ProBasketballTalk 2014-15 Preview: Washington Wizards

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Last season: The Wizards went 44-38, their best record since 2004-05. The playoffs were even sweeter. Washington upset the Bulls in the 4-5 matchup and took the Pacers to six games, making it the furthest the Wizards had gone in the postseason since 1979.

John Wall became an All-Star for the first time, and Bradley Beal appeared to be coming into his own during the playoffs.

The Wizards have been trying to win as much as possible as soon as possible for a couple seasons now. Finally, they did it at a satisfactory level.

Signature highlight from last season: Wall has raised his on-court awareness to a whole other level. Where he once attacked with reckless abandon, he’s now setting up Nene for game-winning dunks:

Offseason moves:

Keys to the Wizards season:

Bradley Beal maintaining his place among elite shooting guards:

Beal averaged 19.3 points per game in 11 postseason games. The only other players who averaged at least 17 points per game in as many postseason games:

  • Kevin Durant
  • LeBron James
  • Russell Westbrook
  • LaMarcus Aldridge
  • Blake Griffin
  • Damian Lillard
  • Paul George
  • Joe Johnson
  • Chris Paul
  • Dwyane Wade
  • Tony Parker

Ten of those 11 were All-Stars, and the exception – Russell Westbrook – is a mainstay in the All-Star Game but had been battling injury early this season.

Simply, Beal played like a star in last year’s playoffs. Considering how weak shooting guards are league wide, he’s already in contention to be the best at that position behind James Harden.

But how soon will Beal, just 21, cement his place at or near the top? Was his playoff production a breakthrough or just his best during a small sample?

This season looms large in determining where Beal’s career is headed and how quickly he can get there.

Paul Pierce replacing Trevor Ariza: Trevor Ariza had more win shares than John Wall last season.

That probably reveals a flaw in the stat more than anything, but that Ariza was even so close should make you take a second look at just how good he was. His 3-point shooting gave Washington efficient points and spread the floor for his teammates, and Ariza was Washington’s top wing stopper on the other end.

I expect – though it’s far from a guarantee – the Wizards to take a step back on both sides of the court at small forward with Pierce replacing Ariza, who joined the Rockets.

However, Pierce is a proven winner, 16-year vet and NBA champion. Perhaps, he can teach the young Wizards about competing deep into the playoffs and offset his declining skills. Pierce replacing Ariza is not just about on-court production. It’s about leadership (to be fair, an area Ariza impressed last season). It’s about everything.

For Washington to step forward, it will be hard to absorb a step back at small forward, but that’s definitely possible.

Randy Wittman coaching at this level: Nobody in NBA history has coached as many games and had as bad a winning percentage as Randy Wittman, who holds a 191-329 career record.

Wittman’s reputation as a bad coach is so cemented, he oversaw his team make a 15-win improvement from the year prior without receiving a Coach of the Year vote – a rare distinction.

Is Wittman overlooked? Maybe.

Has Wittman improved? Probably.

Can Wittman guide a team with expectations through the regular season and deep into the playoffs? Um…

Washington’s starters are all signed through 2015-16. If the Wizards don’t build on their momentum and are looking for a way to upgrade, all eyes will turn to the head coach who’s still trying to prove himself.

Nene staying healthy: Since acquiring Nene, the Wizards have gone 63-62 with him and 21-43 without him.

Nene is a good player, but more than that, he’s a vital cog in what Washington does on both ends of the floor. He provides stability, allowing everyone else to fit into the roles that suit them best. When Nene is out, everyone else must compensate by working outside their comfort zones.

I don’t know whether there’s one “right” way to keep Nene healthy, but it’s important. Whatever the Wizards can do – from managing his training to managing his minutes – they should.

Why you should watch: I’d argue nobody in the NBA is faster with the ball, end to end, than John Wall. An enhanced understanding of how to change speeds has made him more effective, but he still turns on the jets from time to time.

Beal could be becoming a star before our eyes, and Nene and Marcin Gortat provide some old-school, two-big, bruising fun inside.

This is one of the East’s most complete teams.

Plus, don’t you want to preview Kevin Durant’s next team?

Prediction: 47-35. Wall predicted the Finals, but that’s overly optimistic in a conference that also features the Cavaliers and Bulls. The Wizards should improve from last season, but the top of the East is better.

There’s no reason Washington can’t emerge as the East’s third-best team, but that’s a deep scrum. If the Wizards get there – after selling some of their long-term upside in order to compete sooner – that should be viewed as a successful season.

Ultimately, I have them falling just short, finishing behind Cleveland, Chicago and Toronto in the pecking order. But Washington is right there.