The Washington Wizards just years ago were considered a postseason threat in the Eastern Conference, featuring one of the more complete rosters in the NBA from top to bottom behind an elite backcourt pairing. Now ahead of the 2019 regular season, that solid roster has eroded over the past two years, partly due to injury and partly due to self-inflicted mismanagement.
Washington finished 32-50 last season, good for the 11th seed and well out of the playoff picture even in a weak East. This was just two years after they took the Boston Celtics to seven games in the 2017 Eastern Conference Semifinals. Now after such a pedestrian 2018 season, the outlook for 2019 and beyond may be even bleaker.
No one figured Washington would have such a disastrous campaign in 2018; in fact, the Wizards looked like a more complete team than they had in a long time. Marcin Gortat was finally no longer the starting center, replaced by a 32-year-old Dwight Howard that was expected to be a major upgrade, especially alongside John Wall’s playmaking. Howard would play only nine games for Washington before being sidelined with a gluteal injury.
It also looked like the Wiz had a budding superstar on their hands in Kelly Oubre Jr. who they, for some reason, dealt to the Phoenix Suns for an aging Trevor Ariza in a bizarre move. Ariza is now a Sacramento King while Oubre Jr. re-signed with Phoenix for the next two years. Otto Porter, who just signed a max contract, was shipped off to Chicago for a pair of expiring deals, both of whom would leave in free agency this summer.
Now after being one of the team’s biggest strengths, the small forward position immediately became a glaring liability for Washington. The club wasn’t necessarily savvy during the free agency period either, though acquisition CJ Miles and second-round draft pick Admiral Schofield hope to patch up the wing position alongside Bradley Beal. The club also hopes second-year man Troy Brown can come into his own with Oubre Jr. and Porter now out of the picture. After receiving less than 15 minutes of playing time per game last season, Brown is slated to be the opening day starter at small forward.
Perhaps Washington’s inactivity during the most crucial time of the NBA calendar was linked to the fact that they didn’t even have a full-time GM. The team appointed Tommy Sheppard as their GM later in July. Though Sheppard remained mostly dormant throughout the offseason, Washington was able to sneak away some valuable assets as the third team in the Anthony Davis trade. Washington served as a facilitator in the deal, netting Moritz Wagner, Jemerrio Jones, Isaac Bonga and a 2022 second-round pick in exchange for cash considerations to the Pelicans. None of the players are expected to serve major roles next season (Jones has already been waived and picked up by the Bucks), though Mo Wagner is a capable stretch big and a name to keep an eye on as the season progresses.
If something positive did come out of last season outside of Beal’s continuing ascent into superstardom, it was the emergence of center Thomas Bryant. Howard’s injury paved the way for Bryant to jump into a major role and he ran with it. The 22-year-old started 53 games last season, notching 14 double-doubles and setting a franchise record with 61.6% shooting from the field. Bryant’s game is more focused on the interior, but he’s been able to stretch his range comfortably out to the mid-range and even the three-point line. Bryant has connected on seven of his eighteen threes in four preseason outings thus far in 2019, good for 4.5 attempts per game.
But even with Bryant and Beal as the cornerstones next season, not enough was done over the summer for Washington to even have playoff expectations heading into 2019-20. Washington took what looks to be a solid frontcourt piece with a top ten draft selection in Rui Hachimura, but outside of that pick, Washington was quiet for most of the offseason.
Sheppard will certainly have his work cut out for him, with the team in a rebuilding phase and John Wall sidelined for a whole season. Still recovering from an Achilles injury, Wall plans to be heavily involved this season and even said himself he’s looking forward to serving in a coach-like role as long as he remains out. Of course, having your star floor general actually on the floor is much more beneficial, but Washington will have to play the waiting game with his healing Achilles. Wall’s incredibly sharp basketball mind could help some of the younger pieces on the team develop over the next season.
Washington split with last year’s starting point guard Tomas Satoransky and replaced him with veteran free agents Ish Smith and Isaiah Thomas. Adding Thomas was easily the splashiest move Washington made over the offseason and it could prove to actually be worth it in the end. Washington figures to be devoid of offensive weapons again next season outside of Beal so Thomas could provide them with a nice scoring punch, whether it be as a starter or with the second unit.
Of course, Beal also signed another two-year extension that will keep the guard in DC through at least the 2021-2022 season. After showing his prowess as an elite marksmen early on, Beal has transformed into one of the most dynamic, complete players in the entire NBA. He shouldered the load last year for Washington and will certainly have to do so again next season.
The Wizards’ future truly hinges on the front office’s ability or inability to build winning pieces around Bradley Beal. Recent history suggests the Wizards are going nowhere fast, but maybe a new GM can change the culture once and for all.
Wall’s injury situation remains one to monitor but for a player so reliant on athleticism, he could look like a shell of himself once he returns in 2020. Tommy Sheppard and head coach Scott Brooks will likely have to navigate another losing season but still have tons to evaluate over the next calendar year. While Beal and company will battle for one of those final playoff spots in the East next season, expect the Wizards to finish on the outside looking in ahead of a pivotal 2020 offseason.