Last season was a banner one for basketball in the nation's capital. The Wizards made the NBA playoffs for the first time since Gilbert Arenas' career-altering knee injury and made the second round for the first time since the apex of the Arenas era.
General manager Ernie Grunfeld's decision to expedite the rebuilding process by surrounding John Wall with veteran players—derided by plenty at the time—actually paid off. Marcin Gortat and Nene formed one of the league's best frontcourts when the latter could be on the floor. Trevor Ariza became #ContractAriza once more. Andre Miller did Andre Miller things off the bench.
All the while, Wall and Bradley Beal were etching their names among rising backcourts. Wall flashed an innate ability to find open teammates—especially in the corners—and improved his still-shaky jumper. Beal was at the other end of some Wall passes and made some of his own, developing into an excellent secondary ball-handler.
Grunfeld responded to the success with perhaps his best summer as a general manager. He filled around the margins with Kris Humphries and DeJuan Blair and added Paul Pierce on a mid-level contract after declining a fat Trevor Ariza overpay. The only questionable move of the summer was signing Gortat to a $60 million deal that will take him through his age-35 season.
Gortat is a fine player worth the $12 million average at the moment, but that deal is going to get uglier as it goes along. Washington also has a bit of a gap on the wing, where it seems Grunfeld has decided to bank on the development of Glen Rice Jr. and Otto Porter. Things might get a little hairy if neither second-year player improves as hoped.
Given the dilapidated state of the Eastern Conference, the Wiz should at the very least be able to match their success of last season. With the regular-season slate released at NBA.com, then, let's quickly take a look at some of the best games and how it'll all play out.
Most Intriguing Matchups
When: November 21
LeBron James' return to Cleveland could wind up reigniting one of the Eastern Conference's best rivalries of the late-2000s. Nearly every face on the two sides has changed—literally every face for the Wizards—but this remains a rivalry that most in the nation's capital remember fondly.
Well, OK, kind of fondly. The Cavaliers won each of their three head-to-head playoff series. Death, taxes and the LeBron James express ruining the district's April were the only three sure things in life. Arenas, Deshawn Stevenson and that entire Wizards core thrived off the motivation of knocking LeBron off his throne. Wall, Beal and the others have much more of a respect and admiration.
That said, players make rivalries. The fans have their own way of provoking them and reigniting them. An opportunity to root against James in a meaningful context again isn't something the Wiz crowd can pass on. The only thing better than having the world's best player on your team is being able to say you took him out.
It's also hard to ignore the Kevin Durant factor here. The Wizards, like 29 other franchises, are likely preparing a strong push to sign the Oklahoma City forward in 2016. They already hold the trump card of a possible homecoming—Durant grew up in D.C.—and might want to start showing their support already.
Durant is the only player on the planet who can approach James' strata. The natural expectation is that Durant will ascend to the top of the NBA throne within the next couple seasons.
Why not start the wooing process by jeering his closest competition?
Oklahoma City Thunder at Washington Wizards
When: January 21
You know what's better than jeering Durant's closest competition? Actually cheering the man himself. Durant and the Thunder will make their yearly trip to the Verizon Center, at which point you can expect the full-court press to commence.
While the reasons are far more nuanced than we'll ever know, I was in the arena for James' last game in Cleveland as a member of the Heat. The crowd was as electric as I've ever seen—and I've been in the building screaming with 110,000 others at a Penn State whiteout. There were more people outside hawking bootleg merchandise than any event other than possibly the Super Bowl. People in downtown Cleveland who didn't even have a ticket waited outside Quicken Loans to implore LeBron to come home.
Those displays of affection mattered to LeBron. I'd be surprised if those in Washington didn't employ a similar strategy with Durant.
He's a hometown hero, the second-best player in the game and someone who'd probably be coming over at the perfect time. Beal will be 23. Wall will be 25, going on 26. Durant will be 27 going on 28 and perhaps becoming disenchanted at how the Thunder are being run. Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka will be tasked again with propping up a middling cast of role players, in large part because Oklahoma City refuses to pay the luxury tax.
Of course, a lot can happen in two years. The Thunder may win a title. The Wizards might not have enough salary-cap room to sign Durant, depending on the salary level in Beal's future extension and how much the cap rises. There are any number of little slights or major events that could prevent Durant from pulling a LeBron and coming home.
One of them being that Durant may be perfectly happy where he's at.
Nevertheless, fans won't stop holding out hope until Durant signs on the dotted line elsewhere. The oncoming full-court press begins this season.
Chicago Bulls at Washington Wizards
When: December 23
Given the choice between the Wizards' two playoff series last spring—both of which were excruciating in one way or another—most would prefer their five-game defeat of Chicago. The games were far from great, but they never reached the horrifying nadir that was Game 3 of Indiana-Washington.
What shined through instead was a competitive spirit. The young Wizards trying to make a name for themselves. The Bulls, the sad, "exhausted to the point they were sweating dust clouds" Bulls, were holding on for their final breath. No game was settled by double digits, and though Game 5 is a horrifying nightmare I hope to never relive, you walked away with a growing respect for each roster.
The intrigue of the budding rivalry should resume next season.
Derrick Rose, who like Wall was a John Calipari protege in college, will be back at full strength. We hope. The Bulls also went about adding pieces in Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic who will help Joakim Noah and Co. contend with Nene and Gortat. They'll be a much better team in 2014-15, one against whom the Wizards can truly measure themselves.
Finding regular-season success against Chicago is the best way to keep confidence heading into a possible playoff series. The Wiz and Bulls are talented enough that they should avoid a first-round matchup, but both teams are well aware they're a critical injury away from some major holes. Hopefully the improvements made by both sides this summer can at the very least result in more watchable games.
The Wizards remain basically where they were coming into last season. They're improved in some areas and the natural progression of Wall and Beal should help, but they're not a serious contender to win the East. Chicago, Miami and Cleveland have more talent on paper, and that's without factoring in the inevitable Kevin Love trade.
The Wizards maintain a tier with Toronto, Charlotte and Brooklyn. All three should be borderline locks for the playoffs but would need things to break just right to earn the right to be eliminated in the conference finals. We can quibble with who ranks where, and I'm sure some will complain about the post-Pierce Nets earning a scant mention.
For full disclosure: The Wizards are the most talented team in the bunch. They have two potential perennial All-Stars, two guys whose progress I liked in summer league (Rice and Porter) and a slew of heady veterans who help more than the box scores show. The Pierce vs. Ariza argument strictly as players is a fair one, but it's a near-unanimous decision in the former's favor in the last minutes of a close game.
At the moment, I have Washington penciled in as the No. 5 seed (fourth-best record). Figuring out wins is a difficult and extremely premature endeavor at this point, as I have not even scratched the surface of the statistical analysis I'll have in October. There are still a few major dominoes to fall this summer. Paul George's heartbreaking injury at the Team USA scrimmage is the best evidence yet that anything can still happen.
The Wizards are better than last season. They're also in a better top-to-bottom conference. It'll be interesting to see if they can keep the upward record trajectory going amid a tougher sledding in the East.
Record Prediction: 45-37 (NBA championship odds: 33-1, per Oddsshark)
Follow Tyler Conway (@tylerconway22) on Twitter.
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