for it. He’s a great player, and many of the great players use perceived insults and straw men as motivation. With the Wizards needing internal improvement on their roster to take a step forward this season, even more will be asked of Wall.

Report: Wizards signing Donald Sloan

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The Wizards look like they solved their backup-point-guard problems with Tim Frazier.

But they also looked like they solved their backup-point-guard problems with Trey Burke and then Brandon Jennings last year – and look how that turned out.

So, even after trading for Frazier, Washington is still trying to increase stability behind John Wall.
CSN Mid-Atlantic:

The Wizards added some depth to their backcourt on Thursday by signing veteran guard Donald Sloan to a one-year deal, CSN’s Chris Miller confirmed on Thursday night.

The 29-year-old Sloan has played for the Hawks, New Orleans Hornets, Cavaliers, Pacers and Nets in a five-year NBA career. He spent last season in China.

Sloan isn’t much of a scorer, and he’s only a decent distributor. But he makes up for it with all-around adequacy, highlighted by his rebounding for his position.

The veteran will compete with second-year Sheldon Mac, whose salary is just $50,000 guaranteed, to be Washington’s third point guard.

NBA schedule is out, here are 15 must-watch games

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I feel like Steve Martin yelling “the new phone books are here” — the NBA schedule for 2017-18 is out.

There is big news here — the NBA has built a lot more rest into the schedule in an attempt to limit DNP-rest games for stars in marquee games. What we learned with the schedule being released is there is not one four-games-in-five-nights stretch in the entire schedule for any team. In the 2014-15 season there were 70 of those, last season there were 20, but the league listened to the players — and their medical staffs — and cut those out. Which should help players be more rested and reduce the number of healthy DNP-Rest games.

There are a lot of quality games on the schedule — in a deep Western conference matchups like the Clippers vs. Nuggets or Trail Blazers vs. Pelicans could have playoff implications even early in the season. That’s why the NBA has given flex scheduling to all the networks, so they can put on games that matter more as we move through the season.

Factoring in returns, rivalries, and big days, here are our 15 games must-watch games this season, the ones you need to set the DVR for… if you still have a DVR. Otherwise, go over to your parents and set theirs, you know they still have one.

Opening night, Oct. 17: Houston Rockets at Golden State Warriors (TNT). This is the first of 40 — 40! — times the Warriors will appear on national television this season. That is almost half their games. Don’t tune into this one just to see the banner go up and JaVale McGee get a ring… actually, you do want to see McGee get a ring. More than that though, tune in to get a first look at the Houston Rockets with Chris Paul and James Harden.

Oct. 26: New Orleans Pelicans at Sacramento Kings (TNT). DeMarcus Cousins makes his first visit to Sacramento since he was traded last season to New Orleans. Kings fans were frustrated with Cousins while he was there, plenty turned on him, and he is going to hear it.

Oct. 27: Denver Nuggets at Atlanta Hawks. Atlanta starts the season with a five-game road trip, then returns home to find Paul Millsap wearing the powder blue of the Denver Nuggets to meet them. The Hawks moved on from Millsap more than he from them, but how will Atlanta fans respond.

Nov. 15: Philadelphia 76ers at Los Angeles Lakers (ESPN). The 76ers and No.1 pick last June Markelle Fultz take on the Lakers and No. 2 pick Lonzo Ball in the first meeting between these two point guards.

Dec. 13: Oklahoma City Thunder at Indiana Pacers (ESPN). Paul George makes his only visit to Indiana this season, the only place the four-time All-Star had played prior to being traded this summer.

Christmas Day, Dec. 25: Cleveland Cavaliers at Golden State Warriors (ABC). This is the first rematch of the last three NBA Finals during the new season. LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant… and who else will be on LeBron’s team at this point in the season? This is the best team in the West against the team likely to come out of the East — LeBron has been to seven straight Finals for a reason — and that is always worth watching.

Christmas Day, Dec. 25: Houston Rockets at Oklahoma City Thunder (ABC). With all due respect to LeBron and Curry, this is the best game on Christmas Day. James Harden and Chris Paul against Russell Westbrook and Paul George. We know the Rockets will be an impressive offensive team, but the Thunder should have one of the best defenses in the NBA this season. That makes this an interesting clash of styles.

Jan. 15: Cleveland Cavaliers at Golden State Warriors (TNT). The second and final meeting of the season between these two powerhouse teams is set to highlight the Martin Luther King Jr. Day slate of games.

Jan. 15: Houston Rockets at Los Angeles Clippers (TNT). Chris Paul comes back to Los Angeles to take on the other two parts of Lob City he left behind, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. You can bet DJ is not going to let CP3 just drive the basket without a little physicality.

Feb. 9: Minnesota Timberwolves at Chicago Bulls (ESPN). Jimmy Butler returns to the only city he had played for before being traded this past summer — and he brings with him an impressive team on the rise in Karl-Anthony Towns and the Timberwolves.

Feb. 10: San Antonio Spurs at Golden State Warriors (ABC). This is last year’s Western Conference Finals, and while San Antonio didn’t have a sexy offseason we know they have Kawhi Leonard, and we know they are going to be good. This could well again be the top two teams in the West.

March 11: Cleveland Cavaliers at Los Angeles Lakers (ESPN). LeBron has called Los Angeles home and Tweeted out his love to Magic Johnson, by the time the Cavaliers come to L.A. the “LeBron will be a Laker” rumors will be at a fever pitch. Expect Lakers fans to let him know how much they love him.

March 28: Boston Celtics at Utah Jazz (ESPN). Gordon Hayward is going to get booed as he returns to Utah and the Vivint Smart Home Arena wearing Celtics green after choosing the Celtics over the Jazz last summer.

April 1: Houston Rockets at San Antonio Spurs. These are the two teams in the West with their sights set on knocking off the Warriors, but first they are going to have to get past each other in the playoffs. This could have seeding, or at least statement, implications. Plus, watching Kawhi Leonard guard Harden and Paul is going to be fun.

April 3: Golden State Warriors at Oklahoma City Thunder. At this point in the season, teams like these two who plan to make a deep playoff run are shaking off the long-season duldrums and focusing on a strong finish. Especially if this is a potential playoff matchup (second round) there may be teams looking to make a statement.

April 10: Boston Celtics at Washington Wizards. In the final week of the NBA season, two teams looking to climb the ladder and establish themselves near or at the top of the Eastern Conference face off. Plus, John Wall vs. Isaiah Thomas is always a show.