More Washington Wizards 2017-18 season preview thoughts ahead of Wednesday ‘s matchup against the Philadelphia 76ers. Check out Part 1, which includes why John Wall is set for his best season and yet won’t crack the Top 5 in NBA voting and the bench upgrades aren’t apparent for everyone.
New Contract and Chill
Otto Porter isn’t the rest-on-his-laurels type, so don’t fear the small forward switching to cruise control after signing a four-year, $106 million contract this summer. What does seem different entering his fifth season is the comfort level. Whether that’s the money coming his way, personal growth or extra confidence after the best year of young career, Porter appears more at ease on and off the court.
That will translate into a scoring average rise for the fifth-straight season, assuming the 3-point shooting decline after the break was more blip than reality. One of the NBA’s most efficient players (0.6 turnovers in 33 minutes per game), the slim forward is also a sneaky good rebounder thanks to his penchant for knowing where the ball will carom.
The next step? Creating his own shot off the dribble. That will take pressure off Wall and Beal and provide coach Scott Brooks with a central figure offensively when the guards need a rest. Seeing as Wall stated this week that Porter is the most improved player on the team, sounds like that next step is coming.
If the Starters’ Defense Doesn’t Improve, Could Ian Mahinmi Starting Help?
While best in the league in points per possession defending transition, Washington often labored in half court sets. The Wizards ranked 24th in field goal percentage defense last season. All six teams below them missed the playoffs. They stood 27th in defensive rating (110.7) after the All-Star break, with the starters (29th) the primary offenders, and 29th in opponent 3-point shooting (38.8).
Individually there’s no overt weak link. There’s also no consistent standouts unless Wall focuses on that more often. There is one player on the roster whose career is based on defense and rebounding: Ian Mahinmi.
Injured much of last season, his return after the All-Star break along with the addition of Bojan Bogdanovic dramatically improved the second unit’s net rating.
Don’t infer this means starting center Marcin Gortat should be benched. The “Polish Machine” is a durable, screen-setting force who averaged a double-double last season. He’s also never been considered a rim protector and isn’t built to chase perimeter bigs. The latter point also strikes Mahnimi as neither interior bigs are built for the modern NBA. Of the two, Mahinmi does offer more defensive fluidity overall and a stronger presence in the paint.
On the wrong side of 30, Mahinmi won’t be tasked with heavy minutes regardless. There’s a case for Gortat starting considering his role in the potent offense. There’s also no logical second option for any of the other four starters should the defensive woes carry over. Markieff Morris can handle some minutes at the 5 when he returns from hernia surgery, but replacing him at the 4 becomes tricky. If coach Scott Brooks seeks a fix and wants a true center on the court, especially late in games, a swap of bigs might be the best hope.
Washington came one win shy last season of 50 for the first time since the 1978-79 season. That number would serve as a franchise milestone, but 50 wins might be enough to improve on last season’s four seed. Get 55 and perhaps the Wizards host at least two rounds of the postseason and maybe even the Eastern Conference Finals. For that to happen, they need good health, standard improvements from their main players and a major leap from Kelly Oubre Jr.
The 21-year-old forward is the only draft pick from the past four years on the roster. That makes him the primary source of youthful upside, certainly beyond the starters. Oubre’s physical gifts, namely his go-go gadget arms, adds to the hope. Yet the kid barely played late in the Celtics playoffs series –- six seconds in Game 7. The reasons were clear.
Oubre entered the NBA with limited basketball instincts and they haven’t improved enough. Poor shot selection, dribbling into traffic, missteps in team defense concepts. He shot a dismal 28.7 percent on 3-point tries last season.
The left-hander spent the summer tweaking his shooting form and working on his previously nonexistent right-hand on dribble-drives. Additional maturity should help his overall hoops IQ.
Oubre will play alongside Porter and the starters in a lineup that was incredibly effective last season. He’ll be the go-to threat on the second unit if these personal upgrades are real. He’ll be on the bench games if they’re not.
In the End
For the first time since the 1970s, Washington wins 50-plus games. Let’s go with 52.
The path for a deeper run may have opened on the NBA's opening night after Celtics forward Gordon Hayward suffered a brutal ankle injury. Should the teams meet in an epic playoff rematch, John Wall gets to prove he's a better leading man than Kyrie Irving. How the Wizards defend big man Al Horford on the outside in that series – and similar players all season -- remains a mystery, but they overcome.
Then come the Cavaliers. Let’s see how Cleveland puts together all its new pieces, including guards Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose and Isaiah Thomas, who will miss a chunk of the season with a hip injury. Until further notice, LeBron James rules the East. Washington is in position to rise above if James actually suffers an injury for once. That’s what it will take. Otherwise, their NBA Finals wait continues.