Well that certainly escalated quickly. After only a week of the NBA Playoffs, we’ve seen more than a season’s worth of thrilling games and surprise upsets. Leading the charge in terms of surprises are the suddenly dangerous Washington Wizards. Led by a strong young backcourt affectionately nicknamed the “House of Guards,” the Wizards were able to quickly silence a resilient Chicago Bulls team that a majority of analysts favored. After continuing their hot streak and stealing game one from the Pacers, the Wizards could find themselves in the Conference Finals for the first time since 1979. While it’s hard not to get excited about the thought of this underdog team making a sizeable playoff run, caution is urged. While the future of the Wizards may be bright, this team still has a lot to prove before they can be considered the newest members of the NBA’s elite.
Throughout the 2013-14 season the Wizards were wildly inconsistent, spending most of the season simply trying to break the .500 winning percentage barrier. Granted, they lost Nene for a majority of the second half of the season, however the Wizards simply didn’t display the type of talent they are currently exhibiting. Beal wasn’t nearly the ball handler he is now, Ariza wasn’t the incredible three-point shooter he is now, and the Wizards bench was a running joke. Somehow over the last two months all of those things changed. Beal and Ariza look like bona fide stars that complement Wall perfectly, the Wizards now have a solid three-man bench rotation, and Nene looks healthier and stronger than ever. Furthermore, Paul George even called the Wizards “a complete team” after game one of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.1 Is that true though? I’m not so sure. While the Wizards seem to be hitting their stride at the right time, this is also a team that is only a few weeks removed being unable to beat Charlotte in a must win game to clinch the number six seed. It was only by some luck that they were able to secure the playoffs’ fifth seed in the end.
The Wizards are in a very odd situation. A majority of their players are seasoned veterans but their most important players are not. Wizards’ GM Ernie Grunfeld has done a solid job over the past year of adding quality veteran pieces to this team, namely through trades for Marcin Gortat and Andre Miller. Gortat gives the Wizards an experienced center who is a great rebounder, a finisher at the rim and surprisingly quick; though a bit lacking on defense. Miller, on the other hand, is a 38-year-old point guard who doesn’t offer much in the way of speed or penetrating ability but is a solid ball handler who makes smart decisions and hits an open shot. Combined with the cast of veterans already in place, Nene and Ariza, the Wizards have a solid core of experienced veterans who can help the team make a push in the playoffs. The only thing holding this team back is the inexperience of its backcourt.
Most observers agree that Beal and Wall are becoming key players who will be All-Stars for the foreseeable future, but neither of them have any playoff experience. Both have only played six NBA playoff games in their career. They’ve looked impressive in those six games, but they have yet to face any real star power. The Bulls, while a tough defensive team, were lacking Derrick Rose or any sort of offensive threat. The Wizards’ current opponent, the Pacers, have regressed more than any other team in recent memory, particularly their star center Roy Hibbert. Due to this, Beal and Wall have been able to get away with small mistakes and some cold stretches that can’t happen against a team like the Heat. In the Wizards’ one playoff loss so far, Wall missed both of his free throws in a tie game with one minute left. All-Stars can’t do that in big playoff games. Both Beal and Wall have had serious cold stretches where they were unable to make a shot, but have been bailed out by the Bulls missing their own shots or Ariza stepping up big like he did in game three.
There is also the question of whether the Wizards bounce back from defeat. The Thunder and Spurs’ veteran stars were able to handle adversity and deliver when their teams were down in a series; can Beal and Wall perform like that? They have yet to be put in that situation. Again, this isn’t to say that Wall and Beal haven’t impressed me, because they have. They’re an exceptionally talented duo that hasn’t played extensive playoff basketball and are still growing as players. I mean they’re only a combined 43 years old!
While Beal and Wall represent a bright future, the problem for the Wizards is that this year might be their best chance for a title run. First, it’s unlikely that the Wizards have such a kind playoff schedule. Washington won’t find themselves matching up against a team without its star player and favored against a number one seed.
The squad formerly known as the Bullets also have personnel issues that they need to resolve going forward. Two of the team’s biggest contributors, Gortat and Ariza, are free agents at the end of the season. Considering how well this duo has played over the last few months, especially in the playoffs, they’re in line to get a large payday on the open market. The question is: can the Wizards afford to retain them? Currently, both Gortat and Ariza make $7.7 million per year.2 While this is a significant amount of money, their recent performances could see them fetch a lot more, (possibly 10 million per year) which could be enough to force the Wizards have to choose between the two. Further complicating the matter is the fact that Wall’s salary increases by $6 million next season, which will eat up a lot of the salary cap. If the Wizards have to make a decision between the two players, they will likely keep Gortat since they drafted Otto Porter and have Martell Webster who can start at small forward as he has done before. After re-signing either Gortat or Ariza, there isn’t much more room for upgrades, so it’s likely this roster might take a step back next season in terms of overall talent. This, however, could be offset by the growth of Wall and Beal, but it would still be tough to replace a player like Ariza who has helped carry them in two different playoff victories.
I wrote a few weeks ago that the NBA is devoid of parity and how it was unlikely that we would see any changes to that this year. While the NBA’s first round match-ups this past week have been heralded as the “best opening round in NBA playoff history,” there were very few series upsets.3 The Thunder, Spurs and Pacers all had to play to the end in their respective seven-game series, but they all ended up advancing. Only three “upsets” occurred in the first round and two of those were five seeds beating four seeds, which were hardly huge upsets.
So while I am still a doubter as to whether the Washington Wizards can make it farther than the Eastern Conference Finals due to inexperience and youth, trust me when I say I am rooting for them. Beal and Wall are growing up before our eyes and if they can find a way to take that next step and beat the Heat (if they finish off the Pacers first), then I will gladly admit I was wrong. I want parity; I want underdog stories like the Wizards in the NBA. The NBA has just given me so few of these stories over the last decade that it’s hard to believe anybody but the Heat or Spurs will be in the Finals. Make me believe, Washington.