After years languishing at the bottom of the standings and acquiring high-draft picks, the Washington Wizards returned to the postseason and won their first playoff series in eight years. Now they have some crucial decisions to make in free agency, but are in a great position to continue their new-found success.
The Washington Wizards have been stockpiling high-drafted talent for several years now, and after adding some veteran big men and an experienced swingman over the last two seasons, they finally made their return to the postseason.
Washington finished the year with a 44-38 record (their first finish above .500 in five years and their best final record in nine seasons), returning to the playoffs for the first time in five years, ending the season as the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference.
It was a remarkable turnaround for a team that finished 29-53, after losing their first 12 games, only a season ago.
Last season, Washington’s offence was nothing short of atrocious, finishing the season ranked 28th for points per game (93.2) and 30th in offensive efficiency (100.2).
This season, the Wizards improved their placing to 16th (100.7) and 17th (106.0) respectively. And while that was nothing to write home about, couple it with their top-10 ranked defence (99.4 points allowed per game [ninth in the league) and 104.6 defensive rating [eighth]) and it was more than enough to turn Washington into a playoff team.
One catalyst for the improvement was the addition of Polish centre Marcin Gortat, who the Wizards acquired from the Phoenix Suns in exchange for Emeka Okafor’s expiring contract and 2014 first-round draft pick.
Washington needed an experienced centre after Okafor was ruled out indefinitely with a herniated disc in his neck in September 2013, and Gortat repaid them to the tune of 13.2 points at 54.2% from the floor (11th in the league), 9.5 rebounds (15th) and 1.5 blocks (13th) a night.
Alongside Gortat, Brazilian big man Nenê (14.2 points at 50.3%, 5.5 rebounds and 1.2 steals) gave Washington one of the best one-two frontcourt punches in the league.
Washington’s reinvigorated frontline played a huge role in them jumping from 27th in the league for field goal percentage last season (43.5%) to 10th this time around (45.9%).
Forward Trevor Booker (6.8 points at 55.1% and 5.3 rebounds) also provided plenty of muscle down low when called upon, while fellow reserve Martell Webster (9.7 points, 39.2% 3FG) was a reliable long-range option.
Meanwhile, late-season additions Drew Gooden (8.3 points at 53.1% and 5.2 rebounds through 22 games) and Andre Miller (3.8 points and 3.5 assists through 28) were not stars by any means, but gave Washington depth to cover injuries and ease to load on their heavy-hitters.
One negative from the season was the output of rookies Otto Porter and Glen Rice Jr.
Porter struggled with injuries, finishing the year averaging just 2.1 points at 36.3% from the floor and 19.0% from beyond the arc (which was allegedly his strength entering the draft) and 1.5 rebounds in 37 games, while Rice was up-and-down between the D-League and the main event, struggling to2.9 points at 29.7% FG and 29.4% 3FG through only 11 NBA games.
However, thanks to a roster boasting depth that the Wizards haven’t enjoyed in some years, their season did not require much heavy lifting from their inexperienced youngsters.
Most Valuable Player
The jury has been out on John Wall since he was selected with the first pick in the 2010 draft.
That is not to say that he did not played well during his first three seasons in the league, but being the first overall pick in the draft brings enormous expectations – especially with fellow No. 1 picked point guard Derrick Rose adding a MVP to his resume early in his career.
Many critics felt Wall had failed to meet those expectations – until he proved them wrong this season.
After upping his production this season to a career-high 19.3 points (20th in the league), 8.8 assists (second) and 1.8 steals (eighth) per game, Wall finally took the step his critics claimed he never would.
Wall embraced his role as the conductor of Washington’s offence like he never had before and the results speak for themselves – Wall actually led the entire league in total assists with 721 for the year.
Wall played the fifth-most minutes of any player in the league and assisted on 40.5% of all Wizard baskets (third in the L). Couple that with the 17th-highest usage rate in the league – higher than the likes of Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker or Damian Lillard – and you can excuse the fact Wall also led the league in total turnovers.
One of the biggest knocks on Wall’s game earlier in his career was his poor shooting. This season, while his overall field goal percentage took a small hit compared to last season, the former Kentucky Wildcat’s 35.1% from downtown was a big improvement from the 24.3% he shot from beyond the arc in his first three seasons (including an embarrassing 7.1% in his sophomore season). Wall also connected on nearly 70% more long-range attempts than any other season – eclipsing the career-best mark he set in his rookie season by 74 makes.
The Wizards took a big step forward this season and it is no coincidence that Wall’s game did as well.
It’s no big secret that Wall has not been blessed with the best running mates throughout his career – do Nick Young, JaVale McGee and Andray Blatche sound like postseason-calibre teammates to you?
Gortat and Nene are nice, but the biggest help to Wall this season was the addition of some capable wing scorers.
Entering his second season, former Florida sharpshooter Bradley Beal took an important step towards becoming a legitimate second option on offence.
The 2012 third overall pick increased his scoring to a career-high 17.1 points per game, while also increasing his shooting percentages to 41.9% from the floor and 40.2% from deep (18th in the league).
Meanwhile, swingman Trevor Ariza had his best season scoring the ball in five years, putting up 14.4 points, while also grabbing a career-high 6.2 rebounds (10th amongst small forwards) and swiping 1.6 pockets (13th in the NBA) a night.
Ariza also gave Washington another deadly outside shooting, connecting on 180 threes during the year (14th in the league – ahead of the likes of James Harden, Carmelo Anthony and Joe Johnson) at 40.7% (16th in the league).
Coupled with their strengthened frontline and Washington’s improved wing play made life easier for their stars and bettered their offence overall.
As mentioned above, the Wizards sent their 2014 first-round pick to the Suns in the Gorat deal, while they sold their second-round selection to the Los Angeles Lakers on draft night.
The pick heading to the Suns is only 18th overall, and while that could still bring in a valuable piece, it is not unthinkable that they could find a similar contributor through free agency.
Speaking of free agency, Washington has two of the more-coveted out-of-contract players in the league currently on their roster in Gortat and Ariza.
Both are unrestricted free agents and will likely draw interest from around the league.
Gortat seems the likeliest to stay put, while Ariza could capitalise on his best season in five years and seek a payday above the Wizards evaluation elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Washington would also be wise to play the market for a backup point guard to ease the load on Wall. Miller was a nice late-season addition, but at 38 years old, one begins to wonder how much more he has to offer. A move for one of the likes of Shaun Livingston, Greivis Vasquez or even livewire Australian Patty Mills would be a savvy move for the front office to investigate.
The Wizards will have roughly $17 million to play with in the offseason, but with only six players under contract, they will need to be smart with their contracts to improve on their team from last season.
However, unlike recent seasons, there is no need for Washington to chase a huge difference maker as they already have a playoff-calibre team. Retaining their current assets and adding some key role players could be more than enough to push the Wizards deeper into the postseason.
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