The Washington Wizards finally have a clean slate and an invigorated future

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The Washington Wizards have been one of the more confounding teams in the NBA over the last two decades. They’ve won 42.2 percent of their games since 2000, with nine playoff trips and four series wins. The team hasn’t progressed past the second round of the playoffs since 1979. While the Wizards have objectively been a mediocre franchise, that doesn’t fully encapsulate their history. Few teams have been as riddled with misfortune: The injuries to Gilbert Arenas and John Wall, cornerstones of the organization in their respective eras, effectively shattered the brightest moments and teams in DC.

The Washington Wizards finally have a clean slate and an invigorated future

It’s difficult to overstate the challenge Tommy Sheppard took on after former general manager Ernie Grunfeld was fired in April of 2019. Much of the past three years have been a balancing act of staying above water while trying to reshuffle the roster, reload the talent base, and maximize on the margins.

Bradley Beal signed a two-year extension after much speculation of his future. Scott Brooks was let go after five years at the helm. Enter Wes Unseld Jr., a first time head coach with a defensive reputation (the Wizards have had an average or above defense in only 4 seasons since 2000) and the son of a franchise icon. For the first time since he took over, it feels like Sheppard has a team he’s built, rather than trying to right the wrongs of Grunfeld’s tenure.

The Wizards finally have a clean slate — but where does that leave them in 2021? Most major sports books projected Washington as a sub-35 win team, and a poor year is certainly possible. I see reason for optimism in the roster that seems to be under the radar.

Hope for the season starts with Bradley Beal, a first time All-NBA player last year who is still squarely in his prime. Beal is an electric off-ball mover and scorer, No. 4 in scoring in the league since the 2017-18 season. He’s finished top 10 in free throw attempts the past two seasons and shot above league average true-shooting despite a monster 34.2 percent usage rate. Ideally, that usage won’t be as high this year (more on that later).

Beal was the first 30-point-per-game scorer who didn’t receive an All-Star bid back in 2019-20, largely because of an excruciatingly poor defensive season (bottom 4th percentile in Defensive EPM). As his usage erupted in 2019, his defense cratered. In some regards, the defense got too much notice. He’s still a below average defender on balance, but the effort was there more consistently last season, especially down the back end of the year. Beal’s incredibly strong for his size and has a sizable wingspan: He can hold up at the point of attack and at times make plays off the ball, but will struggle in screen navigation and get back cut more often than your high school coach would like.

That being said, his offense so clearly outweighs his defensive shortcomings. With a perhaps smaller usage rate this season or less on-ball responsibilities, Beal’s activity should be better on that end even if it’s not necessarily better defense.

As mentioned earlier, Beal is an incredible off-ball mover and scorer, a significant reason for his success alongside John Wall. Cutting down some of his on-ball reps that result in some of his pull-up twos or having him flow into them off of secondary actions could unlock aspects of his offense, tightening his efficiency.

How is that happening? Spencer Dinwiddie.

Spencer Dinwiddie is a better basketball fit for the Washington Wizards than Russell Westbrook was last season. Russ is probably a better player and talent overall, but Dinwiddie’s strengths could provide more fruitful results for the team offense. Westbrook’s rim frequency cratered last season (30 percent of his shots compared to 49 percent the year prior), and that was a trend that lasted the whole year, not just early on due to his hamstring injury.

Dinwiddie missed nearly the entirety of last season due to a knee injury, but has looked as spry as ever in both pre-season and the beginning of the regular season. In the 2019-20 year, he was one of the premier drivers in the NBA, averaging 19.4 drives per 75 possessions (93rd percentile among guards). Combined with slightly above-average finishing at the rim and an absurd free throw drawing ability, drawing fouls on 43.4 percent of his shots from 2018-20, Dinwiddie collapses defenses to the max.

As Jackson Frank noted in his excellent free agency preview of Dinwiddie, he excels as a pick and roll playmaker and live dribble creator. His gravity, vision and ability to generate paint touches seemingly at will is so enticing alongside Beal. The duo just makes sense and their play-styles lend credence to synergy and elite offensive production in the near future.

While he has shortcomings as an on-ball defender, Dinwiddie is a more consistent defender than Russell Westbrook, and is a solid off-ball chaser and helper. Having size and length while being in the right place more often than not allows Dinwiddie to mask most of his deficiencies as a defender and hover slightly below average.

Beal and Dinwiddie are the generators of the Wizards, raising the ceiling of what this team will be from game to game. However, what I find so intriguing about the team is the depth of the roster. There are just a lot of guys capable of playing NBA rotation minutes and more than a few of them are good!

The back court behind Beal and Dinwiddie lacks versatility, but has intrigue. Raul Neto is a feisty but undersized point of attack defender who can make open shots and run some actions or function off the ball. The team acquired Aaron Holiday as part of the Westbrook trade and this is a huge year for him. He fell out of favor in Indiana after struggling to build upon a strong bubble performance and regressed to a degree last year. On an expiring contract at 25, he’s teetering between an interesting young guy and fringe rotation player. There’s still something there with him as a shooter and playmaker, but consistently hitting his reads in pick and roll and cleaning up his decision-making as a shooter is a must for him this season.

The trio acquired from Los Angeles in the Westbrook trade immediately piqued my interest when I saw the notification from Shams Charania. My first thought was “Wow, the Lakers are really going to miss KCP,” and that says more about me than anything else, but point being, these are good players.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is an excellent defender, and probably the best rotation-caliber wing defender the team has rostered since the Otto Porter trade. He’s a solid cutter and a good shooter off the catch who can mix in some movement variety as well. Kyle Kuzma grew a lot as an all-around player the past two seasons, becoming a more impactful defender, refashioning himself as a role player and improving some of his decision-making. Both players have factored in as starters immediately.

Montrezl Harrell’s somehow a very underrated player in the league after a year with the Lakers. Yes, he really struggled in the playoffs for the majority of his time with both Los Angeles teams. But, he is a fantastic regular season player who decimates bench bigs and lineups. He has utility as a defender if put in the right positions where he can use his length to crowd ball-handlers and rely on backline rotations. Players who provide high level play as innings eaters during the regular season matter a great deal, and Harrell is among the best.

The Wizards cultivated the No. 26 defense across the first 43 games last season prior to the trade deadline. Then came Daniel Gafford.

In the remaining 29 games, Washington allowed 4.4 points per 100 possessions fewer and ranked No. 7 in defense over that span. Gafford’s shot-blocking stood out, but his ability to play closer to the level of the screen in pick and roll coverages while recovering was a boon for the team’s defense. He also brought a new dynamic to the offense as a lob threat and hyper-efficient roller.

He averaged under 20 minutes per game and didn’t start any games due to stamina issues, but he reportedly stayed in DC over the summer and worked on his conditioning. Gafford playing starter’s minutes would pay dividends to the team and the defense will benefit from his presence over a full season regardless. However, finding more ways to stay on court will be key as Thomas Bryant is still out rehabbing from his ACL injury with an unclear timeline for return.

The Wizards will start the year with a relative lack of center depth, but have a stranglehold on the market of fours in the NBA. Davis Bertans had a down year last season after signing a new contract in the off-season, but was still one of the premier shooters in the NBA, hitting at volume with both movement and difficulty. Is there another gear for him as a passer on top of his shooting gravity? Is there another ounce of defensive capability?

That frontcourt rotation is saturated with young talent, as the front office has prioritized size and length in the draft. Corey Kispert’s shooting, team defense, and connective playmaking seem primed to bolster the rotation. The 15th overall pick in the 2021 draft struggled at both Summer League and in pre-season, but that shouldn’t undermine his potential impact. Isaiah Todd, the second round pick behind Kispert, is unlikely to factor in this season, but is an intriguing long term prospect as a combo big playing the four and five.

Second year forward Deni Avdija had a quiet, but promising rookie year prior to a season-ending ankle injury. He had a very good defensive year for a first year pro, handling switches, impacting plays as the low man, and using his length around the rim and at the point of attack. While he excels using his wingspan to make things difficult for opponents, I really look for him to improve his physicality this year and dictate plays as the defender more often.

Much of Avdija’s offensive potential is rooted in how his shot develops (he shot 31.5 percent on three attempts per game last season. He has a good feel for the game, touch on floaters and interior shots, and solid ball skills for his size.

He ran some pick and roll last season and the degree to which he’s guarded as a shooter will open up more opportunities to run actions and utilize his vision on the ball rather than just as a connective facilitator.

There is perhaps no player outside Beal and Dinwiddie who could swing the Wizards’ season more than Rui Hachimura. Hachimura is a hard player to get a read on. He’s shown an ability and craft as a scorer in his first two seasons that’s impressive. His face-up game and touch in the paint are enamoring. But, the efficiency has been middling (54.2 percent true-shooting), dragged down by poor outside shooting, which has improved but is still well below league average. Can his shot improve and be taken with more volume?

If the Tokyo Olympics are any indicator, there’s hope. Hachimura shot 39 percent from deep on 5.6 attempts per game across five games. While the sample size is small, it’s nonetheless encouraging considering the confidence and willingness he showed.

The Olympics also showed some promise from Rui as a decision-maker, another key area for his development.

Considering the presence of Beal and Dinwiddie, utilizing Hachimura as a screener and roller makes a great deal of sense to couple his rim gravity with the threat of either guard getting downhill. In order to really take full advantage of those opportunities and to threaten a defense most, making simple reads on the short roll is a necessity.

He’s primarily been utilized as a popper with the Wizards, but adding versatility to his off-ball game would be huge for him and the offense as a whole.

Hachimura also loves to post-up, similarly to Aaron Gordon during his last few seasons with the magic. He’s had some of his brighter playmaking moments when he can scan the floor over his shoulder from the low or mid post and has shown some ability to hit cutters or the open man.

A Rui Hachimura post-up is probably option 13 for the Wizards offense, but using it as a decoy to get the most out of the speed and motion of Beal and Dinwiddie is an exciting wrinkle.

Where the majority of a year three growth could (read: hopefully) come is through decisiveness. Rui showed more of a propensity to flash to the paint last season than before, but can that be seven or eight times a game instead of once or twice?

Reading openings and attacking them with ferocity is a must on a team with established on-ball players.

That assertiveness being applied to the defensive end would be another significant step for Hachimura. His rookie year, Rui was one of the worst defenders in the league by both metrics and in watching. The strides he made last year were significant, as his positioning improved greatly. But, good rotations were often soured after lackluster contests. This possession was stuck in my head much of the off-season.

That’s a good rotation! He prevents Embiid from driving past Robin Lopez for the flush. But, it leaves you wanting more. Rui has the size, length, and strength to play physical defense. These kinds of plays were an improvement over his rookie year, but more assertiveness at the point of attack and confidence in his own athleticism will be the key for unlocking his defensive ability.

Rui already has some of the hardest parts of the game figured out. Developing his game to have a more protean well-rounded skill set would be another foundational building block for the Wizards.

On the surface, it’s just another season for the Washington Wizards, steadfast in their commitment to maintain the status quo. Pull back the veils, and this is a team with a breath of fresh air, finally freed of the past and looking forward. I have no idea who the Wizards are, and that’s what makes me so excited to witness their season unfold. There’s a sense of variability within their roster that comes along with youth. So yes, they could be a 32 win team and flame out before March. They could surprise and finish over .500, laying the first brick to reach higher accolades in coming years. The Wizards have options, they have flexibility, and they may just be better than anyone anticipates.

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