Wizards look to make a push for playoffs again

Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal (3) dribbles during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, on Dec. 30, 2021, in Washington. Beal and the Wizards renewed their commitment to each other when he agreed to a five-year deal worth up to $251 million to stay in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass, File)

Good health and better defense will determine whether the Washington Wizards can compete for a playoff spot in the NBA’s Eastern Conference.

As the Wizards begin their journey into the 2022-23 season, Bradley Beal is back from a wrist injury that ended his season after only 40 games. Beal signed a contract extension in the off-season and says he is committed to the process of getting the Wizards to the proverbial next level.

Beal is entering his 11th season in the NBA and has established himself as one of the game’s elite players. Twice in his career, Beal has averaged over 30 points per game, but the Wizards do not want Beal to have to feel like he needs to score 30 points per game.

Keeping 7-foot-3 center Kristap Porzingis on the floor will be critical to the Wizards’ success. Porzingis has not been able to play in more than 57 games in any of the past five seasons, but after joining the Wizards in a trade last February, he was durable and dependable on an All-Star level.

In playing 17 of 18 games in a four-week span to close last season Porzingis averaged 22.1 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game. Porzingis was one of only six players in the league last season to produce that kind of stat line including LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

Washington Wizards’ Kristaps Porzingis, 6, dunks against Golden State Warriors’ Andrew Wiggins, right, during their preseason NBA basketball game, Friday, Sept. 30, 2022, at Saitama Super Arena, in Saitama, north of Tokyo. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

The ‘big three’

Porzingis’s presence on the floor makes a difference at both ends of the floor. When he protects the paint, Porzingis either alters or block shots and is agile enough to close out big men who shoot from the outside. In addition, Porzingis’ ability to knock down outside shots opens up the floor for Beal and others to create and score.

This Wizards team should be able to score. In NBA circles, the popular belief is that every team needs a “big three” to succeed. With Kyle Kuzma to go along with Beal and Porzingis, the Wizards seem to have their “big three.” Kuzma not only had career-high 24 double-doubles last season, but, also like Beal, set a career high in assists last season.

There is the potential for the Wizards’ offense to flow. The addition of pass-first point guard Monte Morris already showed in preseason to be a wise acquisition. Morris played for head coach Wes Unseld Jr. when he served as an assistant in Denver and with his understanding of the team’s system; he immediately took charge of the offense.

Will Barton also joined the Wizards from Denver and his ability play and guard multiple positions has been a real asset. In preseason, Barton played both shooting guard and small forward, developing chemistry with Kuzma in the frontcourt. Barton very well could be part of a starting five with Kuzma, Porzingis, Beal and Morris.

In the NBA, it really does not matter who starts. The key is to be part of the rotation and Rui Hachimura certainly will be. Due to “personal reasons,” Hachimura only played in 42 games last season. However, this preseason, he was Washington’s most consistent player, averaging almost 15 points and 7.5 rebounds per game.

Hachimura needs to pick up where he left off last season beyond the arc. In 27 games after the All-Star break, he shot almost 46% from 3-point range.

Washington Wizards forward Kyle Kuzma (33) plays against the Charlotte Hornets during an NBA preseason basketball game in Charlotte, N.C., Monday, Oct. 10, 2022. (AP Photo/Jacob Kupferman)

Now about the defense

The Wizards were not terrible last season — they ranked 16th in the NBA in opponents points per game. With their potential to score, Washington does not need to be dramatically better on defense, but just be better three or four possessions a game.

It really is that fine a line. It is not about gambling and going for steals, it is just about being more active.

In the preseason, the Wizards were more active on defense. They created more deflections and, without gambling, came up with 39 steals in four games. That is a positive, but rebounding is also a part of defense and Washington needs to be more physical. In four preseason games, the Wizards were outrebounded 219-166.

Deni Avdija is getting closer to a return from a groin injury that kept him out of the entire preseason. In his two seasons, Avdija has demonstrated that he can guard four positions and thrives on big challenges like containing Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Under the radar, the addition of veteran guard Delon Wright is already having an impact. Wright plays with an edge the Wizards need and in the preseason finale against the Knicks finished with 9 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocks and a steal. Washington finished going +20 whenever Wright was on the court.

“Everybody’s goal is to make the playoffs,” said Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard. “I think we’ve got to see the improvement on the defensive end. I think we addressed that in the summer. You find out in the winter what you did in the summer.”

Editor’s Note: Dave Johnson is the longtime radio play-by-play voice of the Washington Wizards.

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Dave Johnson

Dave Johnson is Senior Sports Director and morning sports anchor. He first arrived at WTOP in 1989, left in 1992 and returned in 1995. He is a three-time winner of the A.I.R. award as best radio sportscaster in D.C. In 2008 he won the Edward R. Murrow award for best writing for sports commentaries.

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