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2017 NBA Preview Series: Washington Wizards

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Washington Wizards

First and foremost, I have to say thank you to Nate for allowing this blog to be possible. When I decided to do this Preview Series, my initial plan was to avoid the NBA teams of all the other Barstool cities. The same way I would be bullshit if I saw someone else write a Celtics preview, those teams and those cities already have guys that cover the teams and will provide that content, which you should read. Incase you hadn’t noticed, there are 26 other teams to talk about.

Then Nate reached out and said he was cool with the idea of me including the Wizards in this series, and for that I am thankful. Now, Wizards fans, I know there’s maybe a chance you don’t really want to hear about your team from the mouth of a Celtics fan. I get it. But hopefully you’ve read some of the other previews and sort of get what we do in this blog. I’m almost positive there are going to be little intricacies that I might not be aware of when it comes to the Wizards and shit like that, but hopefully you enjoy the discussion about a team that don’t look now, could be the #1 seed.

2016-17 season highlights

With some of the other moves that have happened in the East so far, is it possible that the Wizards’ offseason has sneaky gone under the radar? I think so. After completing a season in which the Wizards won 49 games, the most ever since becoming the Wizards and their most since 1978-79 (54), their season ended in a similar fashion to how things have gone in the last four seasons. A second round exit. On the surface that may seem like the Wizards underachieved based on the talent on their roster, but that’s why simply looking at the results doesn’t tell the whole story. They were a Bradley Beal made jumper, or even a slightly normal Kelly Olynyk performance away from making the Eastern Conference Finals, where perhaps they would have put up more of a fight against CLE than the Celtics did.

Which brings us to their summer. The Wizards entered the offseason with two gigantic franchise altering decisions to make on two of their young, promising players. Before we get into that, let’s first take a look at how their roster looks right this second

Screen Shot 2017-09-15 at 9.31.00 AM

The Washington Wizards have the 3rd most expensive roster in the NBA, trailing just GS and CLE, you know, the teams that have made three straight Finals. With an active cap number of $126,704,264, the Wizards are already over the Luxury Tax by around $8.5M, which results in a $13.7M tax bill. I guess it helps that the Wizards owner Ted Leonsis is worth $1B, because things are only going to get more expensive for him as the Wizards move forward.

To me, this is one of the most intriguing rosters in the NBA. The talent in the starting five is among the best in the league, so it makes sense why the team decided to give Wall his supermax (basically a 3 yr $170M extension that starts after his current 5 year deal expires in 2019). Now also giving Otto Porter Jr his 4/$106M contract earlier in the summer made it clear. The trio of Wall/Beal/Porter Jr is the group the Wizards feel can lead them to finally getting over the hump and contending for a championship. Together they are three young players that still have high upside and together all three took a step forward in the 2016 season. None of them played under 77 games, which is HUGE considering Beal had never played over 73 in his career, and that was back in 2013-14. This was really the first season that since Porter Jr became a starter that this trio actually played together throughout an entire season. Their win total suggests that perhaps these guys are actually pretty good and ready to make that jump into that next tier in the East.

In looking at this roster, there are additional things to consider. Let’s start with Marcin Gortat. At 33 year old, he has two more years at around $25M left on his deal. He is going to be a UFA after the 2019 season, which is significant because you have to factor in Wall’s extension. That Year 1 number in 2019-20 is $37.8M. Once the Wizards get to this point, they will have four players under contract: Wall ($37.8M), Beal ($27M), Porter Jr ($27M), and Mahinmi ($15M). That is $107.5M committed to just four players. That same summer, there are guys like Gortat, Morris, and Oubre that will also be up. Chances are, the Wizards are not going to want to resign a 35 year old Gortat which brings up the interesting question. Should they consider moving Gortat now? At his current salary number, he is attractive to other teams that may need low post help, and if he’s not part of their long term plans, perhaps it’s time to get the most out of him.

I think one problem we all saw last year with this team, wasn’t so much the starting talent, and it wasn’t the coaching for the first time in a long time, it was their depth. Last year they traded their 2017 1st and some other players for Bojan Bogdanovic who helped, but is now gone. Guys like Brandon Jennings simply didn’t get it done (admit it, you’re shocked) and as a result it forced Beal/Wall to play more once the playoffs started. They were GASSED and everyone could tell. Take Wall for example. During the year he played 36.4 minutes a night. In the playoffs that jumped to 39.0, and in that Boston series he had minutes played of 39:09, 47:06, 41:50, and 44:04. It’s clear he was burning out when you look at things closely. After the Game 2 loss in which he played that 47 minutes and scored 40 points, he didn’t have another game the rest of the series in which he shot over 41%. In fact, he was under 40% in four of the remaining five games. Even the games the Wizards won at home, Wall struggled from the field.

The exact same thing happened with Beal. During the year he averaged 34.9 minutes a night. In the playoffs that jumped to 38.8 and in that Boston series it went up to 39.1. Is it all that surprising that Game 2 ended the way it did, with him missing that BUNNY jumper in a game in which he played 47 minutes? I think not. The fact is, the lack of talent/serviceable options on this roster for players 6-15 is an issue, and one that looking at this current roster, doesn’t appear to be resolved. I’m sorry but Tim Frazier and Mike Scott aren’t going to matter come April/May when it comes to not burning out their star players. That’s why I think if Mahinmi comes back healthy and actually shows a pulse, the Wizards look to move Gortat for some additional bench help.

But let’s get back to my opening statement. Could this Wizards team actually end up being the #1 seed in the East? We know that seeding means absolutely nothing to CLE, and if they are without Isaiah for a long stretch, you can practically guarantee they won’t have enough wins to get there. For Boston, while they added additional talent, like all new teams that have 11 new players, that is going to take time to gel. The Wizards have that right combination of starter talent plus chemistry that make them an attractive option if you are interested in putting a little money down.

To do this though, a couple things are clear. For starters, the Wizards MUST figure out how to play on the road. With a 19-22 record away from DC, this is the type of shit lower seeded teams like MIL, ATL, and MIA do. On the road the Wizards give up almost 4 more points a night (105.3 vs 109.3), and score slightly worse (110.4 vs 108). You’re probably saying to yourself, big deal, plenty of teams do this as well. Washington is already lights out at home (30-11 last year), but if they truly want to take that leap, they need to be in around the 21-23 road win zip code. How can this happen?

Easy, the Wizards need to start playing defense. Last year, as a team they had a defense rating of 110. That’s bad. Bottom 12 in the league bad. This puts them in the same group as DAL/IND/PHI/CLE/CHA/MIL. Looking at that group we all know they don’t have Lebron, and even MIL couldn’t do much in the playoffs. The rest of those teams are among the worst in the league. Here’s the good news, their rating last year was the highest EVER by a team coached by Scott Brooks. Chances are now that he has had a year to work with this team and the players learn his system, this number SHOULD go down. While in OKC, the highest it ever got was 107.5 (lost in first rd), but they usually lived in the 104, 105 range. If he can get the Wizards to improve just slightly, say to the 107-108 range, you are going to see a drastically improved team, especially on the road. The signs are there, you have John Wall finishing second in the NBA in deflections last year (3.9), Gortat was 15th in contested 2PT shots (9.5) which is ahead of similar players like Horford, Cousins, Valanciunas, Jokic, Ibaka, and Alridge, and they got rid of their worst defenders last year in Burke, Bogdanovic, Thornton, Mac, and Jennings, all who had a Drtg over 110.

The biggest area they need to improve on is probably P&R when it comes to correctly rotating, but these are things that can be corrected.

As a Wizards fan this has to be so fucking annoying, because their offense is so good. They finished 8th in offensive efficiency last year, and have all the weapons you need for a team to make noise in the playoffs. They have the ability to get you in isolation with Wall, they can run pin downs and multiple screens for Beal, they can run P&R with Gortat, they have a midrange game, a 3P game, and if they just learn how to get to the line a little better, offensively they are among one of the hardest teams to stop

Like that video talked about, the key to the Wizards offense is their ability to get the ball to Wall quickly, and in space. I can’t think of many players faster than Wall with the ball in his hands, and the Wizards finished 4th in the NBA in transition points with 1,667. Only HOU, PHX, and GS scored more, while just GS and UTA scored more per transition possession. Basically, you let Washington run on you, you are fucked plain and simple. The other area is like I mentioned, coming off screens. Their 697 points off screens last year was 3rd in the NBA, and they scored around 42% of the time they run these type of sets, which was 4th in the NBA.

What’s interesting is that as a team, the Wizards were 8th in the league in 3P% at 37%, but they don’t really come from spot up plays. For example on one end of the spectrum you had BOS and SA, the two teams that scored the most in spot up situations (2,111 and 2,072 points). You would think that with all the attention Wall gets, and with good 3P shooters surrounding him, that Washington would have more production from this type of play, but they scored just 1,634 points via spot ups, which was 24th in the league.

Why I put defense as the #1 thing for this team to improve on for the 2017 season, is because they have proven if they can keep a game close, more often than not they are going to pull it out. For example, the Wizards played 55 games that qualified as “clutch” situations. That led the league. They finished 32-23 tying them with Boston for the most wins, and ahead of teams like SA, UTA, OKC and TOR. Their 58.2 winning% ranked 9th in the league in these type of situations, and we just saw how devastating they can be in a playoff series if they can just keep it close. If the Wizards can find a way to get even the slightest production from their second unit, you won’t have to worry as much about Wall losing his legs and he can get back to what he does best which is close out games.

While other teams like CLE and BOS are competitive while also having young talent and more of an open future, the Wizards are the ultimate win now team. They aren’t waiting for any high lottery picks to develop, and they aren’t being held hostage by a gigantic dickhead. They have their core who has gone through the hardships, and while it could be argued we just saw their ceiling, they very well could take that jump next year. If they don’t these next two years, and then Wall’s extension kicks in, things are going to get even harder for them.

Official Greenie Prediction: 51 wins