2018-19 Washington Wizards
Projected Record: 44-38 (6th in East)
2016: 43-39 (8th in East)
- Dwight Howard (Free Agency)
- Jeff Green (Free Agency)
- Austin Rivers (Trade)
- Thomas Bryant (Waiver Claim)
- Troy Brown Jr. (Pick #15)
- Issuf Sanon (Pick #44)
- Marcin Gortat
- Mike Scott
- Strong top-end talent
- John Wall looks to be healthy
- Roster has remained relatively consistent
- Bench remains thin
- No financial flexibility
- Are Howard and Rivers threats to further fracture the clubhouse?
Over the last few years, I’ve built something of a personal brand out of never believing in the Washington Wizards. Every year, it feels like we should be envious of their top-end talent and starting lineup, and yet every year, they seem to add up to less than the sum of their parts. You can trust them to do the same two things they’ve done just about every year since 2013: put up a win total in the mid-40s and lose in the first two rounds of the playoffs. That’s about it.
I’ve been trying to figure out a reason why I should expect differently from Washington this year, and I haven’t found one yet. Dwight Howard? Austin Rivers? Jeff Green?
The Wizards feel like a powder keg just waiting to go off. Instead of trying to escape the explosion, though, the franchise seems to be throwing matches at it. Locker room schisms have plagued the team for a couple years now, most notably leading to Marcin Gortat’s departure and some eyebrow-raising comments from Bradley Beal in Wall’s absence last year (though Beal of course denies the implication). Even the most optimistic of glances through the Wizards’ locker room seems to imply some inherent turmoil.
Why, then, would the Wizards introduce two of the NBA’s more, uhh, polarizing players in Howard and Rivers? There’s some sense to the on-court fit — Howard is the kind of rim-runner who could fit well alongside Wall, and the backup guard slots have been a bugaboo for Washington for years — but with the issues that already exist, adding two of the more reviled players in the league seems like begging for trouble.
On-court, even with the new faces, the Wizards still look like the Wizards we’ve been talking about for years. They’re exceptionally good when Wall, Beal, and Otto Porter Jr. share the court — +8.4 net rating last season — but that trio is still the only thing holding them out of the Eastern Conference cellar. Kelly Oubre Jr.’s potential breakout season caved in when his jumper deserted him in February, and he shot less than 30% from behind the arc the remainder of the season. Ian Mahinmi averaged over $1 million per minute played per game last season, Jeff Green still isn’t a remotely useful NBA player, and Rivers is a merely decent one who will undoubtedly sap valuable minutes away from the much more intriguing Tomas Satoransky.
So, in other words, you’re really still looking at the same ol’ Wizards, and I expect the same ol’ Wizards result. Sure, Wall is back and healthy, and logic dictates that they should improve as a result. Maybe they will, but as far as I can tell, logic doesn’t often seem to apply to the Wizards quite how you’d expect.
Most Valuable Player: John Wall
As you might expect from a player with a career assist rate north of 40%, John Wall means a lot to the Wizards’ offense.
Last season, Wall managed a career-low 41 games after undergoing surgery on his left knee. Much was made out of the Wizards’ Bradley Beal-led “everybody eats” offense in Wall’s absence, but things didn’t actually change all that much — they performed slightly better, posting a 110 offensive rating that edged out their 108 mark for the overall season, but that’s as much due to Tomas Satoransky shooting like Klay Thompson as it is to any change in scheme.
That said, there were some obvious benefits to a more egalitarian offense, one where Wall doesn’t have direct control over every single possession. Beal thrived with more pick-and-roll ball-handling situations, initiating the offense for non-traditional lineups featuring the 6’7″ Satoransky as the “point guard.” When everybody touches the ball, everybody feels more involved. It keeps players moving, and even energizes players on the other end of the floor.
If the Wizards are going to finally reach the potential every sees in them each year, they’ll need to learn some lessons from that stretch. Beal is a great off-ball player, but he’s not exclusively an off-ball player, and they would do well to give him more opportunities to make plays with the ball in his hands. If Scott Brooks would stagger the duo for a change, it would help.
Part of this responsibility also rests on Wall, who hasn’t not really provided much value off the ball on either end of the floor. His gaudy assist numbers are partially a product of handling the ball on the vast majority of the Wizards’ possessions, and while he’s a great one-on-one defender, he frequently falls asleep when his man doesn’t have the ball. Shooting has always been his bugaboo, but he actually hit 37% of his threes last season — including 43% on his rare catch-and-shoot attempts.
In other words, John Wall needs to adapt to the team as much as the team adapts to John Wall.
X Factor: Dwight Howard
This is about to be the seventh year Dwight Howard’s post-Orlando Tour of Shame, and it’s starting to feel like we’re never going to see the end of it. Every year, we hit the exact same script: Dwight comes to camp ready to prove himself, talking about how this is going to be the year he makes real changes, but by midseason, he’s feuding with his teammates and demanding more post-ups. Once he mercifully leaves town, his ex-teammates trip over themselves to talk about how much they hated him.
Rinse and repeat.
I’m not going to write more about Dwight Howard. He’s the “X Factor” here because he’s one of the few changes — it sure as hell wasn’t gonna be Austin Rivers — and I guess there’s some chance he actually figures it out this time. Whatever.
We all know how this chapter ends.
Don’t Forget About: Tomas Satoransky
Remember how I said logic doesn’t quite apply to the Wizards? Here’s Exhibit A: Tomas Satoransky.
During Wall’s surgery-induced absence, Satoransky was perhaps the greatest difference-maker keeping the Wizards afloat. In 30 starts, he posted 10 points, four rebounds, and six assists per game with a blistering shooting line of 53-50-90. At 6’7″, he also provided versatile defense across multiple positions. During that stretch, he had the second-best net rating on the team at +7.2, behind only Otto Porter Jr.
So, of course the Wizards traded for Austin Rivers and drafted another guard/wing in Troy Brown Jr.
Obviously, Satoransky isn’t going to continue to shoot like Kevin Durant if he took the pill from Limitless, but I have to wonder exactly what it would take for Scott Brooks and the Wizards to actually trust this guy. You can argue that Rivers and Brown don’t necessarily block Satoransky from minutes, but come on. He wasn’t even in last year’s playoff rotation — he played 56 total minutes in the entire six-game series! It’s unfathomable.
Tomas Satoransky is awesome, and I’m going to fight very hard to make #FreeSato a thing this season. He deserves better.
Bill Sy, CelticsBlog (@deliberatepix)
This is the death rattle of a once-contender. Can you hear it? Troy Brown at #15 in the NBA Draft. The swap of an irritated Marcin Gortat for an irritable Austin Rivers. Jeff Green’s homecoming. The signing of Dwight Howard and (whispers) Dwight Howard shooting threes this summer. For some teams, these summer transactions would be greeted with some fanfare and considered shrewd decisions by a front office trying to tweak its roster just enough to squeeze out a few more wins in the regular season and make a run at The Finals.
For Washington, they just raise more questions.
Can Howard, who will turn 33-years-old this season, return to Superman form and be the pick-and-roll target and rim protector the Wizards have been missing in the John Wall era? Will Austin Rivers, a polarizing teammate who couldn’t even stay on the team that his father coached, further divide a locker room whose split starts with its two superstars? Can Wall, Bradley Beal, and Otto Porter, who combined will make up over $92M in salary in 2019-2020, form a Big Three worthy of that price tag? In what could be his final year as the Wizards’ GM, Ernie Grunfeld is betting on it.
There’s some reason for hope in the nation’s capital. Last season, the trio of Wall-Beal-Porter played only 37 games together and were 22-15. That projects out to around 49 wins in the Eastern Conference which could have had Washington hosting a first round series in the post-season. They boasted an impressive 8.4 NetRtg (111.0 OffRtg, 102.5 DefRtg). And even when Wall was playing, he was bothered by his troublesome knee and played out of shape. The five-time All Star is only a year removed from a Third Team All-NBA appearance. Add to that Howard, who played 81 games last year in his best season since leaving Houston, and Scotty Brooks and the Wizards could have something. Both their middling defense (15th) and offense (14th) should see boosts with their new personnel and health.
And what makes the Wiz even more interesting is that if they can lurk in the shadows of Boston, Philly, and Toronto and start out strong, they’re primed to make a substantial move at the deadline. Veteran role players like Markieff Morris, Jason Smith, Jodie Meeks, Green, and Rivers are all in contract years and their expiring deals could be moved in February. Kelly Oubre and Tomas Satoransky will also be heading into restricted free agency. There are enough middle class contracts on their cap sheet that Grunfeld could swing for the fences after getting men on base this summer.