The Washington Wizards were clear winners in the NBA offseason.
Maybe not dramatically so, but they got better. Trading Russell Westbrook for a wealth of quality role players — Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Aaron Holiday (acquired for the Lakers’ No. 22 pick) — plus signing Spencer Dinwiddie gives the Wizards depth, versatility, and defensive options they lacked a season ago. The team also has financial flexibility going forward, which seemed impossible a couple of seasons ago when John Wall‘s contract anchored the books.
All the offseason moves still leave two questions for Washington heading into the season:
How much better will the Wizards be?
Is it enough to keep Bradley Beal happy and have him re-sign with the team?
That second question is the big cloud hanging over the season — Beal is the franchise, the man who has been second in the NBA in scoring the past two seasons. If he leaves, it’s a retooling/rebuild. The Wizards put a max $181 million contract extension in front of Beal, but even if he wants to stay in Washington he likely will wait, become a free agent next summer, and re-sign for five years, $235 million. Beal will take his time and consider his options, but if he is leaning toward leaving the Wizards will want to know before the trade deadline in hopes of getting something back rather than letting him walk for nothing.
Beal has no reason to rush his decision and give these new Wizards a chance.
Washington GM Tommy Sheppard’s offseason moves not only added much-needed depth to the roster, but they give first-time head coach Wes Unseld Jr. lineup flexibility his predecessor lacked. Depending on the matchup, Unseld can lean on the attacking Rui Hachimura at the four or the floor spacing Davis Bertans. He can play Caldwell-Pope behind Beal or next to him on occasions for defense. When Tomas Bryant returns from injury (around Christmas), the team will have three quality bigs with the offense-first Bryant, the energy of Harrell, and the impressive rim protection and rim-running game of Daniel Gafford, who came on strong for Washington at the end of last season.
The biggest unknown is how good Dinwiddie will be coming off ACL surgery. The last time he played an entire season for the Nets, Dinwiddie averaged 20.6 points and 6.8 assists a game, leading a feisty Brooklyn team into the playoffs. Dinwiddie provides secondary playmaking next to Beal, but defenses may help off him when Beal is working with the ball and Dinwiddie is standing at the arc (career 31.8% from 3). That said, Dinwiddie will make things easier for Beal.
Two areas where the Wizards need to take a step forward this season is 3-point shooting and defense.
The Wizards attempted the second-fewest 3s in the league last season (Spurs) and hit just 35.1% of them, a bottom 10 in the league percentage. That starts with Beal, one of the better pure shooters in the league, but he took just 27% of his shots from beyond the arc last season, well below the 36.9% the season before. Plus, Beal only hit 34.9% from 3, a career low. Washington needs more threes from Beal, Bertans, Caldwell-Pope, Kuzma, and more.
The other area is defense. The Wizards were 19th in the league in defense last season, better than the 30th the season before, but still below average. Having Gafford protecting the rim all season will help, as will having Caldwell-Pope on the wing. However, the Wizards will need their bench to step up on this end because a Harrell/Bertans second unit could be a defensive disaster.
The Wizards are going to be solid this season, competitive night in and night out, but in a deep and improved East they still will likely finish a few games below .500 and be fighting for a play-in spot. Which is not a huge step foward, but it should feel better than a year ago.
Is all that enough to sell Beal on staying in the nation’s capital? The Magic 8 Ball says, “Ask again later (like maybe February).”