Don't forget about the Washington Wizards.
Peddlers of "The Eastern Conference is the Cleveland Cavaliers' and Chicago Bulls' to lose" already have. They're hawking two-team arguments that are narrow-minded and presumptuous, and plainly wrong.
More than two teams are going to legitimately contend for the Eastern Conference throne. The East isn't the powerhouse-packed West, but it's not an invite-only dinner for two, either.
Located slightly above the field, nestled somewhere between the terrific two (Cleveland and Chicago) and their underlings, are the Wizards. They have as much potential to vault themselves up the Eastern Conference's hierarchy ladder as any other team. They insure the East against what should be a six-to-eight wheeler regressing into a tandem bicycle.
So don't forget about them. Don't you dare. Not for a second. They're here, among the elite, intentions directed toward title contention, eyeballing the top, ensuring the East is, at worst, a tricycle of crown-seekers.
For as much as the Wizards are bigger than any one or two players, their fate is still firmly fixed to those of Bradley Beal and John Wall.
Which is a good thing.
Beal and Wall still have their collective warts to work out. The Wizards only outscored opponents by 2.3 points per 100 possessions with them on the floor together last year, according to NBA.com. But the Wizards were a plus-0.9 overall last season, meaning Wall and Beal's plus-2.3 more than doubles the team's usual potency.
The two are long past learning to play alongside one another. Beal complements Wall as someone who can play on or off the rock; Wall complements Beal as someone who relentlessly wages drive-and-kicks; the two complement one another by working together as one.
Wall assisted on nearly 25 percent of Beal's made buckets last season. Wall's field-goal percentage also climbed by more than three points with Beal on the floor; his three-point percentage skyrocketed beside Beal as well, going from 29.2 percent to a mouth-widening 39.3 percent.
Next to Wall, Beal's three-point conversion rate also improved, rising from 35.3 percent to 41.1 percent—no surprise considering Wall ranked first among all NBA players in corner and wing assists from beyond the arc, according to BSports.com.
Collectively, they just fit. They can both score and pass and run and defend. There aren't many backcourts that house equal talent. Very few, actually.
Individual evolution is the key for Washington's backcourt studs. Each of their games still has holes.
Continuing down the path of well-roundedness must be the focus for Wall. He earned his first All-Star selection in 2013-14 during what was considered a breakout year headlined by career-best efficiency from deep (35.1 percent).
But like Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes observes, Wall's offensive adaptation came at personal expense:
The dirty secret about Wall's so-called breakout campaign, though, is that it wasn't actually all that much better than his performance the prior year.
Wall's suddenly respectable three-point shot was a real thing, but it came at the cost of other efficient opportunities. He swapped out free throws for threes, and the result was an offensive season that was only marginally better than what Wall produced in 2012-13.
More troublingly, Wall swapped out rim attacks for three-pointers. After averaging 5.4 shots within five feet of the basket per game in 2012-13, he averaged 4.8 shots within that same range last season.
Point-blank opportunities are still Wall's bread and butter. He shot 63.1 percent within five feet of the iron last year, compared to 35.1 percent between five and 19 feet, and 35.7 percent between 20 and 29 feet.
Greater balance is a must if he's to legitimately take another step.
Shot selection, meanwhile, has been the bane of Beal's offensive existence.
More than 45 percent of his shot attempts (520) came outside the restricted area but inside the three-point line last season (aka long twos); he connected on just 37.1 percent of them.
Both players are still so young, though.
At 23, Wall joins Magic Johnson, Chris Paul, Isiah Tomas, Tim Hardaway, Kevin Johnson and Tiny Archibald as the only seven players in league history to average at least 17 points, eight assists and 1.5 steals per game through the first four years of their career.
And he's still developing.
Barely 21, Beal has already established himself as a lethal scorer who performed with such ferocity and effectiveness during his first postseason push, he joined a certain competitive maniac in a little history-hoarding:
Beal. For real. pic.twitter.com/CipWsnCjEp— Dan Favale (@danfavale) August 15, 2014
And he, too, is still developing.
Follies, foibles, flaws and all, Beal and Wall, together, make for an elite backcourt and coalesced cornerstone.
That their games are still developing and, in some ways, unpolished spells only good news for the Wizards' imminent and long-term future.
Depth Backed by Development
Of any problems the Wizards may have, frontcourt depth isn't one.
Although they're thinner in the backcourt—built to rely on Andre Miller and Glen Rice Jr. to relieve Wall and Beal—they don't need to be especially deep. Wall and Beal are going to log 35-plus minutes per night, sometimes 40-plus. Those behind them aren't of great significance.
The Wizards aren't promised such durability and stamina up front. Nene is prone to injuries, Marcin Gortat—proud owner of a way-too-long five-year, $60 million contract—is on the wrong side of 30 and the team lost Trevor Ariza to a more desperate Houston Rockets team.
What have the Wizards done to resolve such dilemmas?
Bury their issues beneath gobs and mounds and oodles of depth, of course.
They signed Paul Pierce—who our own Stephen Babb posits could be an upgrade over Ariza—and they acquired DeJuan Blair and Kris Humphries to shore up the middle. Oh, and they retained midseason standout Drew Gooden. And they still have that (sometimes-)sweet-shooting Martell Webster dude. And then there's that Otto Porter guy, the No. 3 overall pick from 2013.
Injuries limited Porter to only 37 appearances last year in what was a disappointing rookie campaign. To put the Wizards and their fans at ease, though, Porter decided to light up the summer league, averaging 19 points and 5.8 rebounds on 48.4 percent shooting (38.9 percent from deep). If healthy, he's yet another weapon for Washington's frontcourt.
All this depth has left the Wizards free to experiment.
They can run traditional two-big lineups. They can embrace the exceedingly popular one-in, four-out trend. They can navigate substantial time without Nene or Gortat. They have a second unit to be feared.
They have the ability to rank better than 19th in points scored in the paint, per TeamRankings.com. They have the means to space the floor even more than last year, when they ranked fourth in three-point percentage.
They have veterans.
They have youth.
Humphries: It's exciting (coming to WSH), you look at the success the Wizards had last year and how they play...an organization on the rise— Washington Wizards (@WashWizards) August 13, 2014
They have the makings of a complete and, therefore, incredibly dangerous team.
Watch Out, Here Come the Wiz Kids
The Cavaliers and Bulls—assuming Derrick Rose is healthy—figure to be spectacular next year.
But they are not alone. The Wizards are right there.
Right there. And Bullets Forever's Thomas Pruitt accurately describes them—with specific reference to the Cavs—as a team that can ascend even higher:
Anyone who faces the Cleveland Cavaliers this year is going to have their hands full. Washington is no different, but if Pierce can turn back the clock, Porter steps up and they get a little lucky, they could surprise people. Favorites? No, by no means, but a healthy Washington team may have as good a chance as anyone of dethroning the King.
Dismiss the Wizards as you like, but while their roster might not be as flashy or LeBron James-powered as others, they aren't at ceiling-crumbling disadvantages.
Cleveland and Chicago play in the same division. Both project to add at least two different players to its starting lineups—Kevin Love and James for Cleveland; Doug McDermott/Nikola Mirotic and Pau Gasol for Chicago—to Washington's one (Pierce). The heart of the Wizards' core has been together longer than Cleveland's and Chicago's when you consider that Rose has appeared in just 50 games—playoffs and regular season—for the Bulls since 2010-11.
Chemistry matters. Where the Cavaliers and Bulls will look to establish it, the Wizards have it.
Where will the Wizards rank in the East next season?
“The Finals. All you can ask for now is the Finals,” Wall said of the Wizards' potential just before August, per The Washington Post's Michael Lee. "We’ve been to the second round. We know what it takes to win."
They know what it takes to be memorable. They know they have something special in place.
Something capable of quickly growing into a threat so terrifying, not even the most criminal of Cleveland and Chicago cohorts can forget about them.