The Washington Wizards don't see themselves as sleepers.
It's not that the team doubts its ability to take on the heavyweights of the Eastern Conference - it's quite the opposite actually. Washington doesn't understand why anyone would believe otherwise.
Markieff Morris has never been one to hide his true feelings; at Media Day, he stated his beliefs rather clearly that "Boston has never been better than us" and, more generally, that the Wizards are "…better than anybody in the East."
Morris may speak more candidly than most of his teammates, but his confidence holds true throughout the organization. The Wizards are the team, after all, who believe that the 2016-17 Cavaliers - the team who ran through the East playoffs with a record of 12-1 - purposefully avoided them in the first round in fear of being knocked out early.
Washington operates under the belief that confidence breeds success. While things haven't broken their way these past few years, they might now finally be in a position to cash in on that confidence. While the rest of the conference is focused on the favourites in Boston, Philadelphia and Toronto, Washington is in the perfect position to be this year's surprise team.
The best backcourt in the East?
For the Wizards to turn heads this season, they need a healthy, motivated John Wall. While the motivated part is evident, his health has been far from a given. Wall missed 41 games last season after a right knee procedure in January forced him to watch his team struggle down the stretch and finish the year 17-17 over their final 34 games.
When Wall's been healthy, he's been among the East's best for several years. His speed and athletic tools make him a defensive monster, and offensively he's one of just two players to average 20 points and 10 assists per game over the past three seasons (the other is trying to average a triple-double for the third-straight season).
Alongside Wall, Bradley Beal has become the reliable, high-scoring All-Star the Wizards hoped he'd be coming out of the University of Florida. If it weren't for the duo in Golden State, Wall and Beal would be right in the conversation for the league's best backcourt. The Wizards have the two great players every good team needs, but the league's great teams have three…or four… or five.
The rise of Otto Porter
Washington needs a third star to get to the next level, but that player might already be on the roster.
After a slower start to his career than many were expecting, Otto Porter has developed into one of the best shooters in the league at any position. He shot over 43 percent from three in each of the last two years and last season he became the most efficient perimeter shooting forward in the entire league.
Before Wall's procedure last season, Porter was thriving. When Wall was on the floor, Porter took more catch-and-shoot attempts - shots he made 48.0 percent of the time - and the Wizards were a more effective overall offence.
|Minutes||Points||eFG%||3P%||%pts 3PT||ORtg||Net Rating|
|Porter w/ Wall||27.3||11.4||60.2%||44.4%||41.8%||110.6||+7.9|
|Porter w/o Wall||19.2||9.9||56.9%||43.9%||33.3%||108.8||+2.9|
Still just 25 years old, he's at the perfect age to take that next step. If he can translate his production when Wall was on the floor into an entire campaign this season, the Wizards instantly become a far more dangerous team.
This is the deepest Wizards team in years
At this point, you might be feeling a little déjà vu. Washington has been the next team up for years now, so why should this year be any different? The biggest reason this could be the year for Washington is that they've finally addressed their biggest flaw.
The 2016-17 Wizards appeared to be legitimate contenders. They had the top-end talent to compete but ultimately lost in seven to the Celtics in the East Semis. Wall and Beal were great, combining to average 49.1 points per game in the series, but the Wizards fell short in large part because they had the league's 23rd best bench, which simply couldn't compete against Boston when either Wall or Beal was off the floor.
In the 2017-18 season, the bench improved to 18th, but the issues clearly lingered.
This season, the Wizards finally have the depth and lineup versatility to compete with the favourites in the East.
Tomas Satoransky has quickly become one of the league's best backup point guards. His 6-foot-7, 210-pound frame helps him overpower smaller perimeter defenders and he's made significant strides as a passer. In Wall's absence last season, Satoransky came into his own offensively, averaging 9.9 points per game and making 51.7 percent of his threes.
Tomas Satoransky reached into his bag of tricks for tonight's #AssistOfTheNight!#DCFamily pic.twitter.com/kzhZzSpUkB- NBA (@NBA) March 14, 2018
The Wizards did trade away longtime center Marcin Gortat this summer but received Austin Rivers, who will provide a much-needed scoring punch off the bench, in return.
On the wing, Kelly Oubre has developed into a legitimate lockdown defender. He has a Kawhi Leonard-esque 7-foot-3 wingspan which helps him contest shots, stay in front of attacking players and force turnovers. In a playoff series against Boston or Toronto, Oubre's defence on Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward or Leonard could swing the momentum of a game or even the series.
The frontcourt depth does still have some questions with Mike Scott leaving in free agency and a lot of minutes going to Ian Mahinmi, but Jeff Green will bring some value. Green was great at times for Cleveland last season, including a crucial 19 points in Game 7 against the Celtics. The ups and downs that come with Jeff Green will remain, but getting him for $2.4 million to play backup minutes helps mitigate pretty much any risk.
The Wizards are now in the luxurious position of being able to play drastically different lineups depending on matchups. They could go big with a frontcourt of Green, Morris and Dwight Howard, or small with Wall, Rivers and Beal. They could recreate the 2009 Magic with four shooters around Howard, or go positionless with four switchable wings. After years of having just six or seven reliable players, the Wizards finally have a deep, capable roster.
Whether or not the team can translate its potential into success will take some time to figure out. There are still questions to be answered about chemistry, integrating new talent and, regardless of what Markieff Morris might say, they are not - and shouldn't be - the favourites in the East.
If they can figure it all out, though, the Wizards are in a great position to make some real noise this season.