Why Washington Wizards Are Biggest Threat to Eastern Conference Elites

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Why Washington Wizards Are Biggest Threat to Eastern Conference Elites
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

After enjoying 44 regular-season wins and their second playoff series win since 1982, the Washington Wizards no longer have a true sleeper status to mask their ascent or cushion a potential fall.

At least, they shouldn't have one. A subtle, savvy offseason netted them a number of useful parts, all of which will aid their attempt to transform from Eastern Conference pests to full-fledged contenders.

Yet it still feels as if the masses are selling this franchise short. Whatever pressure Washington has to perform isn't on the same plane as the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers, the (hopefully) healthy Chicago Bulls, the reigning conference finalist Indiana Pacers or even the retooling-not-rebuilding Miami Heat.

The Wizards are often tossed in the East's second-tier bin along with shadow conference contenders like the Toronto Raptors, Charlotte Hornets and Atlanta Hawks. While many see bright days in Washington's future, some wonder if the youthful roster is ready to make the next step.

There is no crystal ball to answer that question, but the stars seem to be aligning for a special season in the nation's capital.

 

Smart Signings

The Wizards didn't have a pick in what many saw as the deepest NBA draft in years, and they lost their top perimeter defender (Trevor Ariza) in free agency. This easily could have been a disastrous summer.

It wasn't. Far from it, in fact.

Washington's first offseason move was bringing back center Marcin Gortat on a five-year, $60 million deal. The 30-year-old joined the Wizards in a five-player trade with the Phoenix Suns only days before the start of the 2013-14 campaign and quickly established himself as one of the team's most important pieces.

The stat sheet says that might be underselling the Polish center's impact, via NBA.com.

A Tale of Two Teams: Wizards With and Without Gortat
Off Rtg Def Rtg Net Rtg
Gortat On 104.6 99.8 Plus-4.8
Gortat Off 100.6 107.5 Minus-6.9

NBA.com

That's obviously a massive swing in net production, but here is some context to process those numbers. That plus-4.8 net rating would have tied for the NBA's seventh-best. Conversely, a minus-6.9 mark would have checked in at 27th.

Keeping Gortat was huge, and the Wizards recognized that fact.

"Re-signing Marcin was a top priority for us this summer so that we could maintain continuity and improve on what we accomplished last season," general manager Ernie Grunfeld said in a statement. "His scoring ability, rebounding and defensive presence are matched only by his work ethic, leadership and personality."

That was just the first of several steps Grunfeld took to strengthen his ranks.

The Wizards made a run at Ariza and even offered him the same contract (four years, $32 million) that he signed with the Houston Rockets. Of course, Houston also gave him one thing Washington could not—no state income tax:

Rather than fret over the loss, the Wizards moved quickly on finding a replacement. For that, they turned to 16-year veteran Paul Pierce, who arrived with a more affordable two-year contract worth around $11 million (with a player option for the second season).

A 10-time All-Star and former NBA champion, he'll bring along a wealth of experience to share with this youthful, talented roster.

"Washington got better," Pierce's last coach, Jason Kidd, told reporters at the Las Vegas summer league. "They got a veteran guy who understands what it means to be a professional, comes to work every day and understands what it takes to win championships."

Pierce is more than a locker room asset, though.

The 36-year-old won't replace Ariza's defense or athleticism, but Pierce is a more proven three-point shooter (career 37.0 three-point percentage compared to Ariza's 34.7) and another potent offensive weapon the Wizards can employ late in games. Pierce shot 46.9 percent from the field and 55.2 percent from distance in clutch situations (final five minutes of a five-point game) last season, via NBA.com.

Pierce and Gortat are the headline deals. Of all the Wizards' offseason signings, these two will leave the largest dents in Washington's 2014-15 payroll, and they will be probably have the biggest say in this team's ability to reach its full potential.

However, a pair of under-the-radar pickups could prove incredibly valuable: Kris Humphries and DeJuan Blair.

Both will bring versatile, active games to a second team in desperate need of a lift. Last season, the Wizards had the second-lowest scoring reserve unit in the league (26.1 points per game), via NBA.com.

Humphries took a three-year, $13 million contract as part of a sign-and-trade with the Boston Celtics. Although best known for his off-court activity, inside the lines he's a relentless rebounder (career 11 boards per 36 minutes, via Basketball-Reference.com) and steady scorer with a soft touch from mid-range.

Humphries' 2013-14 shot chart, via NBA.com.

With price and potential production in mind, the Wizards did well with both the Pierce and Humphries acquisitions.

Blair is the smallest puzzle piece of the three, but his contract reflects that. He has yet to log more than 21.4 minutes a night, but his career averages show someone who maximizes his playing time: 7.5 points and 5.6 rebounds in 18.2 minutes.

"DeJuan gives us a tough inside presence who can score and rebound at both frontcourt positions," Grunfeld said in a statement. "His addition makes our bench even deeper and will allow us to be flexible with our lineups."

The Wizards limited their losses in free agency and enjoyed a few notable wins. That should position to this team to do major damage next season considering the amount of room this roster has left to grow.

 

Internal Improvements

This won't qualify as stepping out on a limb, but being accurate is far more important than being bold.

And an accurate assessment of this Wizards team sounds an awful lot like what you might have heard last summer. This team's success is still tied to a pair of vital components: Nene's health and the development of John Wall and Bradley Beal.

There is no way to project Nene's health. He's missed 77 games over the last three seasons, so some type of absence should be expected. As long as he can avoid a catastrophic injury, Washington's bulked-up frontcourt should help withstand a short-term loss.

As for the budding backcourt stars, it's hard to overstate their importance.

Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press

Wall led last season's squad in points (19.3) and assists (8.8). The 23-year-old shot a career-best 35.1 percent from deep while taking and making more threes than ever before (308 and 108, respectively).

A tremendous physical talent, he also showed the mental growth needed to harness his tremendous natural gifts.

"His vision has nearly caught up to his leg speed, which makes him a near impossible cover, especially when teammates are knocking down three-pointers," Bleacher Report's Michael Pina noted.

If Wall's 2013-14 campaign marked his arrival among the NBA's elitesonly he, Chris Paul and Stephen Curry averaged 19-plus points and eight-plus assistsBeal's season hinted his own ascension could be coming soon.

He was one of only 10 players to average at least 17 points and three assists while converting 130-plus threes, and he was by far the youngest player on that list.

He just turned 21 in June. As good as he is now, this might be only scratching the surface of his potential.

"He's a beast, man," reigning Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah told reporters. "He's one of the better players in our league and to be that young and do the things that he can do, it's very impressive."

There was more than confidence that led Wall to declare his backcourt as the NBA's best last season, via Comcast SportsNet's Ben Standig:

All the talk about these youngsters is justifiable, but there's another pair of wide-eyed perimeter players making major noise this summer.

Sophomores Otto Porter and Glen Rice Jr. have stolen the show at the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, each picking up first-team honors.

Rice, who made just 11 appearances for the Wizards last season, was recently named MVP for his scorching six-game stay that included per-game averages of 25 points and 7.8 rebounds along with a sizzling 46.9 field-goal percentage. Porter wasn't far behind, as the former No. 3 pick put up 19 points on 48.4 percent shooting and 5.8 rebounds.

For a team in desperate need of depth, these apparent breakthroughs could prove pivotal to Washington's championship hopes. The Wizards won't lean heavily on either one, but they'll gladly welcome whatever production these two can add.

Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

Washington started its ascent last season. Pierce, then a member of the Brooklyn Nets, marveled from afar at the direction this group was headed, via Michael Lee of The Washington Post:

They're coming into their own. They're growing up right before our eyes. You've seen their struggles over the years, and John Wall has matured as a player, obviously, becoming an All-Star this year and taking on more responsibilities and becoming a leader for this ball club. That's what the Washington Wizards have been waiting on, and you're seeing it.

And that was only the beginning.

The Wizards are putting more pieces in place to enjoy the success the likes of which they haven't seen in decades. The franchise hasn't advanced past the conference semis since 1979.

While the East got deeper over the offseason, it looks more balanced now, too. The top seat is up for grabs, and the Wizards have positioned themselves to make a serious run at it.

 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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