Posted Sep 5, 2012 1:11 PM - Updated Sep 7, 2012 9:43 AM
This is the 13th in a series of articles on the teams that did not make the playoffs last season, previewing their prospects of making it to the postseason in 2012-13. Coming Thursday: the Charlotte Bobcats.
After four consecutive lottery seasons, the Washington Wizards are finally ready to free themselves from the Eastern Conference basement.
It sounds good. It even looks good in print.
But is it realistic?
Based on the radical change in the fabric of this team since the start of last season, when Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld began taking apart his locker room and purging it of what appeared to be talented-but-perhaps-not-mature-enough prospects for more seasoned and steady replacements, now is the time for this franchise to make a move up the food chain.
The Wizards were admittedly bad by design last season, finishing with the second-worst record in the league (better only than Charlotte). Now, team management is attempting to reverse that trajectory with a new cast of characters surrounding former No. 1 overall pick and franchise pillar John Wall.
The days of Wall working with the likes of Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee and Nick Young -- all talented but unpolished pros during their time with the Wizards -- are over. That crew, filled with youngsters and journeymen in the aftermath of the Gilbert Arenas debacle, never did turn the corner.
With spots in the conference playoff pecking order up for grabs in recent years, the Wizards stood on the sidelines as teams like the Pacers, Sixers, Bucks and Knicks have all gone from the lottery to the playoffs (and back to the lottery the last two seasons for the Bucks). All but the Knicks did it with largely homegrown talent, with a few key free agent or trade assets sprinkled into the mix. Meanwhile, every move the Wizards made seemed to bury them further and further in the standings.
Check out all of the new faces ... prized rookie Bradley Beal as well as veterans Emeka Okafor, Trevor Ariza, A.J. Price and Martell Webster. A wingman for Wall in Beal, plus seasoned veterans with championship-level experience (Ariza) -- all of whom are under the age of 30 -- give the Wizards hope that their future might actually be now.
An intriguing mix of youngsters -- Wall, Beal, Jordan Crawford, Kevin Seraphin, Trevor Booker, Shelvin Mack, Jan Vesely and Chris Singleton -- add to what has become the nucleus of Grunfeld's franchise rehabilitation project. They've covered every area and finally have a fortified roster that boasts two-deep talent at every position.
The upgrades will be obvious to anyone who watches the Wizards. Making all these pieces fit together is Randy Wittman's job.
So much of what happens to the Wizards hinges on Wall. His readiness to lead this franchise, and assume the role and of the responsibilities that come with being an All-Star-caliber player, are crucial. And we're assuming that folks in Washington still view Wall as such. It's fair to say there are some questions.
Nene and Okafor will have to help pick up some of the leadership slack, duties they might have avoided in previous stops for a variety of reasons.
Wall and Beal also have to find a rhythm as a duo and accelerate the process if they are going to challenge some of the standout backcourt pairs in the East.
For the Wizards to rise someone has to fall. And that someone just so happens to be their Southeast Division rivals in Orlando, who are expected to tumble out of the playoff picture now that Dwight Howard is playing with the Los Angeles Lakers.
But there will be other challengers trying to take the Magic's spot. The Nets made the splashy moves this summer that usually vault a team into the playoff mix while Detroit, Milwaukee, Toronto and Cleveland all want in on the playoff party as well.
A 10-win improvement from last season (to 30 wins) still won't get the Wizards into the playoff mix in the East. But it would put them on the road to getting there in another year or two, provided this current experiment ends well.
No one will know for sure what this team is capable of until we see how all of the new pieces fit together.
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Kyle Lowry hits Jonas Valanciunas in transition with a lob for the alley-oop finish.
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