Washington Wizards Gearing Up for Run at Eastern Conference Supremacy

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 20, 2014

What's keeping the Washington Wizards from rising near the very top of the Eastern Conference standings in 2014-15?

The Cleveland Cavaliers are expected to be quite competitive after receiving a commitment and signed contract from LeBron James, but they're still a youthful and inexperienced bunch without much hope on the defensive end. The Indiana Pacers, who were already reeling at the end of the year, are in for a big decline after replacing Lance Stephenson with Rodney Stuckey, and the Miami Heat no longer have a certain player with a royal nickname.

Sure, the Chicago Bulls look dominant on paper, but there's no telling how Derrick Rose will play, or how the heavy minutes from the last few seasons will affect everyone else. The Toronto Raptors, Charlotte Hornets and—to a lesser extent—the Atlanta Hawks could all thrive, but none are safe bets.

So again, what's keeping the Wizards from rising to the top?

Certainly nothing they've done this offseason.  


Keeping Most of the Core Together

The Wizards managed to put together quite the solid season in 2013-14. Not only did they win 44 games to earn the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference, but they managed to eliminate the Bulls in the first round of the postseason before putting up a fight against the Pacers, who were admittedly struggling at the time. 

Were they lucky? Not particularly. 

Basketball-Reference.com has Washington's Pythagorean wins—calculated based on the margin of victory and strength of schedule—at 45, meaning the Wizards actually underachieved by a small margin during the last go-round. 

That, along with the youth of the roster, is a fantastic sign. 

John Wall is only 23 years old and coming off his first All-Star appearance. He averaged 19.3 points, 4.1 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game, and those numbers are likely to be lower than the ones he'll put up while playing alongside even more talent in 2014-15. 

Joining him in the backcourt is Bradley Beal, a 21-year-old shooting guard who's set to enter his third professional season. The Florida product has looked an awful lot like a player due for a max extension when he's eligible, especially when he carried the Washington offense during the postseason, averaging 19.2 points per outing. 

The development of that dynamic duo—arguably the most promising backcourt combo in the NBA—is reason for plenty of optimism, but so is the premium Washington placed on retaining Marcin Gortat. Giving The Polish Hammer a five-year deal worth $60 million was a huge investment for a center who is already on the wrong side of 30, but he was that important to the team. 

As shown by Basketball-Reference.com, the Wizards scored an additional 3.9 points per 100 possessions when he was on the court. Defensively, they held opponents to 7.5 fewer points over the same span. 

That means Washington was five points per 100 possessions better than the opposition with Gortat on the floor. With him on the bench, they were outscored by 6.4. 

Keeping the center was a huge priority, and he spoke about the team's goals on ESPN 980 after he was signed, per Dan Steinberg of The Washington Post

We're hoping to win the division now. Obviously we can't forget about Charlotte, who's a really good team too, [or] Atlanta, who's a really good team. We've got to continue to just get better. The biggest goal for us is to get all the way to conference finals and hopefully NBA finals. We're just trying to do better than we did last year, pretty much.

That quote came before Chris Bosh decided to return to the Heat, so you can rest assured that the big man would have mentioned the defending champions of the division. Nonetheless, he deserves to have confidence. 

After all, the core was largely kept together and should see plenty of internal improvement. Of the 11 players who spent more than 10 minutes per game on the court in 2013-14 and finished the season on the roster, only Trevor Ariza, Trevor Booker and Al Harrington have departed this offseason. 

They're replaced by Paul Pierce, Kris Humphries and DeJuan Blair, who should help serve as overall upgrades, even if—at this stage of their respective careers, at least—Ariza is the best in-a-vacuum player of the six just mentioned. 


Big Additions 

Losing Ariza's three-point shooting, defensive excellence and locker-room guidance certainly hurts, but let's not overlook what Pierce can bring to the table, even though he's going to be 37 years old at the start of his first season in the nation's capital. 

He's a downgrade from Ariza in some areas, but he came at a cheaper price, one that allowed Washington to make other moves.

Here's the direct comparison of their most applicable skills: 

Ariza vs. Pierce
Player3PA3P%DRtgTeam DRtg ImpactSF PER Against
Trevor Ariza5.740.71043.4 points better15.6
Paul Pierce4.037.31066.8 points better12.5
Basketball-Reference.com and 82games.com

There's no doubt that Ariza put up better shooting numbers last season, but it's also important to consider how those statistics were generated. He spent much of his time spotting up, especially in the corners, and he was utterly dependent on his teammates providing him with proper feeds.

According to NBA.com's statistical databases, 96.1 percent of Ariza's triples were assisted, and 58.9 percent of his makes from inside the arc came directly after a pass from a teammate. 

Pierce, on the other hand, needed assists on 94.6 percent and 47.4 percent of those respective types of makes. He may not be nearly as good at spotting up and finding the bottom of the net, but he provides a new element for the Washington attack. Add in his underrated wing defense, and he could be a better fit for the Wiz than Ariza ever was. 

The difference between Pierce and Ariza isn't that large, but the disparity is rather clear when comparing the other two replacements to the men they're replacing. 

While Booker was just an average player, Blair excelled as an efficient scorer and rebounder for the Dallas Mavericks. While Harrington didn't contribute much to the positive side of the ledger, Humphries flew beneath the radar for the Boston Celtics and consistently posted big per-minute numbers. 

Once more, let's compare: 

Booker and Harrington vs. Blair and Humphries
Trevor Booker11.48.856.315.0
DeJuan Blair14.710.955.717.3
Al Harrington15.95.650.69.7
Kris Humphries15.110.755.218.2

It's easy to see that the Wizards upgraded at both forward spots for the second unit, and that's significant because the bench largely struggled in 2013-14. 

According to HoopsStats.com, Washington's bench played only 15.0 minutes per game, a mark that beat only the Los Angeles Clippers, Pacers, Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers. In addition to not playing much, it wasn't particularly efficient, earning ranks of No. 28 and No. 26 in offensive and defensive efficiency, respectively. 

Any upgrades are a big deal, as they'll help keep the starters fresh and preserve the leads earned by the men who start games out at center court. Plus, the Wizards seem to be able to count on improvements from a few incumbents on the pine. 


Summer League Standouts

Sometimes it just takes awhile to develop. 

Such is the case for both of Washington's top draft picks from 2013—Otto Porter and Glen Rice Jr. 

The former was held back by a preseason injury during his rookie campaign, but he's healthy now. He's shown it throughout summer league action, averaging 17.8 points and 6.3 rebounds per game while shooting a scorching 52.7 percent from the field. He looks smoother and increasingly confident, finally starting to justify his lofty draft slot just one year prior. 

Amazingly enough though, he hasn't been the best sophomore on Washington's summer league roster. 

That honor belongs to Glen Rice Jr., the Rio Grande Valley Viper who was drafted out of the D-League at No. 35 last year. One year after suiting up in only 11 games during the regular season, Rice has been phenomenal. 

After Rice posted a 20-spot against the Minnesota TimberwolvesThe Washington Post's Michael Lee explained how he's scoring in a multitude of methods: 

Rice found his shooting stroke early against Minnesota — which was coached by former Wizards assistant Ryan Saunders — scoring his first 16 points on just six shots. He displayed his entire offensive arsenal, pulling up for quick three-pointers in transition and using his strength to barrel his way inside for bruising layups and tough hanging floaters.

That showing against the 'Wolves was by no means Rice's only standout performance. Through his first four games, he's Sin City's leading scorer, averaging 22.5 points per contest on 50 percent shooting while also contributing 6.8 rebounds and 2.3 assists. 

Obviously, summer league showings have to be taken with pinches and dashes of salt, not just grains. The competition isn't as difficult, the plays aren't as organized, and experienced players can often dominate. That said, the Wizards should be strongly encouraged by the play of Rice and Porter thus far, as it offers hope that they'll be key rotation members in 2014-15. 

Again, any help of the bench is highly beneficial for the Wiz. And these two should provide a great deal of it, joining forces with Humphries, Blair, Drew Gooden, Martell Webster and Andre Miller to provide a pretty solid second unit. 

Just check one more box off the list of elements that could negatively affect Washington as it attempts to build upon last season's success. 

With the expected growth of the star backcourt players, the notable additions and internal improvements, as well as the front office's clear commitment to winning now, everything is looking up for the Wizards. By the end of the 2014-15 season, everyone in the East may well be looking up at them in the standings. 


What are your expectations for these Wizards? Let me know on Twitter and Facebook. 


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