John Wall and Bradley Beal are acutely aware of the talent vacuum that has sucked some of their fellow All-Stars from the Eastern Conference to the Western Conference the past two summers, most notably LeBron James from Cleveland to the Los Angeles Lakers in free agency this summer. They know that the Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers are the teams mentioned most often as heirs to the Cavaliers’ throne. But they also know it doesn’t mean the Wizards aren’t ready for prime time now. There are new pieces that have been added -- veterans Dwight Howard, Austin Rivers and Jeff Green as well as rookie Troy Brown -- to improve the depth on the roster significantly. It remains to be seen, however, if that infusion of talent will be enough to push the Wizards to the truly elite level Wall and Beal think they belong.
Marcin Gortat basically talked his way out of town when he questioned publicly whether the Wizards were better without Wall, who was out with an injury at the time. The Wizards were in the midst of one of their better stretches of the season. Wall didn’t appreciate the suggestion and Gortat didn’t back down. He was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers for Austin Rivers ... Dwight Howard was signed as the replacement for Gortat, who spent his first four seasons in the league as Howard’s backup in Orlando … Thomas Bryant was claimed off waivers July 2, giving the Wizards yet another big body to add to their frontcourt mix. Bryant spent his rookie season with the Lakers, who waived him to create cap room for their free agent pursuit of LeBron James … Jeff Green is coming home to D.C., joining the Wizards after spending last season in Cleveland. The former Georgetown star can play either forward position and brings a wealth of veteran savvy to the locker room.
1. A stronger bench in D.C. Green and Rivers, along with Kelly Oubre Jr., Ian Mahinmi and Tomas Satoransky, give Wizards coach Scott Brooks will have a more potent reserve crew to work with. The Wizards haven't boasted this kind of size and depth off the bench since their starting unit matured into the complete group they’ve become the past three seasons. Wizards owner Ted Leonsis proclaimed this the “deepest team we’ve ever had,” over the summer. The reserves will be able to hold their own on both ends of the floor, which will be a welcome relief for Wall and Beal in particular.
2. Otto Porter Jr. remains steady as ever. A question mark earlier in his career, Porter’s game has matured nicely, including his shooting stroke from deep (he shot 44 percent from 3-point range last season). With defenses focused on Wall and Beal on the perimeter and Howard inside, Porter could be the greatest beneficiary of the divided attention. He’s just coming into his own physically and he’s an underrated two-way player on a team with several players who can work at a high level on both ends of the floor.
3. The Wizards’ aim at the top of the Eastern Conference standings is admirable. If you’re going to plot a course for this season, it might as well be for everything. A more realistic target, though, is just to make sure they finish in the top four in a crowded race to the top. The Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers, in whatever order you prefer, rank as the East’s best going into this season. It’s that fourth spot that is truly up for grabs. The Indiana Pacers, Milwaukee Bucks, Miami Heat and Wizards are in that next group that should be primed to battle it out for that fourth seed. None of the other three teams in that second tier has two All-Stars to lean on the way the Wizards can with Wall and Beal.
MAN ON THE SPOT
How could it be anyone other than Howard? He’s a long way from his days as the most dominant big man in the league. In fact, he’s not even in that conversation anymore. But he’s still good for a double-double every night. Despite all the wear and tear on his body, Howard talked this summer of playing until he’s 40. The knock on his game has never really been about his physical abilities. Even when he was dealing with injuries Howard was still a force to be reckoned with around the rim. The real issue has always been about what’s going on mentally and emotionally with Howard. When he was fully engaged and focused in the first eight years of his career, Howard couldn’t be stopped. As he’s drifted from team to team since then, his inability to lock in and focus on doing what he does best has been a hit and miss proposition. The Wizards need his best, whatever that is at this stage of his career. More importantly, they need a mature Howard to emerge from the rubble of the past few seasons. And you better believe that Wall will let him know as much, basically whenever he deems it necessary to remind the big fella that this might be his last chance to prove he’s worth all the fuss.
John Wall | 19.4 ppg, 9.6 apg, 3.7 rpg
One of the five best point guards in the game when healthy, Wall is eager to prove he's at the top of the list.
Bradley Beal | 22.6 ppg, 4.5 apg, 4.4 rpg
Finally made the transition from good player to All-Star last season ... he’s just getting started.
Dwight Howard | 16.6 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 1.6 bpg
Howard always put up impressive numbers but the Wizards need that and more from their veteran big man.
Otto Porter Jr. | 14.7 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 2.0 apg
Any concerns about Porter living up to his big contract were eased with his strong performance last season.
Markieff Morris | 11.5 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 1.9 apg
Physical power forward provides the edge the Wizards need when no one else is willing to go there.
Austin Rivers | 15.1 ppg, 4.0 apg, 2.4 rpg
Fearless competitor gets a fresh start with a team that needs his instant offense off the bench.
Kelly Oubre Jr. | 11.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 1.1 apg
Gritty and athletic wing is ready for a breakout season as leader of a considerably revamped reserve unit.
Jeff Green | 10.8 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 1.3 apg
Veteran forward returns home to provide quality depth behind Porter Jr. and Morris.
THE BOTTOM LINE
No team is more desperate to make noise in the standings than these Wizards. They’ve been close before but haven’t had a true breakthrough season (50-plus wins or a trip to the conference finals) during the Wall-Beal era. The opportunity is there this season with the power shift in the conference. The Wizards need only stay focused and healthy (enough) to use all of the tools at the disposal of Brooks, who knows a thing or two about blending forceful personalities in the same locker room. Howard has to continue to be productive, not spectacular, to provide an upgrade at center. Wall and Beal will do the rest as the Wizards indeed make a little noise and finish 48-34.