Upstart Wizards Should Embrace Youth Movement After Surprising Playoff Run

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistMay 16, 2014

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"Ball movement, player movement." That's what head coach Randy Wittman said he wanted to see more of after three quarters of action Thursday night on ESPN.

Instead, his team's offense dissolved in the waning moments of Game 6, forfeiting a brief lead as the Indiana Pacers went on one last run down the stretch and prevailed by a final score of 93-80. 

The difference between the two teams' late-game execution was palpable. Indiana defended physically with the game on the line and continued to pick-and-pop the Wizards into submission. Washington quickly resorted to three-pointers that were out of rhythm.

They had no answer for David West and his 29 points, making just 39.2 percent of their field-goal attempts Thursday night and converting on 2-of-18 three-points attempts. No magic from Trevor Ariza to be found. John Wall and Bradley Beal combined to make only 12 of their 35 shots.

The Wizards had their chances throughout the series, and yes, to some degree they blew it.

The two teams exchanged runs in the third quarter and early into the fourth. For a minute there it looked like Washington was going to come from behind in this one. But every time the momentum shifted the Wizards' way, Indiana responded.

Indiana bounced back because it's a team that's been through these scenarios before. The Pacers know each other. They've gelled together. Despite a late-season identity crisis, they know what it takes to finish games and to finish series.

In due time, the Wizards will be able to say the same. Hopefully. They'll have that much more drive the next time they go through this, and they'll have that much more know-how. 

After Game 6, Wittman said (per Yahoo Sports), "I think we all felt we had an opportunity here to do more than we did, and that’s a good feeling for those guys. They’re hurting in there, and when you hurt, that means you care. I couldn’t be more proud of a group of guys than I am of these guys."

And Wittman is right. The Wizards were visibly distraught on Thursday night. They knew they let a golden opportunity slip through their fingers. They could have easily chalked this up to inexperience and waited for the next chance to come around, but there's something different about this group. It has high expectations for itself. It expects to overachieve.

That's a rare find, and it's something worth holding onto. 

When things like this happen, there will be those who clamor for a roster overhaul. Their logic is that something must be broken given the team's uneven performances. Others teams were more talented, they say. Other teams had better coaches, they say. Other teams' players meshed together better.

And so on.

It's a logic that makes a little bit of sense in video games or fantasy basketball, but it's ill-suited to real life.

The Wizards will find that continuity is their best friend. This team's best pieces are also its youngest pieces, and it will take them time to master the playoffs—just as it's taken the likes of Paul George and Lance Stephenson to do the same.

John Wall is absolutely a star in the making. His hit-or-miss conference semifinals could lead you to believe otherwise, but it's worth remembering he's just 23 years old. The emergent point guard averaged 19.3 points and 8.8 assists this season. The assist mark was tied for second-best league-wide.

Wall can still work on his decision-making. Some ill-advised three-pointers throughout the second round proved as much. But that's pretty much par for the course when dealing with young floor generals, many of whom aren't relied upon so heavily this early in their careers.

In any event, it goes without saying that Wall isn't going anywhere at the moment. 

The Wizards wouldn't have it any other way, and Wall's under contract with the organization until 2019. The two sides believe in one another, and they've given each other plenty of reason to do just that.

Before we started pointing fingers at Wall and his inexperience, recall that this guy averaged nearly 19 points per contest in the first round against the Chicago Bulls. His 24 points were instrumental to a decisive Game 5 victory.

So it's not that Wall can't handle the playoff pressure. He just has to learn to be a little bit better against top-shelf competition, especially when that competition is so dominant defensively.

There's nothing in Wall's body of experience that could have prepared him for that. It's something that has to be lived and encountered directly. Next time he'll be ready.

So will Bradley Beal.

The 20-year-old had his moments against the Pacers, erupting for 25 points, seven rebounds and seven assists in the series debut—a game Washington won.

A broader look at his sophomore campaign is equally impressive. Beal averaged 17.1 points per contest this season and emerged as the team's second most consistent scorer. At this rate, he could very well become one of the very best shooting guards in the league.

At the moment, he needs some confidence and a slightly better in-between game. Those aren't insurmountable objectives by any means.

Like Wall, Beal will be with the Wizards for some time. He has two more seasons on his rookie contract before becoming a restricted free agent—something that may never come to fruition should Washington lock him up in advance with an extension.

There are some lesser-known quantities that could also yield dividends for Washington.

With Al Harrington and Drew Gooden getting most of the reserve minutes in the paint during the second round, we saw less of 26-year-old Trevor Booker. He played over 24 minutes per game in the opening round versus Chicago, though, and could be in store for similar playing time throughout the Wizards' next playoff run.

Harrington and Gooden are both free agents this summer.

For that matter, so are Trevor Ariza and Marcin Gortat. Re-signing either or both would put a serious crimp in Washington's ability to bring in outside talent, and that's probably OK. There's not a position of particular need on this roster, and both Ariza and Gortat proved valuable throughout the postseason.

ESPN Insider's Amin Elhassan breaks down the decisions facing the organization and general manager Ernie Grunfeld (subscription required):

With as many as six rotation players facing free agency, the Wizards have to ride that fine line between improving the roster and ruining the chemistry they found. Ariza and Gortat are the two most important free agency priorities, but also probably the most expensive. Gortat's presence at center allowed Nene to move to his preferred power forward position, while Ariza was one of the best defensive wings with 3-point range in the league, and neither of those positions come with a discounted price tag. With the cap hits each of those players will hold, there is a strong likelihood that Washington will not be able to operate as an under-the-cap team, unless Ariza and Gortat sign elsewhere or Washington renounces them.

Keeping this squad together may make more sense than playing a game of musical chairs at the small forward and center spots.

In a perfect world, the small forward question won't become an especially pressing one. Otto Porter Jr. only played in 37 games this season after being selected with the third overall pick in the 2013 draft. The Georgetown product has worlds of potential, and you'd like to see him play a more prominent role next season—either by taking Ariza's spot or as a sixth man off the bench.

If there's a move to be made, it might be trading Martell Webster to create some playing time for Porter. At the moment, Webster is making over $5 million a year, so it's hard to justify benching him. 

But it's even harder to justify waiting any longer for Porter. 

Impatience can do funny things to franchises, especially when they find themselves on the verge of actually being pretty good. This isn't the time to get any ideas about trading Porter for a more experience difference-maker, or otherwise do anything rash. 

This is a time for the team to keep its core together and get to work. It's time to establish stability and consistency, for young players to mature and for veterans to aid in the process. We've only seen a hint of what this team can become.

And there's a lot to like about what we saw.


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