Even though it’s still July and we’re months away from the start of the NBA season, optimistic Wizards players and fans alike have already set goals for next season. Washington won nearly 49 percent of their games with John Wall in the lineup last season, and as a result of their recent success, the unlikely term ‘playoff’s’ has been spouted throughout the entire off-season.
With John Wall, Bradley Beal, and now Otto Porter leading the Wizards young core, Washington’s future does looks presumptively bright, but it’s important to temper our expectations in preparation for failure. We’ve seen this story play out way too many times in the nation’s capital to expect a story book ending, but as optimistic fans, we’re always looking towards possible outcomes of the future.
At this point, I think it’s indisputable that the Wizards have improved throughout the past five years without a playoff appearance. Wizards owner Ted Leonsis and general manager Ernie Grunfeld have established a core group of guys through the rebuilding process that are able to compete with virtually anybody in the league. Wall and Beal make up the most dynamic young backcourt in the league, Otto Porter seems to be another perfect fit along side the two guards, and veterans surrounding the future pieces have helped Washington get some long required continuity.
But where does this improved Wizards squad stand amongst the NBA Eastern Conference, which features some of the best contending teams in the league?
I think it’s safe to say there are a number of teams in Washington’s conference where playoff berths are already a foregone conclusion.
(*these lists are NOT predictions for the conference standings, but merely groups where individual teams will likely fit)
- Miami Heat: Unless the Mayans were a year off from their apocalyptic prediction and the world comes to an end, the LeBron James led Miami Heat will remain favorites for the NBA Championship next season. James is still the best player on the planet and will only continue to get better. I don’t think more has to be said about James and their championship expectations.
- Indiana Pacers: Indiana has emerged has a legitimate threat to the Heat in the eastern conference. After defeating the Atlanta Hawks in the first round of the playoffs last season, the Pacers managed to beat the New York Knicks in the second round to advance to the eastern conference finals for the first time in 9 years. Led by the NBA Most Improved Player, Paul George, the Pacers pushed the Heat to seven games in the playoffs, but their youth finally caught up to Indiana in the most crucial game in nearly a decade. Along with George, the Pacers still have plenty of core players that haven’t even reached their potential. Roy Hibbert remains one of the leagues best big men and David West will continue to patrol the frontcourt in the Hoosier State. I expect the Pacers to continue improving, and will likely secure a top 2/3 seed in the conference next season.
- Chicago Bulls: Derrick Roses’ situation with the Bulls has been talked about ad nauseum, and I think it’s time to put the injury talks to rest. With the former MVP finally back to compete, I think it’s safe to say that Chicago will get some much needed help on the offensive side of the floor. Chicago is still home to one of the league’s most under-appreciated frontcourts, Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer, and will undoubtedly continue their regin as one of the league’s most feared defensive teams. Luol Deng won’t have to log as many minutes next season, since the emerging Jimmy Butler and rookie Tony Snell will able to fill the void at small forward. If anyone could lead Chicago to the promise land, it’s head coach Tom Thibodeau. I’ll be interested to see if the Bulls can go on a sustainable run in the post-season.
The Question Mark Contenders/ Playoff Locks:
- Brooklyn Nets: It certainly doesn’t hurt to have a billionaire owner and the Nets showed that this off-season by acquiring Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry from the Boston Celtics in a blockbuster trade. Even though they’re scrutinized by general NBA fans, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson are still a formidable backcourt in the NBA. Teams are displaying smaller lineups, but the Nets have paired up All-Star center Brook Lopez with Kevin Garnett, who has the talent and veteran leadership to take Brooklyn to the next level. Paul Pierce gives new head coach Jason Kidd yet another option offensively, which will certainly take the load off Deron Williams, allowing him to become the player we’re all accustomed to seeing. Their window for success isn’t very large, but the Nets have the talent to succeed. Will they be able to compete with the Heat? Only time will tell.
- New York Knicks: Led by scoring aficionado Carmelo Anthony, the Knicks secured their first Atlantic Division title in nearly a decade against the Wizards last season. The Knicks were the oldest team in NBA history last season and didn’t do much to get younger in the off-season. The Knicks acquired the exiled Toronto Raptor, Andrea Bargnani, in exchange for Steve Novak, Marcus Camby and Quentin Richardson. New York also signed Metta World Peace, which is a move that also hypothetically adds some talent to their aging roster. I can’t see the Knicks repeating the amount of success they had last season, especially since the majority of their offense comes from inefficient scoring. Injuries have always been a problem in the Big Apple, and I can’t see that changing much with Amar’e Stoudemire in particular.
The Playoff Contenders:
- Toronto Raptors: After snagging Masai Ujiri from the Denver Nuggets this off-season, the Raptors have already made some wholesale changes to their organization. Andrea Bargnani has been dumped to New York, and I’d certainly expect their new look management to make some more moves prior to the start of the season. Regardless, the Raptors still have some talent on their roster. Jonas Valanciunas is one of the best young big men in the league and showed some significant improvement in his game this off-season after capturing the summer-league MVP. Despite criticism, Rudy Gay does add some much needed talent in Toronto and when paired with DeMar Derozan, I’d certainly expect some highlight reels to come out of T-Dot. I was hesitant to place Toronto in this category, but they do have some young talent and will probably be able to compete for a playoff spot next season. Although they’re not a lock for the playoffs, they probably won’t be ranked atop the NBA lottery next season.
- Atlanta Hawks: The Hawks have always had an unappealing stigma associated with their franchise and their chances of making any noise in the playoffs isn’t very high. Josh Smith is gone, but they’ve replaced him with Paul Millsap, who’ll probably fit pretty well along side Al Horford. Atlanta still seems to fit into basketball purgatory, but I think they have enough talent to sneak into the playoffs.
- Cleveland Cavaliers: It seems like there hasn’t been a day during the off-season where we haven’t heard the Cavaliers’ name pop up. Cleveland had a rather dramatic start to their off-season after passing on Kentucky big man, Nerlens Noel, and selecting Anthony Bennett first overall. Cleveland has some of the best young talent on their roster, which is obviously led by former rookie of the year Kyrie Irving. Along with Tristan Thompson and Tyler Zeller, the Cavaliers added Earl Clark and Andrew Bynum to their list of young bigs this off-season which certainly adds some depth to their club. When healthy, Bynum is one of the best big men in the league. Even though we’re all skeptical about his health, and rightfully so, the Cavaliers didn’t mind pursuing the big man with hopes of finally reclaiming a playoff spot. Jarrett Jack will also relieve Irving of some offensive load. Overall, Cleveland has done a good job adding talent this off-season and I could envision them in the post-season next year.
- Detroit Pistons: Adding talent was a priority of Detroit’s this off-season and they did that by signing free-agent Josh Smith. Smith might not be a great fit, but he does add some much needed talent. Chauncey Billups will also be back in a Pistons uniform next season. With that said, Detroit doesn’t seem very well put together, but they do have some very good young talent. Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond are one of the leagues best young frontcourts, and with improvement, I could definitely see them having an impact in the league next season. They don’t have much shooting and that could prove to be a problem. Regardless, I still think they have the talent to become competitive.
- Washington Wizards: Out of everybody in the category, the Wizards probably have the best mix of young/veteran talent. With Nene and Emeka Okafor leading the frontcourt, the Wizards won’t have to count on a starting big man to make a dramatic leap for them to become competitive. Wall and Bradley Beal are the NBA’s best young backcourt, and will only continue improving. Washington acquired a backup point guard, Eric Maynor, who’ll likely become an upgrade over A.J. Price. Martell Webster is also back next season. Playoffs are the ultimate goal for the Wizards next season, and for the first time in a very long time, I think it’s safe to say they have a serious shot at making the post-season.
The Rebuilding/Teams with slim chances of making the playoffs:
- Orlando Magic: Unlike some of the other rebuilding teams just hoping to sneak into the playoffs, Magic management has made it clear that they have greater goals than just first round playoff exits. Orlando is content with losing, as long as they get future draft selections which will help them win down the road. Victor Oladipo was a surprising pick in this years draft, but he fits perfects with their gritty mentality. It won’t be a magical year in Orlando.
- Philadelphia 76ers: Like the Celtics, the 76ers have opted to go down the rebuilding road next season. Trading All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday to the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for the rights to Nerlens Noel, the Sixers are hoping to have landed their big man for the future. Philadelphia also drafted Michael Carter-Williams out of Syracuse, who will likely replace Holiday in the starting lineup. Philly will likely compete with Boston for the ‘worst team in the NBA’ crown next season.
- Charlotte Bobcats: Michael Jordan won’t be the owner of the worst team in the league next season, and that’s definitely a step forward. Charlotte picked a bad time to improve, especially since next years draft is supposed to produce a great amount of talent. The Bobcats decided to acquire Al Jefferson, who’ll certainly add some talent to their depleted roster. Kemba Walker remains one of the league’s up and coming guards, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist still has a ton of potential to become an impact player on both sides of the floor. Charlotte opted to select Cody Zeller fourth overall in this years draft, and I think he’ll have a chance to grow along side Jefferson. With that said, I still don’t think they have enough talent or experience together to become competitive. They won’t be the worst team in the NBA, but I can’t see them making any noise during the regular season.
- Milwaukee Bucks: Like Atlanta, the Bucks were stuck in basketball purgatory for the past few seasons. Monta Ellis has decided to move on with the Dallas Mavericks, and the Bucks have replaced him with former Maverick, O.J Mayo. Brandon Jennings remains a free-agent and we’ll have to see how that situation plays out. Milwaukee snuck into the playoffs last season with just 38 victories, and I can’t see them doing that again in an improved Eastern Conference.
- Boston Celtics: This will definitely be a long season for die-hard Celtics fans. It’s been a pretty long time since the Celtics were considered a sub-par basketball team, and with Piece/Garnett gone, ‘tanking’ will be a word floating around Boston next season.
After the first 5 teams, the last three spots in the Eastern Conference appear to be wide open. Could the Wizards compete for the sixth-eighth spot in the playoffs? Even though it’s only July, all signs point to the Wizards having a serious shot at making the post-season.
Washington might not even be done making moves this off-season. Wizards head coach Randy Wittman has spoken about adding more depth to the roster, in order to increase their chances of making the playoffs. It’s been a long time where playoffs seem like an inevitability, but next season just might be Washington’s year.
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