Is there a weirder team in the Eastern Conference than the Washington Wizards? It’s hard to find a rival, though maybe their own Southeastern Division foe, the Charlotte Hornets, are a candidate. Anyhow, the Wizards jumped out to an East-leading 10-3 start last season before the vibes spiraled, injuries hit — star guard Bradley Beal missed the final 33 games — and they regressed to the mean as a fringe play-in contender.
Ultimately, Washington finished 35-47 and now sits in the unenviable position of competitive purgatory. Its two best players, Beal and Kristaps Porzingis, are squarely in win-now portions of their career. Others like Will Barton, Delon Wright, Monte Morris and Kyle Kuzma also share that designation. But there’s also an intriguing group of 24-and-under dudes with Johnny Davis, Corey Kispert, Deni Avdija, Rui Hachimura and Daniel Gafford, four of whom were selected in the top 15 of the draft over the past three seasons.
How the Wizards elect to balance the development of them all with the immediate maximization of its stars and veterans is a challenging tightrope to straddle. Of significant relevance is the dynamic between Beal and Porzingis, who did not play a single game together last season.
Despite their individual talents, I don’t love their fit together offensively. Porzingis could ideally feast as a floor-spacer and cutter, but has generally held a preference for lengthy mid-post touches on backdowns and face-ups, which often clog the lane for downhill scorers such as Beal; his previous incongruency with Luka Doncic helps illuminate this. If Porzingis is willing to assimilate to that aforementioned, optimized role, they could work well together, yet he’s not shown a sustained knack for that. Maybe head coach Wes Unseld Jr. is finally the man to sell Porzingis on it.
Meanwhile, Beal operates best flowing through dribble handoffs and off-ball screens. Those are not strong suits of Porzingis’ complementary skills. He did take a leap as a passer and decision-maker last season, so that should prove resourceful alongside Beal at least.
I am fascinated as to how the Wizards approach their starting lineup. Gafford is a springy 23-year-old big man who’s a stellar finisher and has showcased some versatility as a ball-screen defender. Once Porzingis joined the fold in early March, though, he and Gafford never started together.
Porzingis at the 4 is a longstanding tenuous proposition and Washington’s perimeter options on the wing (Barton, Avdija, Kispert, Hachimura) are sufficient, so I doubt we see a Morris-Beal-Kuzma-Gafford-Porzingis starting unit. But Gafford has earned a significant role, one that the 18 minutes he averaged post-trade won’t properly allow. He and Porzingis only shared the floor for 33 minutes last season. The hope is that expands next year, even if Porzingis continues to struggle as a 4-man.
And thus, we reach the seemingly antithetical paths of this Wizards roster in which balancing immediate success with the development of its youthful brigade will seemingly butt heads at times. Consider the depth at 2-4: Beal, Wright, Davis, Barton, Kispert, Kuzma, Avdija, Hachimura and Taj Gibson. Some of those young dudes are getting squeezed and vying for each other’s minutes. That could end up beneficial, helping determine which of them should be long-term priorities, but it’s difficult to envision all of them garnering necessary developmental minutes unless Washington pivots toward a youth-first approach.
Ironically, I think this squad is an appealing contender for a play-in spot or low-end playoff seed. A rotation of Morris-Beal-Barton-Kuzma-Porzingis-Wright-Avdija-Gafford and whoever else emerges for the last couple spots is a pretty solid group. Beal, despite a down 2021-22, is a year removed from an All-NBA nod. This is a team full of quality rotation players led by a star.
Porzingis’ extended injury history is somewhat troubling and any sort of prolonged absence would expose the Wizards’ poor center depth. A slide that causes them to drift away from the play-in race could be beneficial, inviting them to truly explore all of what the young core can potentially offer.
Beal is entering the first of a five-year, $251 million deal, while Porzingis has two years and $70 million remaining on his contract. Neither player is likely venturing outside of D.C. anytime soon. The vision, the players Washington opts to build around, and how Unseld — whose schemes on both ends impressed last season — progresses in his second year are the franchise’s most paramount storylines of 2022-23.
If all goes swimmingly, the Wizards could win 45-ish games. If things spiral, they could win 30-ish. Just like last season, they’ll probably land somewhere in between. Establishing the beginnings of long-term clarity throughout those wins and losses is their most critical objective.
As for how they’ll impact the Philadelphia 76ers, I expect a grinding game or two between these clubs, as has transpired the past few seasons. Washington actually won two out of three last year and Beal scored a career-high 60 points back in a 141-136 loss in 2020-21. They’re always good for some tightly contested bouts and given the Wizards should be a formidable team, I expect that’ll continue.