When the Washington Wizards tip off the 2014-15 season Wednesday against the Miami Heats, they will do so with heightened expectations.
A 44-win season, their best record in nearly a decade, and a six-game appearance in the second round of the playoffs, their longest postseason stay in over 30 years, created a palpable buzz around the team. Led by first-time All-Star John Wall, Washington is once again expected to challenge the better teams in the Eastern Conference, namely the remodeled Cleveland Cavaliers and reinforced Chicago Bulls.
Experts predict the Wizards to win somewhere between 45-50 games, which would likely leave them as the third or fourth seed in the East. To fulfill that promise, Washington will have to overcome an early-season hurdle: the loss of guard Bradley Beal to a fractured left wrist. He and Wall meshed last season, evolving into one of the NBA's best backcourts (unless you're asking Dion Waiters).
The loss of Trevor Ariza to the Houston Rockets stripped the Wizards of their best perimeter defender and one of their outside scoring threats, but veteran and 10-time All-Star Paul Pierce will attempt to at least partially fill that void while also providing invaluable big-game experience. Wall will need to significantly cut down his turnovers after leading the NBA with 295 last season.
The frontcourt of Nene (who needs to make it through an entire season without missing significant time with injuries, especially considering Washington is 21-43 without him all-time) and Marcin Gortat is formidable. Washington's bench, featuring Martell Webster, Kris Humphries and DeJuan Blair should be competent enough to provide support.
With LeBron James and Kevin Love now in Cleveland and a healthy Derrick Rose in Chicago, it seems like too daunting of a task for Washington to ascend to the top of the Eastern Conference standings. The Wizards will certainly hover around it though, which should make for an intriguing season.
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