The Wizards' best days might be in front of them, if they can keep their core intact
After finding success with a young core, Wizards have a chance to compete in the East for years
The Washington Wizards' season ended Monday in a 115-105 loss to the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. It was a tough ending to what was overall a positive season for the Wizards, one that might be the start of something really great in the Eastern Conference if they can keep things together and make little improvements in key areas.
It's important to remember that the Wizards missed the playoffs last season and entered with questions about where this franchise was headed. Their two stars admitted they didn't get along off the court, and the whole team's chemistry was broken. Scott Brooks was brought in with all the questions that come with him, and there were skeptics about whether he was even a good coach after his three trips to the Western Conference finals with the Thunder. John Wall was coming off multiple knee surgeries. Otto Porter was a question mark in stretching the floor.
And all that came together. Wall was an absolute cyborg ninja this season. He was fast and efficient, took steps forward as a scorer and shooter and took his leadership to a new level. He kept the pedal on when this team could have drifted away. He had an uncompromising terrific season. There will be talk of his 0-for-10 performance to end Monday's game, and yeah, they needed him to make those shots. But don't compare him to James Harden. He went out swinging, and he had six assists in the fourth quarter of Game 7 alone. Wall is a dude you want on your side.
Bradley Beal played in a career-high 77 games, with career highs in almost every category. He finally shook off questions about his injury issues, at least for a season, and he and Wall developed real chemistry as Beal got away from so many of the bad habits he had under Randy Wittman.
Porter earned himself a payday. He led the league in 3-point percentage as a consistent shooter for much of the season and he remains a top-notch defensive player who adds something new to his game every day.
The Wizards had a terrific season, rebounding after a terrible start, and had a top-five record for most of the season. They made the second round, and lost a coin-flip game to a team where their starting center, after shooting 35 percent this season from 3-point range, shot 58 percent from deep. They have nothing to apologize for.
The bench. Ye gods, the bench. The Wizards were undone all year by a woeful bench unit that simply failed in every phase of the game. Defense, coherent offense, execution, rebounding, everything. It was a train wreck.
What makes it worse is that they had guys who you would think wouldn't be disasters. Brandon Jennings had the Achilles injury and was never great, but he was also not an outright four-alarm fire. Jason Smith has been a reliable vet forever. Kelly Oubre took big steps and then was benched by the end of the series. Bojan Bogdanovic can shoot and make some plays offensively. Ian Mahinmi had huge injury issues, so he's partially excluded. It was all bad.
The Wizards' starters played 144 minutes in the conference semis, almost twice the amount of the second most-played lineup in the second round (Cavaliers starters). They outscored Boston by 75 points in that time. Think about that. The most-played lineup didn't just beat, but crushed Boston, as the Celtics' two most-played lineups were a minus-21 in 96 minutes. The Wizards lost their series because of their bench. That's it. Well, and Al Horford shooting 58 percent from deep and Kelly Olynyk having the game of his life. But mostly the bench.
Defense was the other issue, and it's really tricky. The Wizards can defend well. It's a lie to say they are a bad defensive team. When they are locked in, they can be scary good, and the starters mentioned above had a sub-100 defensive rating in this series, which is stellar. They just don't hold it. The Wizards would have these crazy, random, complete losses of focus where they would just fall asleep on back cuts, not close out hard, not buckle down. You would normally chalk it up to inexperience, but the Wizards are experienced. They have to find a way to stay more locked in for longer. Maybe that means adding depth so they're not so tired. Maybe that means changes to the roster, including Marcin Gortat, who really struggled in the playoffs.
Maybe it means just tattooing "pay attention" on Markieff Morris' hand so he remembers.
But the Wizards were capable of a lot more defensively this season, and in the playoffs, than they showed. That's a criticism, and a positive overall.
Finally, the Wizards ran up against a huge deficit in terms of 3-point production. They have to keep adding shooters and adapting to take more. It's just where the league is now. They have to be able to keep pace.
There is disappointment, sure. The Wizards were capable of more. Maybe Boston -- with Isaiah Thomas, Olynyk, Horford shooting the lights out, Marcus Smart hitting triples -- was the better team. But it was close. Really close. And this was Year 1 of this new era, where Porter is a player worth building around alongside Wall and Beal. Porter is a restricted free agent with a $14 million cap hold. They'll have to re-sign him to a max, which is going to freak people out but they can't let him walk.
Beal is 23 and Wall will be only 27 next season. He's just scratching the surface of his prime. Porter is still a pup. Oubre continues to develop. They have to find answers at some other spots, as Gortat's slide continues, but Morris is probably good enough, on a good enough contract, to keep in his role (though an upgrade would be huge).
This is the first year of a new era, really, and everything went great. The Wizards really have something here. Losing to the No. 1 seed on the road in a Game 7? That's a sign of how good this team is, not an indication of failure. Fixing the bench will be hard with limited cap space, and they don't have a No. 1 pick.
But there's so much to be confident in. This team isn't going away. If they don't tune out Brooks, if they do anything, and I mean anything with the bench, if they get continued health from Wall and Beal, this team is going to be making long playoff runs for seasons to come. They found something great this season. Now they just have to hold onto it.
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