Washington Wizards seek elusive 50 wins in 2017-18

— October 18th 2017

Can the Wall-led squad register 50 wins and emerge out of the shadows to win the East?

By Dylan Hughes

The Washington Wizards started their 2016-17 campaign with a 2-8 record. After that, they went 47-25. They only finished four games back of the first-seeded Boston Celtics, whom they lost to in the Eastern Conference semifinals in seven games.

There’s no doubt the Wizards are coming back with a sour taste in their mouth, because when don’t they? Ever since drafting John Wall in 2010, Washington has carried a massive chip on its shoulder. They are always being overlooked and always being disrespected.

In the past, shorting the Wizards has been justified. They have had potential for years, but questions lingered and answers were few and far between. Last season, with the growth of John Wall, the healthiness of Bradley Beal and the development of Otto Porter Jr., the Wizards have finally cemented themselves in the conversation of Eastern Conference contenders.

What the Wizards really needed to be taken seriously around the league was to make the conference finals. They had a chance. They were more talented than Boston, but the Celtics were a team built to overachieve—to be better than the sum of their parts.

They didn’t earn that conference finals appearance, but the league hype around the Wizards is certainly the highest it has been in the Wall era. Forty-nine wins was not only the highest win total of the Wall era, it was highest of the Wizards era. Washington hasn’t won that many games since the Bullets won 54 games in 1978-79.

Washington has a good case to exceed 49 wins this season, and perhaps even 54. They are bringing back the same starting lineup as last season. They will take a slight hit in the beginning weeks of the season as Markieff Morris will be out with a sports hernia, but the continuity should be enough to overcome his absence in a short stretch. Morris has become a big part of the team, giving them an edge with his scrappiness. But Morris brings more scrap than skill, and while they may need that in the long haul, Jason Smith should be able to fulfill his role in the meantime.

The most important three starters are live and well—John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr. Wall is the engine; he makes just about everything happen for this team. Washington was ninth in offensive rating last season, and Wall is the one to thank for that. It certainly helps having two of the league’s deadliest three-point snipers alongside him.

Beal has had this reputation for quite some time. He shot 42.1 percent on catch-and-shoot threes last season, and 36.7 percent on pull-up threes. He’s also capable of this.

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Porter Jr. took advantage of Wall’s drive-and-kick ability, shooting nearly all of his threes right off the catch—and he shot 44.5 percent on those attempts. Porter shot 3.6 of his 4.3 three-point attempts with the closest defender being four or more feet away, knocking down 44 percent of those shots. On above the break threes, Porter shot 45 percent—best in the league.

Wall is responsible for creating a ton of these looks (44 percent of the passes he received came from Wall; Gortat and Beal were tied for second at 13.1 percent), but give credit to Porter. He dabbled with his shot and went from “above average” to “certified badass” from beyond the arc. He cashed out in the offseason, netting himself a big-money, long-term deal. If he continues to hit threes at that clip and can continue to improve other facets of his game, he will absolutely be worth all that money.

Going back to Morris, he isn’t super talented, which is probably good for this team. Wall and Beal are going to get the possessions, and Porter will get plenty of spot-up looks. Gortat, who is next on the platter, gets plenty of run in the pick-and-roll. They need a guy to fill in the gaps and do some of the dirty work. That’s exactly what Morris does.

Whether it be playing solid defense in big moments, bailing out the offense with a big corner three or scrapping for rebounds, Morris is always there. He had his best season last year, recording 14 points and 6.5 rebounds per game with .457/.362/.837 shooting splits. Assuming he comes back by the beginning of November, Morris should have another big role on the Wizards this season.

Gortat is not a shot blocker (he’s coming off his worst year in block rate by a long shot). He has always been a good defensive rebounder, though, and has mostly been good on the offensive boards. He’s fairly good in the pick-and-roll. Gortat is not a star, but he’s about as solid as it gets.
Then there’s the $16 million man behind Gortat—Ian Mahinmi. After an injury-riddled 2016-17, the Wizards have to be hoping for Mahinmi to make an impact this year.

Being so limited throughout the year, the lineup of Wall-Beal-Porter-Morris-Mahinmi just recorded 31 total minutes throughout the season, but here are the numbers: 119 offensive rating, 100.9 defensive rating, 18.1 net rating and a 60.7 effective field goal percentage. The unit also ran quite a quick pace of 108.26 possessions per game.

Assuming good health, this unit should get a lot more run. And if Washington decides it needs to shed some salary and can move the remaining $26.3 million (two years) of Gortat’s deal, it could become their starting lineup.

Another player that should get some more run with starters this season is Kelly Oubre Jr. Oubre playing with Wall, Beal, Porter and Gortat was the Wizards’ second-most-used lineup, posting a net rating of 17.4. Seeing as though the projected starting lineup with Smith replacing Morris posted a net rating of -14.7 in 136 minutes last season, Washington really needs to lean more on Oubre.

Like last season, Washington is still seven players deep. They improved the bench a bit, adding Tim Frazier and Jodie Meeks as reserve guards. Frazier and Meeks are useful players and are upgrades from last season, but don’t get it twisted: if Wall or Beal goes down for a significant period of time, this team is screwed.

That being said, I am almost tempted to pick this team to finished with the no. 1 seed in the East. Two of the teams above them—Boston and Cleveland—both had a massive shakeup. Boston may bringing back four players from last season; it will take them time to gel, though they may be able to makeup early missteps by having Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving. Cleveland has LeBron James, notorious for being the best player in the league but also notorious for not caring about the regular season. His new point guard is going to miss a lot of time, meaning his actual new point guard is Derrick Rose. Have fun, LeBron!

Toronto, the other team that finished ahead of Washington last season, is also bringing their core back. They’ll get a full season with Serge Ibaka, but there’s some worry if literally any of the starters get hurt. The only reliable reserve may come via one of Norman Powell or C.J. Miles. Presumption Miles would start has shifted since he showcased amazing chemistry with the youthful reserve unit. Outside of that, they’ll be relying on K.J. McDaniels and rookie OG Anunoby to produce off the bench. Delon Wright has shown flashes, but I’d feel a lot more comfortable having Cory Joseph around if Kyle Lowry were to get hurt.

Washington may be fragile, but they have continuity and an almost perfect-fitting starting lineup on their side. This team absolutely has the ability to break 50 wins this season, and maybe even the potential to record a new franchise-high in wins. They just have to hope, as every other team does, that the basketball gods grant them some breaks on the injury front.

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