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.

The time Shaq peed in Suns teammate Lou Amundson’s shoes – and worse!

Suns players Lou Amundson and Shaquille O'Neal (Shaq)
Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images
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Gilbert Arenas has earned a reputation as the NBA player who relieved himself in a teammate’s shoe (Wizards forward Andray Blatche’s).

But Arenas’ tactic wasn’t unique.

Shaquille O’Neal got into a prank war with Suns teammate Lou Amundson during the 2008-09 season. It got intense as Phoenix, coached by Alvin Gentry, reached the final game of its season.

ESPN’s Amin Elhassan on “The Dan Le Batard Show With Stugotz” local hour, hosted by Mike Ryan:

Shaq is the big prankster, the big joker. But if you do something against him, there’s no tit for tat. There’s tit for nuclear war.

He goes to Lou’s locker, grabs his sneakers, pees in them.

That’s the start, right? He then goes and let’s just say “messes with” some of Lou’s haircare devices, like his brush and his comb and stuff. Messes with them. Let me put it this way: Messes with them in a way that – I was comfortable telling you he peed in the shoes. I’m not comfortable telling you what he did to the hair stuff. And then this part, I will tell you: He tampers with Lou’s mouth guard.

He tampers with it.

He tampers with it.

Lou shows up at like 8 or whenever he usually shows up. And he’s skittish and nervous. And Suns.com is there like, “What do you think Shaq is going to do?” “I don’t know. I think he’s going to do something, though.”

So, I’ll never forget this. He’s sitting at the locker, and he opens – he starts to reach for the sneakers and then looks at them and says, “Nah, something doesn’t feel right.” Opens the door up, pulls out a fresh pair of sneakers for the last game of the year, right? Again, this is irregular behavior. Usually, you have a couple of sneakers. You break them in for the year, and you switch between two or three or three or four, whatever. So to break out a whole brand new pair … was weird.

Most of the time when you’re an NBA player, you don’t put on the mouth guard immediately. You have it in a case, and you give the case to the trainer. Then, you go out to the bench. Then, when you’re about to come into the game, that’s when you grab your mouthpiece.

There’s no funnier image than Alvin drawing up a play, kneeling down, coaches standing around him. Lou is sitting there, because now he’s in the game. The guys who are in the game are usually seated. Sitting there just staring at the clipboard, like, “OK, coach. I got you.” And everyone else is just staring at Lou. No one’s paying attention.

Puts the mouth guard in. One, two [sounds of disgust], takes the mouth guard out and flings it with tremendous accuracy at the bench. Everyone starts dying. I remember going back and watching the broadcast, “Oh, Suns bench seems to be getting a lot of fun.” They had no idea what’s happening.

What did Shaq do to Amundson’s mouth guard? My imagination is running WILD.

Elhassan also explains why Grant Hill took 25 shots – his most in four years – in that game. Hill needed to score 26 points to average 12 points per game for the season, which would trigger a large bonus in his shoe contract. Hill’s gunning got him 27 points.

It’s a good podcast with other fun anecdotes and worth a listen.

Magic: Mo Bamba out for playoffs, undergoing post-coronavirus evaluation

Magic center Mo Bamba
David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images
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Mo Bamba contracted coronavirus, fell out of shape, recovered, joined the Magic in the bubble then struggled to contribute on the court.

Now, he’s departing the bubble for good.

Magic:

The Magic are huge underdogs in their first-round series against the Bucks. This doesn’t really change the equation. Bamba had already fallen from the rotation, which is now comprised of Nikola Vucevic and Khem Birch at center.

But it raises thorny long-term questions.

Bamba was the No. 6 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. Though he has underwhelmed so far, the Magic were still hoping he’d grow into a quality NBA player. Bamba at least improved from his rookie season.

His progress has obviously been halted. For how long? Will he face lasting effects?

Everyone is trying to get to the bottom of these difficult questions.

Reported Bulls coaching candidates: Kenny Atkinson, Stephen Silas, Darvin Ham, more

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The Bulls fired Jim Boylen. 76ers assistant Ime Udoka was reportedly frontrunner for the job, but Chicago will conduct a full search.

Who else is in the mix?

K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:

The broad search is expected to include former Nets coach Kenny Atkinson, Nuggets assistant Wes Unseld Jr., Mavericks assistant Stephen Silas, Bucks assistant Darvin Ham and 76ers assistant Ime Udoka, among others, sources said.

Atkinson is the only former head coach on that list. Like Tyronn Lue for win-now teams, Atkinson is the top available coach for rebuilding teams. (If fired by the 76ers, Brett Brown could supplant Atkinson.) Atkinson had a strong record of player development before Brooklyn shifted priorities.

The Bulls – with Zach LaVine, Coby White, Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr. and a high first-round pick in the 2020 NBA Draft – could use someone like him.

But Atkinson could have options, and Chicago might not be the most desirable opening.

Udoka, Silas, Ham and Unseld are all rising assistants who have earned head-coaching consideration. Interviews should help determine whether they’re ready for that step.

PBT NBA All-Bubble Awards

Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard and Rockets star James Harden
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
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The NBA will announce seeding-game awards tomorrow.

But the play-in is already set. Other playoff matchups are already set. The final seeding games today are just glorified scrimmages.

So, why wait to name the top performers in the bubble?

Here are our picks using the same format as the league – a Most Valuable Player, two five-player teams (no positions) and a coach:

Bubble MVP

Kurt Helin Dan Feldman
Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers) Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers)

Kurt Helin: It isn’t simply that Damian Lillard led the bubble in scoring at 37.6 points per game. It wasn’t how he got those points, with ridiculously deep threes and driving layups. It was when he did it that makes him bubble MVP: When the Trail Blazers had a rough outing (as did Lillard) and looked like they might fade from postseason contention, he came back next game and dropped 61. Then 51 the game after that. Then 42 in the final bubble game with the playoffs on the line. Lillard was the ultimate leader and willed his team to the play-in series, and that’s what makes him MVP of the seeding games.
Dan Feldman: James Harden was more consistently good and even sometimes great. But nobody hit higher levels than Lillard, who stepped up in the biggest moments to lead Portland into the play-in with the eighth-place advantage. Lillard set an emotional tone for a team constantly vulnerable of falling from the playoff race, and he delivered on the court with brilliant offense. He wasn’t perfect, but he went to great lengths to ensure the Trail Blazers met their goal. That’s the bubble MVP.

All-Bubble teams

First team

Kurt Helin Dan Feldman
Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers) Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers)
Devin Booker (Suns) James Harden (Rockets)
T.J. Warren (Pacers) Devin Booker (Suns)
Luka Doncic (Mavericks) T.J. Warren (Pacers)
James Harden (Rockets) Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks)

Second team

Kurt Helin Dan Feldman
Jayson Tatum (Celtics) Luka Doncic (Mavericks)
Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks) Michael Porter Jr. (Nuggets)
Kawhi Leonard (Clippers) Kawhi Leonard (Clippers)
DeMar DeRozan (Spurs) Paul George (Clippers)
Kristaps Porzingis (Mavericks) Kristaps Porzingis (Mavericks)

Kurt Helin: It was difficult leaving Antetokounmpo off the first team, he played brilliantly but his team was in cruise control (plus he took himself out of the last game by headbutting Moe Wagner). A few players such as Fred VanVleet and Michael Porter Jr. also almost made the cut.

Dan Feldman: Lillard, Harden, Booker and Warren were first-team locks. Antetokounmpo was absolutely dominant when he wanted to be, which was limited with the Bucks locking up the No. 1 seed early. Derrick White, DeMar DeRozan, Chris Paul, Gary Trent Jr. and Fred VanVleet were among the contenders for the final second-team spots.

Coach of the Bubble

Kurt Helin Dan Feldman
Monty William (Suns) Monty William (Suns)

Kurt Helin: Every young team talked about it heading into the restart (and developing teams not invited to the restart begged for the same opportunity): Using the bubble games as a chance for a young core to grow and take a step forward. Except teams like Sacramento and New Orleans didn’t do that. Phoenix, behind Monty Williams did — they became the story of the bubble at 8-0. Devin Booker exploded and got himself in MVP talk, Deandre Ayton played brilliantly, and the Suns came from six-games back of Memphis to almost make the playoffs. Williams set the Suns up to be a playoff team in the West next season.

Dan Feldman: Phoenix went 8-0! That alone is pretty darned impressive, and the context reflects even more favorably on Williams. The Suns entered the bubble with the lowest playoff odds among the continuing 22 teams. Needing to make up 2.5 games and – more significantly – jump four (!) teams, Phoenix could have easily arrived unmotivated and ripe for distraction. Instead, Williams had the Suns playing fearlessly, cohesively and joyously. Williams even leaned heavily on his young players rather than his veterans, taking excellent advantage of a player-development opportunity and positioning Phoenix to ascend next season.