The Washington Wizards are probably going to make the Eastern Conference playoffs.
That fact alone might not be enough for some NBA fans, but it is music to the ears of the long-suffering fans of the D.C. area who haven't seen postseason basketball since 2008.
Point guard John Wall is finally realizing the destiny proclaimed when the Wizards drafted him No. 1 overall in 2010 by making his first All-Star Game.
Washington's 100-90 win over the Portland Trail Blazers on Monday left the Wizards all alone in fifth place, four full games ahead of the Charlotte Bobcats and that last precious playoff spot. The East is so bad this year, it's difficult to see three teams jump ahead of Washington in the standings.
But Wall is not interested in simply making the postseason—he's looking ahead to bigger and better things for his Wizards.
According to The Washington Post's Michael Lee, Wall hasn't denied already talking to Oklahoma City Thunder superstar Kevin Durant about joining him and the Wizards in 2016: "Our main thing is focusing on team but you look at those things and see when opportunities can come to try to make your team better, and fit in."
Wall might as well start selling his fellow All-Stars on D.C., because the Wizards are approaching an impasse.
Though they will make the playoffs, the Wizards still aren't a very good team. Monday's win marked the first time since Oct. 31, 2009, that the Wizards had more wins than losses. Previously, the Wizards had been 0-10 in games that would have given them a winning record—a fact so bizarre that it led The Washington Post to wonder if Washington was suffering from a ".500 curse."
So Washington has finally broken the .500 curse...now what? A winning record is nice, and making the playoffs is nice, but Washington is about to come up against the problem faced by all up-and-coming teams: how to take the next step.
The next step hasn't come easily to this franchise. The Wizards have won but a single playoff series since 1982. What does this current team need to do to rise above the heights of the Gilbert Arenas teams of the mid-2000s and the Juwan Howard-Chris Webber team of 1996-97?
The Need for Internal Improvement
The Wizards have drafted four times in the top six since their last playoff berth—a tribute to their horrible record over that span. One of those picks—Wall—has becomes a bona fide All-Star.
Unfortunately, that will not be good enough. And the Wizards are about to learn what it's like to try to improve without a yearly influx of high-end draft talent. They traded their 2014 first-rounder to the Phoenix Suns for center Marcin Gortat—the pick is lottery protected, but now that the Wizards are finally out of the lottery, they're going to lose that pick. And if all goes to plan, they won't see anymore lottery picks in the near future.
That means the young players already on the roster will have to step up their games.
Wall has turned himself into one of the best young point guards, but he still isn't an elite player on par with the likes of Chris Paul. To do that, he will need to put in even more work on his shaky jumper.
Wall has certainly improved his shooting this season, posting a career-high 32.5 percent three-point percentage. But that still only ranks him 77th out of 92 qualified guards, per Basketball-Reference. Wall has shown he can be an All-Star without a reliable long-range game, but it will be difficult for him to elevate his game to "elite" status with such a glaring hole.
And even if he reaches that level, it should be noted that Paul himself has only won two playoff series in his eight-year career. Point guards are important in the NBA, but it is extremely difficult to win it all when your point guard is your team's best player.
That puts additional pressure on the last two Wizards draft picks—Bradley Beal and Otto Porter—to step up their games.
Beal is already one of the league's elite three-point shooters, upping his three-point percentage from 38.6 percent in his rookie season to 41.2 percent. But in other ways, Beal has regressed. He isn't driving to the basket as often, averaging one fewer free throw per 36 minutes. And he has struggled with injuries in both of his first two seasons. He will need to stay healthy and focus on being more than just a shooter for the Wizards to improve.
Porter has also struggled with poorly timed injuries. The rookie from Georgetown injured his hip in training camp, missing valuable practice time as well as the start of the season. He has struggled to work his way into the rotation since his debut, averaging 1.7 points per game on 29.6 percent shooting.
Porter's coach, Randy Wittman, has felt the need to defend selecting Porter with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2013 draft, per Lee: "There is no worry in my mind that he was the right guy for us. No question in my mind. I never second-guess that part of it. He's going to be a good player in this league."
But Porter showed signs of struggling as early as the 2013 NBA Summer League. Per Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver:
Meanwhile, Porter's early returns at the Las Vegas Summer League weren't the greatest. He averaged just 6.3 points and 3.7 rebounds while shooting 30 percent from the field, and his week was cut short with a minor hamstring injury. His inability to stand out in the summer-league setting was predictable, given the complementary nature of his offensive game, but his lack of a real impact on either end hinted that he could be in for a gradual acclimation to the Wizards' rotation.
Since Porter has been averaging only 9.4 minutes per game, perhaps the Wizards should send him down to the D-League for further seasoning. Wittman entertained the possibility as recently as Jan. 20, telling CSN Washington's J. Michael, "If it makes sense ... anything to help our players. We'll take a look at it."
Even if Porter develops, Washington will wind up with a gaping hole in the frontcourt moving forward.
In the end, the Wizards' much-maligned 2011 selection of certified-bust Jan Vesely could prove costly to the franchise long after he's gone. The Wizards didn't pick up Vesely's option for the 2014-15 season, so he is likely gone after this year. But that No. 6 pick was Washington's best chance to develop talent in the frontcourt to match their talent at guard.
The Wizards still have Nene up front, signed through 2016, but he is already 31 years old, and his best days are behind him. Gortat will be a free agent after the season, but he will turn 30 this month, and he won't necessarily come cheap.
Washington has a potential championship backcourt, if everything breaks right. But Wall is clever to entice a player like Durant, no matter what comes of it. The Wizards need to find another way to shore up the frontcourt, now that the draft is no longer a viable option.
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