As NBA teams are officially eliminated from title contention, theScore NBA freelance writer Andrew Unterberger takes a look back at the highs and lows of their season, along with the biggest questions ahead of 2018-19. The 19th edition focuses on the Washington Wizards.
Bradley Beal, All-Star. After a couple seasons on the ballot fringes, Bradley Beal finally took himself out of the running for Best Player Not to Make an All-Star Game honors by actually making the East squad in his sixth season. Beal averaged 23-4-5 on typically sparkling shooting, leading the Wizards to thrive through a cold winter of injuries. He also helped power the team to two home wins against Toronto in Washington's first-round series, scoring 59 on combined 20-of-38 shooting. His numbers would've looked even more impressive on the year if not for a miserable end to the regular season, but that's a recurring theme for these Wizards.
Surviving without John Wall. Many wrote the Wizards off when point guard and presumptive franchise player Wall was ruled out for six-to-eight weeks to recover from arthroscopic knee surgery, with Washington sitting with an uninspiring 26-22 record. But the team unexpectedly took off in his absence, going 9-3 in their next 12 games, and leading to a lot of "Are the Wizards better without John Wall?" takes. Those were quelled some by the team's subsequent 5-9 run, but still, the Wizards managed to successfully tread water without their perennial All-Star.
Otto Porter, RPM superstar. Nobody would confuse the Wizards wing for an offensive first option, and not many were decrying his snub when Eastern All-Star reserves were announced in February. Nonetheless, Porter had a quietly fantastic fifth season in Washington - his first after signing a four-year deal to receive superstar money - as he averaged 15 and six on 50 percent shooting (44 percent from deep) as the team's ultra-reliable third option. Not eye-popping numbers, perhaps, but go a little deeper into his defensive contributions, his low turnover rate, and his efficient shot selection, and a borderline star is uncovered: ESPN even has him rated as one of the season's 10 best players by Real Plus-Minus.
Kelly Oubre developing consistency. A quintessential "shows flashes" kind of guy for most of his first two years, Oubre finally showed a little reliability in his third season, averaging 12 and five with an acceptable 53 percent True Shooting mark. He was also a much-needed high-energy spark off the bench for a historically top-heavy Wizards squad. The five-man unit that replaced starter Markieff Morris with Oubre was something like Washington's equivalent of the Death Lineup, outscoring opponents by 14 points per 100 possessions in over 200 minutes of court time.
Avenging the Celtics semis loss. The Wizards fell to the Celtics in a hard-fought seven-game Eastern Conference Semifinals last playoffs - a series in which they insisted they were actually the better team. They did their best to prove it to Boston in their four regular-season matchups this year, winning three of them - including a 111-103 Christmas Day victory and a double-OT squeaker in mid-March, both games in Boston. "It was just one of those celebrate-inside type feelings while your body is gasping for air," Beal said after the latter, a 125-124 victory.
The John Wall drama. Despite seemingly turning a corner in the 2017 playoffs and establishing himself as one of the NBA's overall elite players, Wall had a season to forget in 2017-18 - even if he often made it hard for you to do so. Wall's numbers were good, if below his recent standard - nearly 20 and 10, albeit on just 42 percent FG - but he only played 41 games on the season, missing the other half with knee and leg troubles. More distressingly, while he was out, not only did the Wizards initially play better, but they seemed to relish getting loose from their floor general, making comments about the value of sharing the ball, while Wall and big man Marcin Gortat traded more direct snipes in the press.
Even the end of the season offered little relief from the team's petty in-fighting, with Wall taking his exit interview time to bemoan how his teammates needed to "understand their role and respect their role" and to challenge his front office to find guys who "really want to win and really want to take that next step." Woof.
The late-season collapse. There's limping into the playoffs, and then there's spotting that all the good teams have already passed you (and that no one else is that close), and just pulling up a chair and waiting for the playoffs to come to you. The Wizards took the latter approach, losing a resounding nine of their last 12 games, including to such Eastern Conference powerhouses as the Atlanta Hawks, the New York Knicks, the Chicago Bulls and - in the regular season's closer, with the seventh seed on the line - the Orlando Magic. "We shot ourselves in the foot. We've done it all year," accurately concluded Beal after Game 82. "Now, we're in the eighth seed."
Jodie Meeks' random suspension. An already-thin Wizards bench took an unexpected hit when reserve wing Meeks - about as seemingly innocuous an NBA veteran as they come - was suspended for 25 games in April for violating the league's anti-drug program, knocking him out of the rest of the regular season and postseason. "I have never taken anything whatsoever for a performance-enhancing reason," Meeks protested in a statement. "I respect the game of basketball too much." Nonetheless, not only did the ruling on Meeks keep him out for the season's remainder, it should also stretch into the beginning of 2018-19.
A "strange odor" at Capital One arena. As if their season needed to be tainted by more weird drama, it was more than just the Wizards who stunk up the joint during a home loss to the Milwaukee Bucks at the Capital One Arena in January. "Late in the game, people seated around section 104 smelled a strange, smoky odor and recalled feeling a sensation that caused coughing, sneezing and, for some, throat irritation," reported Candace Buckner of The Washington Post. More unnervingly, despite the team launching an investigation into the smell, the source of the odor was never found. Four months and one early playoff exit later, we may never know for sure just what was rotten in Washington.
Eighth seed and out. After coming the closest to making the conference finals as Washington has come since the Bullets' heyday of the late '70s, expectations were relatively high for a Washington team that finally seemed primed to become one of the elite teams of the East. Instead, malaise set in on and off the court, as the team struggled to a 43-39 record, good enough to just squeak into the playoffs and face the top-seeded Raptors in the first round. Winning the first two games at home left the door open for a redemptive playoff performance at least. But they dropped the next two in somewhat dispiriting fashion, and the bad taste left in the mouth of Wizards fans from the end of the regular season should linger well into the summer. Hopefully for them, people will at least stop asking John Wall what he really thinks of his team soon enough.
Can Scott Brooks avoid this team becoming Oklahoma City East? Not like coach Scott Brooks' run with the Oklahoma City Thunder was an unqualified failure - the team made the finals once and the conference finals three times under his watch, as three of the team's draft picks blossomed into future MVPs. But sadly for Scotty, his tenure in OKC will largely be remembered for the team never quite maximizing its potential, never winning a championship, and ultimately splitting up while all players were still in their prime. Brooks doesn't have quite the same talent on the Wizards, but he does have a trio of former top-five draft picks who are all All-Star-type guys (and paid as such) - and all this season's messiness raises questions of whether they'll hit their ceiling together before needing to head their separate ways.
Who's starting in the frontcourt next season? Morris and Gortat are both under contract for one more season, making over a combined $20 million each. But given how Washington's best lineup saw Oubre in the former's stead and how the team's highest-paid player seemed to stop getting along with the latter, it's unclear how much longer the team can go with the duo as its starting bigs. Wall himself certainly thinks changes are in order: "I think the way the league is going, you need athletic bigs," he opined after season's end. "We don't really have an athletic big. I mean, Ian (Mahinmi) is older. (Gortat) is older. They're not athletic guys, but they do the little things that permit their game to help as much as possible."
Will the team have any roster flexibility this summer? The Wizards already have nearly $125 million in contract commitments for next year, which takes them out of the running for doing much in free agency. Jason Smith and Meeks both have player options it'd probably behoove them to pick up, and Oubre and Tomas Satoransky are both already eligible for rookie deal extensions before they enter restricted free agency in 2019. The Wizards don't have much in the way of extraneous assets to deal, though they've shown a willingness to attach first-rounders in deals for personnel upgrades, as they originally did for Gortat and Morris. That might be their only hope for making the kind of improvements to their roster that their franchise player is pressuring them to make.
Are the Wizards stuck with Wall? It's a weird question to ask - especially since Wall was the sort of player 20-plus current NBA franchises would dream of being "stuck" with just a year ago. But after a season plagued by injuries, regression, and locker-room toxicity, Wall's super-max status has to be at least somewhat in question; you don't want to be paying a player $160 million (!!) over the next four years if all you're getting out of it is an uninspiring first-round exit. These Wizards have long been a one-year-on, one-year-off sort of team, so it's entirely possible Wall bounces back with a revitalized Wiz squad next year and everything is once again rosy in the U.S. capital. But if not, Ernie Grunfeld and Co. might have a hell of a time trying to find a new home for their alienated quasi-superstar and his megaton contract.
Will the Wizards ever be true contenders? It's a question that's lingered since Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison roamed the halls of the then-MCI Center: Yeah, this Wizards squad is a fun League Pass follow and a tough first- or second-round out, but can they ever actually get within striking distance of the Larry O'Brien trophy? This year could've been their year - Wall, Beal, and Porter all firmly in their prime, with an improved bench and a wide-open Eastern Conference - but the team tripped over themselves and got lapped by the ascendant Celtics and Sixers, and maybe even the Pacers and Bucks, too. The Wizards are structured and paid like a team that's ready to win now, but endless false starts and disappointing finishes for the squad has Washington fans forever asking: How soon is now?
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)