Why Washington Wizards Could Be in Line for Meteoric NBA Rise

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistAugust 8, 2014

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Last season's first-round victory over the Chicago Bulls marked the first time since 2005 the Washington Wizards won a playoff series.

It won't take the franchise that long to win another one.

Despite a six-game defeat at the hands of the uneven Indiana Pacers, there's little doubt that the 2013-14 campaign was a resounding success for Washington. Head coach Randy Wittman made his postseason debut and was summarily rewarded with a contract extension ensuring he'll oversee this roster's continued development.

That brings us to the strides said roster has already made.

Franchise face and point guard John Wall demonstrated heretofore unseen levels of maturity and growth. His 19.3 points and 8.8 assists per game both ranked as career highs, as did his 35.1 percent success rate from beyond the three-point arc.

Wall eventually showed that he still has plenty to learn upon being stymied by Indiana's stifling defense. He shot a combined 6-of-27 from the field in the first two games of that series and finished with a 5-of-17 performance in Game 6.

All told, Wall averaged just 14.2 points on 36.8 percent shooting during the conference semifinals. 

It was a reminder that the 23-year-old's best days are still ahead of him. For all the excitement surrounding one of the league's most intriguing young clubs, there is still work to be done—and plenty of time in which to do it.

While Wall turned heads last season, it was Bradley Beal's emergent sophomore campaign that ensured Washington a playoff-worthy one-two punch.

The 21-year-old averaged 17.1 points per game during the regular season and cashed in on 40.2 percent of his three-point attempts.

Having drawn early comparisons to the iconic Ray Allen, Beal's upside is nothing new. The big revelation is that he's put his skills together so quickly, giving Wall a much-needed sidekick who can fill it up from distance.

Even more impressively, Beal rose to the postseason occasion, raising his scoring average in each of Washington's two series—to 19.8 and 18.7 points per game, respectively. At times, Beal appeared to be the most poised of all the Wizards.

"The way I think about it, I’m 20 years old, playing in the playoffs, something I always dreamed about, so why not embrace it? Why not accept that challenge?" Beal said after a Game 1 victory against Indiana, according to The Washington Post's Michael Lee. "I’m just having fun on a great team. Whenever we play together and play the right way, it motivates me to be the best player I can be."

After that Game 1—in which Beal tallied 25 points—opponent Paul George sang high praise, per The Washington Post's Mike Wise: "Bradley Beal’s a superstar in this league. He’s on the rise."

On the performance, Wise added, "I can say with conviction that Beal had Kobe’s supreme confidence Monday night. In yet another stirring performance that makes you forget he’s 20-freakin’ years old, Beal's stroke may have even been purer than Mamba’s at 21."

Wittman deserves much of the credit for bringing his young stars along.

Wizards owner Ted Leonsis explained to Washington's local NBC affiliate (via ESPN.com): "Randy did a very fine job...The players respected the coach, and they played hard for him. I think he deserves the opportunity to come back and lead us even deeper in the playoffs."

The Washington Post's Michael Lee similarly argued, "The dramatic turnaround for the franchise—in both culture and on-court success—was a credit to Wittman’s dedication through tough times and his constant demands for more."

Now Wittman enters uncharted territory—the expectations associated with a suddenly successful organization.

After overseeing rebuilding efforts with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Minnesota Timberwolves, this is the first time Wittman will be tasked with a truly ambitious set of objectives. In addition to Washington's breakout 2013-14 campaign, the Eastern Conference now appears relatively up for grabs.

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 09:  Head coach Randy Wittman of the Washington Wizards looks on during the first half against the Indiana Pacers during Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Verizon Center on May 9, 2014 in Wash
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Kevin Love's inevitable move to LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers will alter the East's balance of power, but the Cavs will likely face some early growing pains. The Chicago Bulls reason to contend with the return of a healthy Derrick Rose, but it's hard to envision them dominating like yesterday's Miami Heat.

Miami could hang around the title conversation, but it will hardly instill fear in the hearts of the opposition.

Other up-and-coming teams like the Toronto Raptors and Charlotte Hornets will vie with Washington in a bid to establish themselves as the next big thing. Here too, however, the Wizards find themselves in favorable position.

In short, the obstacles lying before Wittman and Co. hardly seem insurmountable. An appearance in the conference finals may still be something of a long shot, but Washington's future is growing brighter.

The veteran presence of recently acquired Paul Pierce immediately gives the club the kind of championship pedigree it's been missing. Even if Pierce struggles to produce on a consistent basis, his leadership should elicit further growth from Wall and Beal.

BROOKLYN, NY - MAY 12: Paul Pierce #34 of the Brooklyn Nets celebrates in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Miami Heat during the 2014 NBA Playoffs on May 12, 2014 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. NOTE TO USER: User expressly ackno
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The Wizards will still boast one of the league's better front lines thanks to Nene Hilario and the return of center Marcin Gortat (who was briefly a free agent this summer). Washington even managed to solidify its up-front depth with the signing of 10-year veteran Kris Humphries.

Though Trevor Ariza's defense will be missed on the wing, Washington still appears to have taken another step forward. If nothing else, the continued evolution of its young backcourt should yield tangible dividends come playoff time.

Then there's the increasingly plausible possibility the Wizards will take a quantum leap forward in 2016 in the event 2014 MVP Kevin Durant embraces a return home. It still remains a distant and speculative eventuality, but imaginations stirred when KD expressed his admiration for James' Cleveland reunion.

"I thought it was well thought out, it was classy," Durant told reporters. "It's fun to see a guy think about more than just basketball for once, and himself … He thought about the city where he comes from, northeast Ohio and how he could affect so many kids bigger than basketball. I love that."

Durant has been effusive in his praise of Oklahoma City, but he hasn't made any promises regarding his free agency in 2016.

Washington's recent hiring of David Adkins to assist with player development registers as a minor but unmistakable overture. Adkins is reportedly close with Durant.

With or without the game's most lethal scorer, Washington is going places. The 2014 playoffs revealed what this team can do, and they reminded us these Wizards are just getting started.