One of the biggest surprises of the 2013-2014 season was the emergence of the Washington Wizards. Having not made the playoffs for five years, they were not looked at as a team who would be competitive this year. However, despite a rough beginning of the season, they forged ahead and lasted until the sixth game of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Coming into this season, despite losing Trevor Ariza, Washington has improved its roster. Regardless of the improvement, the Washington Wizards, with its lack of media coverage and high profile players, could be the most unpredictable team in the NBA at the moment.
Headed into the playoffs last season, the Wizards, in most fans’ eyes, were identified as fodder to the defensively-minded Chicago Bulls in the first round. While they surprised the league by fending off the Bulls in five games, it was how they did it that surprised many. The Bulls were the worst offensive team in the NBA last season; however, between Carlos Boozer, Taj Gibson, Jimmy Butler and Mike Dunleavy, they did have some offensive power. What the Wizards did in this series, as well as the following series, is beat the Bulls and Indiana Pacers at their own game — defense. Additionally, the Wizards proved to be one of the most well-rounded offensive teams, between shooters Bradley Beal, Trevor Ariza, John Wall and Andre Miller, and forces to be reckoned with inside, like Marcin Gortat and Nene Hilario. Because of their variety and options offensively, Washington proved that they are one of the best inside-outside squads in the league.
Without question, Paul Pierce is the biggest offseason acquisition for the Wizards. While it is unlikely the forward will bring in his All-Star caliber numbers at this stage in his career, he fits in quite well in replacing Ariza. Last season, Paul Pierce averaged 13.5 ppg and 4.6 rpg on 45 percent shooting in 28 mpg. Ariza’s numbers from last year were just slightly above Pierce at 14.4 ppg, 6.2 rpg and 1.5 spg, while shooting 45 percent, with a much higher mpg than Pierce, at 35.4. At this stage in his career, Pierce can no longer be a franchise player. What he can do is help as a veteran leader with his championship experience, which is something the roster has been lacking. Moreover, his maturity level, by accepting to be a third option, will pay off dividends for Washington. Currently, there are a number of players who will be coming off the bench who will now be receiving increased minutes due to Pierce.
The first player who will benefit from added playing time is Glen Rice Jr. While Rice plays shooting guard and not small forward, it would not be surprising for the second generation player to fit the three when needed. More importantly is that Rice has the perfect opportunity to prove his worth after a lack of playing time in his rookie season, where he only played 11 games, averaging 2.9 ppg, 1.8 rpg and 30 percent shooting in 9.9 mpg. He has impressed many this summer though, where the shooting guard was named Las Vegas Summer League MVP after averaging 25 ppg and 46.9 percent shooting. His potential stretches beyond his stats though. Rice proved to be a player with zero fear, making difficult shots when it counted most and having a real knack for drawing fouls. With more development, he could easily become one of the league’s best offensive players.
The player that will be most affected by increased playing time is small forward Otto Porter Jr., who does play Pierce’s position. Much like Rice, Porter did not have a stellar rookie season. During his rookie campaign, he only played in 37 games, while averaging 2.1 ppg, 1.5 rpg and 36 percent shooting, while only playing 8.6 mpg. Porter, like Rice, also had a successful showing in the Las Vegas Summer League, where the forward averaged 19 ppg and 6.3 rpg. If given the opportunity on Washington, Porter could be a vital player off the bench for Washington, let alone being a suitable replacement for the aging Pierce.
Additionally, Washington added a couple of players who will help round out the bench for the team. The first is the undersized, but efficient, DeJuan Blair, who had a very successful season in Dallas a season ago, where he averaged 6.4 ppg and 4.7 rpg in only 15.6 mpg. Blair may only be 6’7″, but what he brings to the Wizards is strength and aggressiveness. As he showed in the playoffs against the San Antonio Spurs, he is a player who can charge up the rest of the team with his presence. Another asset he will bring is the ability to play power forward and center spot, depending on the matchup situation. Kris Humphries is another big who Washington obtained to relieve Nene or Gortat. Last season, Humphries averaged 8.4 ppg and 5.9 rpg. Similar to Blair, Humphries is a guy Washington can use at either power forward and center, who can contribute to the middle. They round out a solid bench that also includes veteran Andre Miller (3.8 ppg and 3.5 apg) and an injured, but returning, Martell Webster (9.7 ppg), who may all be a part of one of the deepest rosters in the NBA and, potentially, the best in the Eastern Conference.
The Wizards’ starting lineup is one that cannot be ignored. While some may look at Pierce as an aging veteran, he fits the key small forward position that will accompany one of the best starting lineups in the NBA, between John Wall (19.3 ppg, 8.8 apg and 1.8 spg), Bradley Beal (17.1 ppg, 3.7 rpg and 3.3 apg), Nene Hilario (14.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 2.9 apg and 1.5 bpg) and Marcin Gortat (13.2 ppg, 9.5 rpg and 1.5 bpg). While it took a good five years to get them to become a potential Eastern Conference contender, Washington is currently there, being one of only a few teams who can, arguably, fight off the revamped Cleveland Cavaliers. The only question for Washington is if they can advance their success from last season, with a roster, which is quite possibly, 10-12 men deep.
If there is anything that can derail this squad, it is whether or not the new iteration of the new squad will have the same chemistry success. During the playoffs, Washington looked like a well-oiled machine, coached by Randy Wittman. During their playoff run, they proved to all comers that they could competitive ball on both ends of the court. However, in order for that to continue, they must re-adjust with their new players. Moreover, they need to successfully develop the likes of Glen Rice Jr. and Otto Porter Jr. in order to get to that next level.
Washington is a team that should contend for the East. Whether or not they can live up to the success of last year remains a big question mark. After all, with the lack of competition in the East, anything but a trip to the NBA Finals should be looked as a failure for the upcoming season. As such, while the Washington Wizards could, realistically, lead the East, they could be the most unpredictable team in the NBA come next season. No one knows what the affect of Paul Pierce on the team will be, nor do they know if his decline will continue. More importantly, no one knows whether the success of Rice and Porter will continue into the NBA season or if their summer league success was just a fluke. Regardless of the questions floating about, it will be a very important season for Washington.
Commentary by Simon Mounsey