Randy Wittman has some evaluating to do in the second half of the season.
The Washington Wizards have shown they can be a decent team, but the reality is that they are likely heading for another lottery pick in the offseason. The front office has shown questionable drafting policies in the recent past, so the rest of the season could determine next year’s fortunes.
Hope is a killer in Washington, especially when discussing the Wizards. Every year brings renewed faith in the team’s ability to progress, usually buoyed by limited success at the end of the previous season. This is often dashed early on, and there is only a certain amount of times the fans will continue to tolerate such mediocrity.
Depending on how the rest of this year goes, there could either be hope or resignation in the nation’s capital by the time the lottery rolls back around.
Here are five key things to keep an eye on as the season progresses.
John Wall's return showed just what the Wizards had been lacking.
If anyone needed any further proof of how important John Wall is to the Wizards, they didn’t have to wait very long for it as the season started.
Without him, the team slumped to a franchise-worst 0-12 start that only continued in Wall’s absence. As reported by The Washington Post, the Wizards ranked last in scoring (89.2), field goal percentage (40.8) and three-point shooting percentage (32.3), as well as having the league’s worst point differential.
Since his return, however, the team has suddenly burst into life. Wall has inspired the team to a 5-2 record with him on the court and has looked every inch the franchise player Washington needs him to be.
Victories over the Oklahoma City Thunder and Denver Nuggets—as well as a 120-91 demolition of the Orlando Magic—have shown that the team has what it takes to compete for a playoff spot, but also that the depth behind Wall is atrocious.
Wall remains the nucleus of this Wizards team, and his injury only amplified that. They looked lost running their sets and struggled for any sort of rhythm.
However, with him they are dynamic and productive, which is an encouraging sign that the team is at least facing the right direction.
Bradley Beal is improving with every game, especially alongside Wall.
In the absence of Wall, Bradley Beal emerged as the lone bright spot in an otherwise awful campaign. He started poorly, but slowly got up to speed with the NBA, and his shooting percentage suddenly shot up.
His clutch two as the buzzer sounded against Oklahoma was a glorious moment, and he deserved every plaudit that came his way. Portland's Damian Lillard gets all the rookie press this year, but Beal’s development has been impressive, especially when taking into account he is only 19 years old.
Teaming up with Wall has also given him a better opportunity to succeed. With Wall on the team, Beal is shooting 54.7 percent from the field, along with 65.2 percent from beyond the arc. When speaking to The Washington Post, Beal gave a lot of credit to Wall, stating that “his IQ is so high. He knows where guys are all of the time. I’m grateful to have a point guard like John.”
The Wizards’ hope was that Beal and Wall could complement each other and form an elite back court for years to come.
The rapid progression of Beal—with and without his starting point guard—illustrates why the James Harden trade was always off the table, and why Beal should be closely monitored as the year progresses.
Aside from obvious picks, the Wizards front office has struggled with player evaluation.
To build a winning team, draft picks should be treasured, not squandered. Knowing the value of the draft is essential to success, and that’s something that GM Ernie Grunfeld hasn’t mastered. Jan Vesely wasn’t worth being drafted at No. 6, and the Tomas Satoransky pick smacked of being a ploy to preserve a roster spot while stashing a player in Europe for a while.
As Mike Prada at Wizards blog Bullets Forever pointed out, if the Wizards finish the year at .500, they’ll probably be left with a mid-lottery pick. However, Prada also states that if they finish with 30-plus wins, the fans will be fooled into thinking the team is much closer to contention than it actually is.
Grunfeld still needs to make shrewd decisions in the draft, as the team's performance without Wall—and A.J. Price, Trevor Booker, Trevor Ariza and Nene—was a strong reminder that the team needs more serviceable players at key positions.
The depth of this year’s draft could have a strong influence on next season, even though the various injury crises that have affected the team are unlikely to repeat themselves.
The Wizards don’t need big-money trades, but Grunfeld has to realize that the draft can give him the tools to be successful behind his starters—as well as potential stars for the future.
Trevor Booker has played hard all year.
As it stands, Jordan Crawford, Trevor Booker, Kevin Seraphin and John Wall are on deals that expire at the end of next season. This means that decisions on their future need to be thought about now.
All four of those players will not be Wizards in 2014, so it makes sense to assess their value as this season goes on. Whether to extend contracts, move in trades or let walk at the end of next season, it’s important to have some foresight in the NBA.
Crawford’s three as the buzzer sounded was enough to see the Wiz past the Trail Blazers, completing the sweep for this year and granting Portland its sixth straight loss. He was impressive in his limited time on the court, shooting 5-of-8 from the field and 3-of-4 from the three-point line.
Crawford is an effective contributor off the bench, as proven by the display against the Blazers. He still misses a lot of shots in larger stints on the court, but he’s proved he can contribute.
Booker, meanwhile, is one of those guys who leave everyone with no doubt that they're dedicated to every play. He played hard in the recent loss to the Clippers and, in the best possible way, has absolutely zero respect for whom he’s up against.
He’s never going to be an all-star, but he’s the sort of player fans love to have on the team. Aside from Wall and Beal, no one has given more than Booker this year.
Wall is obviously a keeper, so that leaves Seraphin. When up against former teammate JaVale McGee, Seraphin found the form he started to display just after Nene came to Washington, putting up 18 points as McGee struggled in limited time.
This season is far from over, so Crawford, Booker and Seraphin will look to take any opportunities they have. It’s going to be a battle worth watching.
Nene's injury history meant bringing him to D.C. was always going to be a risk.
Nene has been a stabilizing presence for the team, but also an unreliable one. Grunfeld knew all about the Brazilian’s injuries when bringing him to Washington, which is presumably why Emeka Okafor was brought in.
Okafor has been unspectacular, but also solid enough that Nene’s absence isn’t viewed as a horrendous waste of money, even though Okafor is actually the highest earner on the roster for 2012, via Spotrac.
Grunfeld was sneaky in this regard, as he brought in a player almost guaranteed to miss games and another guy who can provide adequate cover.
This enabled him to come out of the situation with more foresight than he is traditionally known for.
Still, it’s important to recognize that every minute Nene spends injured is still a waste of money. He is a wonderful player whose attitude toward the game should be emulated by all the young Wizards, but it’s his production that he was brought in for.
Nene dropped 24 points on the Blazers in the last game and looked impressive, so hopefully it starts a run of similar games for him. There’s no doubt that the decision to bring him to D.C. was the right one after so many years of low-character guys in the locker room, but the lack of minutes due to injury should be placed on Grunfeld, not Nene.
Grunfeld knew the score and took the risk anyway. It’s one worth taking, but also one worth monitoring as Nene continues his first full season as a Wizard.