STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
It's time for the Washington Wizards to earn some respect. Owner Ted Leonsis certainly thinks so. "I think that all of our focus, all of our attention, is to make the playoffs this year," said Leonsis at a preseason press conference. He went on to announce, "I would say that is the first light that gets turned on, to be able to say that your rebuild is a success or not." It's been a painful rebuild, with the team going 72-158 since they drafted John Wall in 2010. In fact, the formerly-known-as-the-Bullets squad has the longest active drought of a 50-plus win season at 34 seasons and counting. Yep, 34. But with Wall having just signed a new five-year extension, and remembering that the team went on a 20-15 tear last year after Wall's return, there are finally real reasons for optimism in Washington.
The roster is similar to last year's with three big exceptions. First, as everyone expected, the Wizards drafted local Georgetown star and small forward Otto Porter with the third pick in the draft. Second, the Wizards expect to have a healthy Bradley Beal, the third pick in the 2012 draft, for the majority of the 2013-14 season. And third, and most important, Les Boulez will have a healthy and motivated John Wall ready to go for hopefully all 82 games.
Many teams in the Eastern Conference took a step backward this offseason (see Boston, Atlanta and Milwaukee). With veteran bigs Emeka Okafor, Nene and the newly signed Al Harrington combining with the much-ballyhooed backcourt of Wall and Beal, the Wizards might finally have a roster geared for success. Expect Washington to earn one of the last three playoff spots in the East. And bank on coach Randy Wittman's modest career winning percentage of .336 to improve.
PLAYING TIME DISTRIBUTION
At point guard, expect to see Wall return to the 37 minutes per game he played his rookie season. The rest will go to newly acquired Eric Maynor, who returned successfully last year from injury to play well with Portland. The Wizards would love to see 32-plus minutes a game from second-year phenom Beal at shooting guard. GM Ernie Grunfeld dreams of a scenario were Beal and Wall grow into the best backcourt in the East. Second-round pick Glen Rice Jr. hopes to improve his shooting percentage and see meaningful backup minutes, but that will take work.
The frontcourt is more muddled. Emeka Okafor plays the kind of grind-it-out defense Wittman loves and should again see 26-29 minutes a game at center. The team hopes Nene bounces back from knee and foot issues to play 25-plus minutes per game at power forward and backup center, but that could be a risky bet. Small forward and backup power forward minutes then fall to Porter (only 20 years old), newly re-signed Martell Webster, veteran Trevor Ariza, and suspect first-round-picks Jan Vesely and Chris Singleton. Expect Webster to start at the three, with Porter's minutes growing throughout the season.
Emeka Okafor: Okafor proved last year that he's exactly the kind of reliable veteran big that the Wizards needed. He played in 79 games, with solid averages of 9.7 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.0 block. But more importantly, he will focus on defense while the rest of the frontcourt attacks on offense. With Nene's shaky injury status, Okafor's 79 games (starting 77 of them) were much appreciated. Think of Okafor as a taller Wes Unseld with fewer shot attempts, a smaller bumpus and a not-nearly-as-awesome overhead outlet pass.
Hey, let's pause and bask in Hall Of Famer Wes Unseld's greatness:
Nene: Nene may actually be the biggest health question the Wizards have for the upcoming season. The dream scenario is that Nene gets past his knee, shoulder and plantar fasciitis issues to return to the 50-plus percent shooting and 7.5 rebounds per game days that convinced Denver to sign him to a lucrative five-year deal in 2011. That seems unlikely, but the Wizards still appreciate his professional approach and ability to clog the lane. The Eastern Conference is particularly weak at center. After Brooklyn and Chicago, Washington's big-man combo of Okafor and Nene maybe the third best in the East.
Kevin Seraphin: Seraphin saw a career high in minutes (22 per game) last season. Expect those minutes to decline as Seraphin loses power forward minutes to Harrington and focuses on backing up the center position.
Otto Porter: Everyone knew the Wizards were going to take the Georgetown star with the third pick this summer, but his fantasy impact is much more up in the air. Porter is lauded for moving well without the ball, passing well, and playing solid defense. With his backcourt mates taking most of the shot attempts, Porter should be a great long-term fit for the Wizards, but, he'll probably receive sixth-man type minutes early on. He'll need a season of experience to hone his three-point shooting.
Martell Webster: After drafting Porter, the Wizards then committed to Webster for four more years. He should be the starting small forward to begin the season but should gradually lose playing time to Porter. Last year was a semi-breakout season for Webster, which included 42 percent shooting from 3-point-land and a career-high 11.4 points per game. Expect those numbers to drop slightly with the Porter addition and a healthy Beal at shooting guard.
Trevor Ariza: Ariza could become a jack-of-all-trades player for the Wizards this season. He knows he'll have to back up the both forward positions and shooting guard, saying in August, "I'm going to compete...just go out there and play. Not any particular position, just whatever the coaches ask of me, I try to do." While his numbers were down across the board last year, the Wizards need his veteran presence. RotoWire hoops guru Andre' Snellings wisely reminded me that Ariza's "garbage-man type" skills do complement the young backcourt and should hold up despite lesser minutes. Last year's end-of-season knee injury should be fully healed.
Al Harrington: Harrington was signed this offseason and could find himself as the first big man off the bench. All summer, Grunfeld expressed interest in adding a stretch four to pick-and-pop with Wall. Harrington, who averaged 130 made three-pointers a season from 2006 to 2011, should nicely fill that stretch four role. Check Harrington's position eligibility in your league, there is a chance he still qualifies at center.
Jan Vesely: The number six pick from the 2011 draft has yet to prove he's an NBA player. Believe it or not, Vesely shot only 31 percent from the free-throw line last year. Harrington's signing reduces Vesely's chances of his qualifying offer being extended at the close of this season. He could be playing in Europe next season.
Chris Singleton: Singleton, like Vesely, is also desperate to prove to Wizards management that he is worth the qualifying offer they hold for 2014-15. Don't hold your breath. Despite starting 51 games in 2011-12, Singleton will probably struggle to get playing time. He will likely only see 11-12 minutes per game, with some DNP's, and last year's 4.1 points a game will probably get worse.
John Wall: The undisputed team leader and former No. 1 pick is anxious to prove he's worth his new five-year max contract. A healthy Wall has the potential to be a top-five NBA point guard. A career-year is in reach, though it's concerning that he's averaged only 61 games per season for his first three years in the Association.
Bradley Beal: During the seven-game stretch from February 19 to March 3 in which both Beal and Wall were healthy and starting, Beal averaged 20.3 points, 6.9 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.1 steal, 0.9 blocks and 2.1 three-pointers in 38 minutes per game. Awesome. Get ready for a breakout year from the 20-year-old Beal.
Eric Maynor: The former VCU star returns home as a Wizards upgrade at backup point guard. He proved last year with the Trail Blazers that his ACL problems are behind him. Considering Wall's injury history, Maynor is an interesting late-round pick in deep fantasy leagues.
Glen Rice Jr.: If Rice can improve his shooting percentage, the 35th pick in this summer's draft has an outside chance at getting meaningful minutes. The Wizards need scoring off the bench. He averaged 25.0 points and 9.5 rebounds a game during last year's D-League playoffs.
Garrett Temple: Temple is on the roster to provide insurance at both guard positions. He is very defense oriented and has fantasy value in only the deepest of leagues. The Wizards are his seventh team in three NBA seasons.
Bradley Beal: For some odd reason, second-year players are always underrated during most fantasy hoops drafts. Beal appeared in only 56 games last year, so the number three pick from the 2012 draft is still somewhat under the radar. Remember, Beal is only 20 years old with heaps of potential. He hit 39 percent of his three-pointers as a rookie. His 13.9 points per game from last season will certainly improve. Beal and Wall could prove to be the best young backcourt in the NBA.
Otto Porter: Is it fair to call a rookie a bust? Maybe so, considering the Wizards' history from Kwame Brown to Jan Vesely. Porter will probably prove to be a valuable player over the long-haul, but this year, the coaching staff will focus on Wall and Beal. Also, consider that Porter's skill set could be very Troy-Aikman-like, meaning more valuable in real life than fantasy. Rookies are often over hyped at draft time, and the Wizards have a lot of small forwards.