Wizards players Nene (left) and John Wall (right)
The Washington Wizards don't bespeak playoff success of late: they have been to the playoffs just five times in the last 25 seasons, and have won only two playoff series since their four NBA Finals appearances.
The Wizards have had young teams, but this is the year they come of age. As such, I am predicting they sneak into the playoffs as the No. 7 or No. 8 seed. Here are five reasons why.
Most stats courtesy of Basketball-reference.com, except where listed.
Bradley Beal was supposed to be one of the Wizards' primary options last season. He missed the final few weeks of NBA season with a leg injury but is widely expected to be ready by next season's tip-off. Beal just turned 20 and clearly has a lot left to offer the Wizards.
Beal's injury wasn't the only thing that hampered him: he shot just 41 percent from field goal range, three-and-a-half percent worse than he did with the Florida Gators. Buried in that stat is shooting a pedestrian 42.3 percent from two-point range. Those numbers can only get better, and when they do, the Wizards will also get better.
Even if the Wizards let Jason Collins walk, they’ll still have three solid bigs. Those bigs are one of the main reasons that they were in the top ten in rebounding in 2013.
At the offensive end of things, they have Nene. Nene has career per-48 minutes numbers of 20.4 points and 11.4 rebounds. Nene actually had his worst shooting performance of his career in 2013, but if he can return to his career levels of 55 percent (third-best among active players), the Wizards will be greatly improved on offense.
Nene is completed at the defensive end by Emeka Okafor (pictured), who is coming off his sixth season of three-plus defensive win shares. Okafor posted per-48 minutes numbers of 16.1 rebounds and 1.9 blocks last season, a career-low 3.3 fouls per 48 minutes, and is still only going to be 31 this season.
And don’t forget Kevin Seraphin. Seraphin also posted per-48 minutes numbers north of 20 points and 9 rebounds. This followed up a 2012 Olympics where he recorded per-48 numbers of 19.2 points, 8 rebounds and 3.2 blocks on 54.8 percent shooting. He turns 24 during this season, meaning his best years are still probably ahead of him, especially if he can get his personal foul numbers under control.
If the Wizards’ bigs play up to their potential, Washington will again be a contender, since few other teams boast their depth at big.
Otto Porter Jr.
This game has always been about buckets, and one of the Wizards’ main problems last season was a lack of them. The Wizards were third-to-last in points per game in 2013, with a 93.2 mark only a hair better than Orlando and Philadelphia.
Good thing they picked up a pair of players who can put the ball in the basket and serve as targets for John Wall.
Hometown cornerman Otto Porter Jr., the reigning Big East Player of the Year, is clearly a multi-tool player who offers numerous options for the Wizards. They could rely on his 59 percent true-shooting percentage, including a Big East-leading 48 percent from the field and 42 percent from downtown, and make him a perimeter threat. Or they could take advantage of his defensive prowess (Sports-reference.com has him as one of the highest-rated defenders in recent history) to bolster their already-strong defensive front.
The Wizards also made the right move in trading up for Glen Rice, Jr. In his one season in the D-League, Rice boasted a player efficiency rating of 21.2 (per Basketball-reference.com) while shooting better than 38 percent from downtown. His per-48 minutes numbers amounted to 26.4 points and 12.7 rebounds per game.
Either Porter or Rice could provide the additional double-digit-scoring threat that the Wizards need to be a contender.
The Boston Celtics (white) and Atlanta Hawks (blue) are two teams that will be on the wane in 2014.
The top eight teams in the Eastern Conference will make the playoffs. Five of them will almost certainly be the top five teams from last year: the Miami Heat, New York Knicks, Indiana Pacers, Brooklyn Nets and Chicago Bulls.
The remaining three slots are up in the air, and could very well be different from last year. The Boston Celtics are poised to dump KG and Pierce. After jettisoning Doc Rivers, they are in full-on rebuilding mode.
The remaining two spots in the East have lingering free agent issues: the Hawks with Josh Smith and the Bucks with Monta Ellis. If those teams lose those players without picking up any new ones, they will be out of contention. And considering that Milwaukee only made the playoffs by a few games last year and are breaking in a new coach this year, they could very well miss the playoffs even with Ellis.
And one of the non-playoff teams with a better record than the Wizards is also headed south in a hurry. That would be the Philadelphia 76ers, who just dealt Jrue Holiday to the Pelicans, and are almost certainly going to let Andrew Bynum walk without playing a single minute for them. Even with Nerlens Noel, it appears to be a protracted and painful rebuilding process ahead in the City of Brotherly Love.
I predict that the Celtics, Hawks, Bucks and Sixers will all have 35 wins or fewer next season. Boston's and Philly’s win totals will probably be in the high 20s. And some of those extra losses are going to come at the hands of teams like the Wizards.
The Wizards were 5-28 without Wall, but 24-25 with him. On the season, the Wizards had a plus-44 point differential with Wall on the floor, but a minus-252 differential with him sitting.
If you extrapolated the Wizard’s record for John Wall playing an 82-game season, you’d get 40-42. Or, looking at it from a plus/minus standpoint, operating on the assumption that John Wall plays 2,700 minutes next season (75 games of 36 minutes each), the Wizards’ expected win-loss based on their point differential would be 39-43. For reference, the Milwaukee Bucks finished at 38-44 last season and were seeded No. 8 in the playoffs, so either extrapolation would have gotten Washington into the postseason.
And that’s assuming Wall performs exactly as he did this season. As he’s only 23 and only in his fourth season, I think it’s a safe bet that Wall will make improvements to his game this season.
The area where I think Wall will make his greatest improvements will be efficiency. I think this will be the first season where Wall has fewer than three turnovers per contest, and the first where he shoots better than 45 percent from the floor. If Wall manages to do those things while playing in most of the Wizards’ games, you could raise that expected win percentage to over 50 percent.
Bottom line: this is the season that the Wizards return to the playoffs.