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.

Alex Abrines says Russell Westbrook stood by him through mental health issues

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Alex Abrines is a big fan of Russell Westbrook the person.

Westbrook takes some hits as a selfish teammate from some quarters of NBA fandom, but Abrines had to leave the Thunder due to personal, mental health issues and said Westbrook stood by him. This is from an interview with Basket en Movistar+, via Eurohoops.

“He’s a very nice guy. He helped me a lot especially in the first year. In most of our trips we did something together, watch a movie, have dinner. When I went through all this and did not travel with the team, he kept in touch. He asked me to meet him for dinner. He cared for the person beyond the player. He calmly told me what I should do noting that he would support me if I decided to leave.”

“Athletes are normal people, but are pressured above average. Medication helps, but at the end of the day you must seek professional aid, discuss with friends and family, move forward with their support” adds Abrines on his illness, “It is a different kind of pain. Physical pain is something you can see and feel. Mental pain can not be observed and can not be treated like an injured knee for example. If you don’t go through something similar, you can’t realize it. In the end of the day, money is not above everything. Until it happens, you don’t realize that you don’t give a shit about money.”

Abrines signed with FC Barcelona, but could not travel with the team to all its games last season. He’s still on his path to wellness, and hopefully he gets there.

We tend to think of professional athletes in two dimensions, focusing on how they entertain us or help our fantasy teams. However, as Abrines notes, they are ordinary people with families and challenges, including mental health issues. More and more players are willing to speak out about that, but having friends — not just teammates, but real supporters like Westbrook was here — is also a big help.

Andre Drummond focused on conditioning heading into contract season

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Andre Drummond can be a free agent next summer. That would mean walking away from a $28.8 million player option for that season, so he’s not going to do it unless he thinks he can land an even bigger payday (a max contract) or he decides he wants some security long term. Drummond has said he’s excited to be a free agent (then quickly tried to walk that back).

How Drummond plays this coming season will play a big role in what kind of offers he will get. What is Drummond doing to prepare for this contract year? Improving his conditioning, reports coach Dwane Casey to Pistons.com.

“One, his overall conditioning. He’s in the best shape since I’ve been around him, the year and a half that I’ve seen. His body is slim and trim, his body fat is down, he’s been in Vegas working with Coach Gerg (Tim Grgurich) and Sean Sweeney all summer religiously, two and three times a day. That in itself is going to pay great dividends. Watching him in pickup games, he’s running like a deer. His decision making, I think the 3-point shooting experiment, we kind of put that on hold in the second part of the year last year but still, catching the ball on pick and roll, making decisions, he’s doing a great job of that – a much better job than he did last year. That’s something he’s worked on this summer, making the right read, the right decision.”

This time of year, right before training camp, reports of players being in “the best shape of their life” is worth as much as tickets from the Fyre Festival. It’s good to hear this about Drummond, but we’ll want to see it before we believe it.

Can Drummond punish teams that go small against him? Can he find a way to get easy buckets in transition and space the floor a little more? Do that, with his rebounding, and he may get the payday he wants. But he’s going to have to show it all season long.

 

Report: Kawhi Leonard talked to Paul George — and PG asked for trade — before free agency opened

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This story is a perfect example of why small and middle-market owners were pissed off (to put it mildly) after this summer’s free agency. It’s why the league did an investigation. It’s why there are new rules, new talk of enforcement, and preaching a “culture of compliance” around tampering in the NBA.

None of that may have mattered in this case, either. The anti-tampering crackdown sounds good, but how much will it slow down how the real recruiting gets done: player-to-player? From Draymond Green texting Kevin Durant just after the Warriors 2016 Finals loss to this summer, it’s the game’s best players recruiting their peers that really bothers some teams.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, on his latest podcast, talks about just that and uses Kawhi Leonard‘s recruitment of Paul George as an example — and in the process blows up Doc Rivers idea that Leonard made his choice in a meeting when presented with a list.

“The idea that Kawhi Leonard first introduced the idea of trading for Paul George in his meeting with the Clippers, from a list, we know that days before free agency started, well days before, Kawhi and Paul George were talking. Paul George’s agent went to Oklahoma City prior to the start of free agency and said Paul would like to be traded to the Clippers. He wants to play with Kawhi. But, at that point, Kawhi wasn’t allowed to be talking with the Clippers. They couldn’t officially have contact with him until after June 30, 6 p.m.

“But among small markets, the player-to-player [tampering] is the issue. As a GM said to me recently, the teams are often the last to know in these instances. The star player goes out and starts working a guy, then says ‘I want this guy.'”

If you don’t think that is true, think back to the Brooklyn Nets saying Kevin Durant chose them without there even being a pitch meeting. It may not have been a total shock to Brooklyn Durant was coming, but they were not in the loop on decision-making process (except via Nets point guard Spencer Dinwiddie, who was recruiting Irving).

The problem comes back to enforcement: How exactly is the league going to stop players who work out together in the summer, who go to dinner with each other, who may share agents (LeBron James and Anthony Davis, for example), from talking and recruiting each other? When Leonard spoke to George, he was about to be a free agent — he could talk to anyone he wanted. Leonard may have orchestrated all of this. How much the Clippers were in the loop is certainly up for debate, but this was Leonard’s power play.

Tampering may be less of an issue next summer with a soft free-agent class, but just wait for 2021 when potentially Kawhi and George, LeBron, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and more hit the market. Those players will be talking, the league will be hard-pressed to stop it, and it all could lead to impressive fireworks.

Klay Thompson: ‘That is the plan. I would love to be on the Olympic team.’

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Stephen Curry wants to go to Tokyo and play for Team USA next summer. So does Draymond Green.

How about three Warriors?

If Klay Thompson is healthy, he wants to play in the Olympics next summer he told Marcus Thompson II of The Athletic.

“I would love to play (for) Team USA,” Thompson said. “That is the plan. I would love to be on the Olympic team.”

The biggest question for Thompson’s candidacy will be health. He is expected to be out until at least after the All-Star break recovering from the ACL he tore during the Finals last season. He could miss all of next season. That said, if he is healthy he would be a perfect fit for the international game — he is a dangerous three-point shooter, can handle the ball when needed, and is an outstanding perimeter defender. Team USA could use guys like that.

It won’t just be the big-name Warriors players who will want to step up next summer.

After USA Basketball finished seventh at this summer’s World Cup in China — due mostly to numerous top players choosing not to play for their nation this summer — it was expected that a wave of elite players will sign up for the 2020 Tokyo Games.

Players are doing this less because revenge or re-establishing the USA’s basketball dominance — although expect that to be the narrative they pitch — and more about timing. FIBA, in its “infinite wisdom,” decided to move the World Cup from its usual spot, which would have been 2018, to 2019. Playing for USA Basketball is a 6-8 week summer commitment, and now the World Cup and Olympics are in back-to-back years. That left a lot of elite NBA players — and not just for Team USA — looking at the calendar and feeling they had to choose one or the other. And for American players, the Olympics will almost always win that fight.

USA Basketball president Jerry Colangelo said he is going to remember who was willing to make the sacrifice to come this summer when it comes time to choosing an Olympic team. That may happen with a couple of roster spots, but he’s not turning elite talent away, either.

And all three of those Warriors would be the kind of elite players Team USA will want in Tokyo. If Thompson is healthy enough to go, expect him to pack his bags for Tokyo.