On the Wizards' turnaround
For the first time since November 2009, when they opened the season 2-2, the Wizards have hit the .500 mark they have long since sought after.
Ideally, a .500 record should not be a sought after mark, as it simply means you won as many games as you lost, and, if maintained over the course of a season, it normally means little more than a quick playoff exit. Playing 82 games just to fight for the right to get drubbed in a further four must never be the aim here.
However, a .500 record can be thought of as an important (and thus desired) benchmark when monitoring the internal improvements of a young team on the up.
The Wizards, ostensibly, are that.
However, to get out of the gutter, they have had to get older. Of the top seven Wizards in minutes per game, four are over 28, two are over 30, whilst key role player Martell Webster is now into his ninth season (even if he is only 26). The "youth" Washington tanked for consists of the legitimately good backcourt duo of John Wall and Bradley Beal, plus Otto Porter (yet to take the court due to injury), and a bunch of underwhelming backups. All the other significant contributors are veterans without upside. Perhaps then this is not the incremental rise of a young pretender as much as first thought . If Nene and Al Harrington are playing ahead of Jan Vesely and Chris Singleton, then the latter duo's ages do not count for much.
Nevertheless, the Wizards are there. They are back in the black for the first time in four years, and, due to the deplorable performance of the Eastern Conference thus far this season, a record which would have them ranked merely 12th out West bizarrely finds them as the current No. 3 seed in the East. And they do so with two potential superstars in their backcourt.
John Wall is in the process of fulfilling all the promise we have spent years questioning whether he had.
After a sophomore slump, a long term injury, and some struggles initially coming back from both, Wall has taken huge leaps forward in the past few months and is now the best point guard in the Eastern conference.
He is still a bit short of his self proclaimed status as the best in the entire league, but he is getting closer every month, and the possibility is legitimate. Given the responsibility of captaincy, the pressure of the ball, and the reward of a max contract, Wall has seemingly embraced all this praise and pressure and responded, ever improving in his floor game and ability to improve his team mates, whilst also expanding his own offensive game with some improved jumpshot range. All facets of his game need further refinement, not least of which would be more consistent defensive effort, yet Wall is the driving force behind this improvement and the foundation around which it is all built.
Meanwhile, Bradley Beal's slow start has long since been forgotten about, and any worries about a sophomore slump can be disregarded. Prior to his injury, Beal was averaging 20.6 points, 4.2 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game, shooting 44% from three point range along the way. He is already everything O.J. Mayo was supposed to be notwithstanding some defensive concerns and overall scoring inefficiency (41% overall shooting), Beal is the answer to the NBA's recent dearth in young shooting guards, an offensive machine who can get past anybody, or shoot over them if he'd rather. The duo are legitimately captivating. This is a pairing akin to Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, not Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis. And it is they (especially Wall, who has driven the team to a 4-1 record thus far in Beal's absence) who backbone it all.
Washington will still need to consolidate this position during the season. The injuries to Porter, Beal and now Al Harrington are exposing a real lack of depth, particularly offensively. Backup point guard Eric Maynor has continued to struggle badly since his injury two years ago, shooting only 32% from the field, whie his backup Garrett Temple is similarly inefficient offensively but without any jump shot range and with more turnovers than assists on the season thus far. At the forward spots, Jan Vesely has finally shown some signs of life yet still provides almost nothing offensively, whilst Singleton and Trevor Booker have been mostly opportunity scorers in the NBA thus far. And the two players who can score off the bench, Harrington and Kevin Seraphin, are liabilities defensively and on the glass.
The returns of Porter and Beal will help alleviate this problem and give the Wizards a strong front seven for the remainder of the season. Yet even then, concerns about depth will be legitimate. Washington will need more help. Their recent team building strategy suggests that this will involve the pursuit of veterans who 'know how to play', and who can marginally better a team today even if entirely bereft of upside themselves.
Yet this should not happen. The trade for Marcin Gortat was enough, the only further step in that direction that was permissible. Anything else would be an excess.
The temptation to push on in this direction must be fought against. Trevor Ariza being in the midst of a John Wall-assisted career year at the age of 28 for a team finally likely to achieve its long standing aim of reaching the playoffs should not automatically preclude him being dealt for the betterment of the team. If anything, his play (which, combined with his finally expiring contract, now makes him a good asset) makes him far more tradeable.
Despite all the years of futility that preceded this playoff push, the Wizards strangely need to get younger again. Beal and Wall are the foundation for years to come. The protection of that foundation is much more important than which seed they are.
Older players might be better players, but that does not necessarily mean they are better for you.