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Grading the Washington Wizards offseason

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

There’s a fine line between a young team building chemistry while growing and a team that has stalled.

The Wizards appeared to cross that threshold last season.

For just the second time in seven years, Washington’s record didn’t improve from the previous year. Also for the just the second time in five years, the Wizards didn’t reach the second round.

The last time both happened, they fired coach Randy Wittman. They didn’t dump Scott Brooks this year. With his contract, he’s entrenched.

But they did shake up the roster with a few moves that carry the potential to help Washington escape this muck or backfire in spectacular fashion. For a team that has become so uninspiring, the risk should be welcome.

Trade Marcin Gortat for Austin Rivers? Sure. Perimeter talent comes at a premium. Bigs are more easily replaceable.

Sign Dwight Howard? Sure. For all his foibles, Howard remains an elite rebounder, high-quality interior defender and helpful pick-and-roller. The taxpayer mid-level exception is a bargain for a starter of his caliber.

Sign Jeff Green? Sure. He’s coming off a career year, as he finally better understands how he can – and more importantly, can’t – contribute to winning. A minimum salary suits him.

Howard and Rivers particularly certainly add personalities to a locker room with John Wall and Bradley Beal. But Wall and Gortat already clashed. How much worse could it be with Howard? Rivers will get along better with teammates when his dad isn’t coach, and he has become more self-aware. (The same can’t necessarily be said about Howard.)

These are manageable issues relative to what Washington could have faced.

Credit Wizards owner Ted Leonsis for hanging above the luxury-tax line. After paying the tax for the first time in franchise history last season and not getting even a single playoff-series victory, he could have rushed to trim salary. Trading the No. 15 pick – instead used on Troy Brown Jr. – to unload a bad contract would have been quite typical for this franchise.

This doesn’t mean Leonsis will keep spending big forever. Next summer looks like a possible a breaking point if Washington doesn’t produce this season.

Starting power forward Markieff Morris and promising but inconsistent forward Kelly Oubre Jr. will become free agents. Wall’s super-max extension will kick in. Otto Porter, Beal and Ian Mahinmi will remain on massive deals.

Unless they’re far more willing to spend than understood, the Wizards would be wise to get out ahead of an even more daunting luxury-tax crunch. Just letting Morris and/or Oubre walk would be disappointing.

But there’s still time for a preemptive solution. It didn’t have to happen this offseason.

I’m not certain the Wizards will be better this year. But in a summer they appeared likely to take a step back, they gave themselves a real chance to be better. This was the right time to invite variance, and Washington did it shrewdly.

Offseason grade: B-

John Wall believes Wizards have chance in wide-open East

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LeBron James — the man who has led his team to eight straight NBA Finals — has moved from the East to the West and the Los Angeles Lakers. With that has come the perception that the Eastern Conference is more wide open than it has been since LeBron started to dominate it.

Is it? Toronto and Boston were the top two regular season seeds in the East and both should be seriously improved — the Celtics will have a healthy Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward on a team that almost made the Finals without them, and the Raptors just upgraded with a potential MVP in Kawhi Leonard. Plus, the Sixers should get noticeably better with their young roster of Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and Markelle Fultz (now with a jumper) all a year older and having worked on their game this summer.

That’s not even getting into the potential of the Milwaukee Bucks with a new coach, and what should be an improved Indiana Pacers team.

John Wall believes it will be more open.

And he believes his Wizards can be part of that mix, just like he thinks they could/should have been the past couple of years. Here is what he said in Las Vegas at the USA Basketball mini-camp, via Bleacher Report.

“I think we have a better team now, and the East is more wide-open now that [LeBron James is] out of the picture,” Wall said…

“I think we could have competed the last two years if we didn’t have to deal with injuries,” Wall said… “Falling to the eight seed (last season), playing Toronto, a heck of a team, I felt like we should have beaten those guys, but they came out the better team at that time,” Wall said…

“I think we have a better team now.”

On paper, the Wizards can be dangerous. Wall at the point, Bradley Beal at the two, and Otto Porter at the three makes up a terrific perimeter starting group. With them are solid role players such as Markieff Morris, Tomas Satoransky, Austin Rivers, Jeff Green, and then they now have Dwight Howard in the paint. (Howard can be a fit with the Wizards, if he plays his role, but that hasn’t always gone smoothly.)

However, I need to see it before I buy in.

I need to see Wall play all-out on both ends and look more like an All-NBA level player (he’s only made that team one time). Beal and Wall both need to stay healthy. Howard needs to set picks, not demand the ball in the post a lot, and be a nightly force on defense, not an occasional one. Most importantly, will their notoriously troubled locker room chemistry improve with the addition of Howard to the mix?

There are a lot more questions than answers for Washington heading into next season. It’s on Wall and company to answer them.

Dwight Howard aims for career-finishing run with Wizards

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Dwight Howard brought the charm to his introductory news conference with the Wizards on Monday. The eight-time All-Star has lots of experience in such situations. The center now playing for his fourth team in four seasons said Washington would be his last stop.

The three-time defensive player of the year is joining a Wizards team that includes All-Star guards John Wall and Bradley Beal, but he is coming off a frustrating season that ended with a first-round playoff loss to the Raptors.

Frustration is nothing new to the 6-foot-11 Howard. He’s gone from taking the Magic to the 2009 NBA Finals to joining six teams since leaving Orlando in 2012.

Washington and Howard agreed this month to a two-year, $11 million contract with a player option for the 2019-20 season.

Howard became available after the Nets bought out his contract following a trade with the Hornets this offseason for a return of Timofey Mozgov‘s contract and a pair of second-round picks. Howard averaged 16.6 points and 12.3 rebounds last season for Charlotte, averaging a double-double during each of his 14 NBA seasons.

The move came one year after the Hawks foisted Howard’s contract on the Hornets in a similarly structured trade, which followed three uninspiring seasons with the Rockets and a tumultuous campaign with Kobe Bryant and the Lakers.

“Actually, I was joking with one of my trainers earlier today,” Howard said Monday at Capital One Arena. “I thought it would be fitting. We were talking about how I started with the Magic, learned Magic for eight years. Traveled to La-La land. Learned how to work the Rockets. Went to learn how to fly with some Hawks. Got stung by the Hornets. Throughout all of that, it taught me how to be a Wizard.”

So many moves naturally lead to a negative perception of Howard’s impact on team chemistry.

“(Based on) the conversations I’ve had with him, the conversations that I’ve had with some coaches, we’re not going to have problems,” Washington coach Scott Brooks said. “I know a lot of times things are out there. Some are true, some are not. You have to focus on what (Dwight) and I have talked about going forward. He’s excited, our team is excited, our coaching staff is excited.”

The Wizards, who ranked in the middle of the league last season in opponent scoring and field goal percentage defense, decided to pursue a player they believe can help them shore up several areas.

“Someone who could be a force on the defensive end and the offensive end. Someone who is proven in this league already and someone who can be a real physical presence, which we felt like we were lacking,” team president Ernie Grunfeld said.

The 32-year-old Howard said he could imagine playing for eight more seasons, saying “I plan to be here until I retire.”

He later added a plan for winning:

“Whatever happens throughout the year, the only way we’re going to get through it is together. It takes a lot for that to happen. You really have to put your ego to the side and focus on one thing and that’s winning. . I was once told to put the ego in the back pocket and focus on the front, focus on the chest, which is the team. I think that’s what we have to do. We do that, we’ll be very successful.”

 

Report: Clippers trade Austin Rivers to Wizards for Marcin Gortat

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DeAndre Jordan could leave the Clippers, either by opting out to enter unrestricted free agency or opting in to facilitate a trade.

If he does, L.A. will be prepared.

The Clippers are sending Austin Rivers to the Wizards for Marcin Gortat in an exchange of expiring contracts.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

This trade could improve the mood in both locker rooms.

By dealing Rivers – son of coach and former team president Doc Rivers – the Clippers are eliminating a political problem. Teammates resented Austin’s favored status, and it might have even contributed to Chris Paul‘s exit. Though the situation was more complex than that, perception matters greatly. The only way to move past the issue was firing Doc or dropping Austin. Once the Clippers extended Doc’s contract and Austin opted into his $12.65 million salary, trading the guard become favored.

Gortat always seemed to have tension with John Wall. Though they managed it well enough, that gets exhausting.

Beyond the interpersonal dynamics, Rivers was expendable in L.A., and this trade saves Washington money.

The Clippers have Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams as lead guards and just drafted Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jerome Robinson in the lottery. Beverley and Williams are better than Rivers. Gilgeous-Alexander and Robinson have higher upsides.

Based on their current roster, this puts the Wizards in line to save $3,203,263 – $915,218 in salary and $2,288,045 in luxury tax. They could trim payroll even further.

In Washington, Rivers will slide behind John Wall and/or Bradley Beal at guard. The Wizards especially need another backup shooting guard after Jodie Meeksperformance-enhancing drug suspension, but they also don’t seem to believe enough in promising Tomas Satoransky as backup point guard.

Washington might seek another center in free agency. It’ll be a buyers’ market at that position. A hodgepodge of Ian Mahinmi, Markieff Morris and Jason Smith is far from inspiring.

Gortat could start at center in L.A. if Jordan leaves. If Jordan returns, Gortat would be a good backup. The Clippers also have Boban Marjanovic at center, though none of his three teams (Spurs and Pistons previously) have figured out quite what to do with him.

Markelle Fultz’s new trainer describes him as having ‘yips’

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It was about this time last year that Markelle Fultz started to change his shot. As Sixers coach Brett Brown said just before the start of training camp: “Markelle has made some personal adjustments to his shot since we last saw him in Vegas, we’ve done stuff with him but really he’s been with his personal trainer over the month of August and since Summer League ended.” What followed was a chicken-and-egg debate about whether the new shooting form caused his shoulder problems or the injury forced the change, either way the combination of the two sidelined for most of his rookie season.

Fultz’s new trainer — the well known and respected Drew Hanlen, who has worked with Bradley Beal, Joel Embiid, and many others — admitted Fultz now has the “yips” and he needs to get the young player back to who he was in college. Hanlen spoke on the Talking Schmidt Podcast (hat tip Bleacher Report and Kyle Neubeck) about Fultz.

“With Markelle, obviously he has one of the most documented cases of kind of the yips of basketball in recent years, where he completely forgot how to shoot and had multiple hitches in his shot. So for me it was, ‘Hey listen, how can I get this kid that was No. 1 in last year’s draft back rolling and get him to the point where he was before, if not better?’…

“We’ve been working hard every day, working on rewiring his body and getting a kind of smooth stroke back into his shot. We’re way ahead of pace where I thought we were going to be, I thought it was going to take me at least six weeks before we had kind of a serviceable jump shot, and we’re already starting to shoot with a jump in week two.

“It’s not perfect yet, but I think by the end of the summer it will be perfect, he’ll be back rolling and he’ll show people why he was the No. 1 pick. Even though I still give him trouble on a daily basis and tell him and remind him I still believe Jayson Tatum was the best player in that draft.”

That should light a fire under Fultz.

It’s far too early to write off Fultz as some want to do, we just do not know yet what kind of player he will be at the NBA level. His rookie year was lost to the yips, and someday there will be a great 30-for-30 (or maybe just a Drunk History segment) about what happened to Fultz’s shot. It will get the full D.B. Cooper treatment.

The Sixers just want the guy they drafted back, not the one who came to camp last fall. With where he is in the process, we may not see Fultz at Summer League (the Sixers have yet to release their Summer League roster). It may be training camp before we get a good look at his reworked form.