HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Bradley Beal insists it’s the best the Washington Wizards have looked during his time with the team.
So what if he’s talking about the often flimsy sample size that is NBA preseason.
When you basically pass on free agency (until next summer’s Kevin Durant free-for-all), install a new offensive system and ask everyone to buy into new and tweaked roles heading into what is sure to be a pivotal season, a seamless transition to a decidedly different way of operating offensively should ease whatever tensions might have lingered.
A comfort zone for Beal and All-Star point guard John Wall has to be the top priority for a Wizards team few people mention a contender in the Eastern Conference this season. LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers are at the top of everyone’s list, followed in some order by the Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat … and then the Wizards.
That dynamic backcourt is not only the key to the Wizards’ season, they’re also the selling point for the future, along with this new, player-friendly offense that coach Randy Wittman unveiled during the preseason. If the Wizards are serious about making noise this season in the Eastern Conference playoff chase and carrying that momentum into the summer of 2016, it all starts with this emphasis on the faster pace, which takes advantage of what Wall and Beal do best.
The Wizards had the highest offensive rating in the preseason (106.8 points per 100 possessions) and were fourth in pace (104.45 possessions per 48 minutes), a stark contrast from a team that finished 19th and 16th, respectively, in those categories last season.
We saw signs of the shift in the playoffs, when the Wizards threw a scare into the Hawks in the conference semifinals with their small-ball lineup. A summer of tinkering, training and a preseason of on-the-job training gives a team with basically the same core personnel (sans Paul Pierce, of course, who moved on to the Los Angeles Clippers) a chance to reinvent itself on the fly.
Otto Porter and Jared Dudley inherit the minutes and responsibilities Pierce handled last season, including the floor-stretching duties that opened things up for Beal and Wall in the postseason.
Beal spoke of improved team camaraderie, better focus on the details and the always important good health that evaded him and the Wizards this time a year go. An improved and more efficient offensive system that the players “love,” according to Wall, paired with a top-10 defense that’s been a staple under Wittman, could serve as the wrinkle the Wizards need to move into the East’s upper echelon.
“Well, I think the Wizards obviously are a dangerous team, and they’ve proven that,” ABC/ESPN analyst Mark Jackson said, “and Randy Wittman has done an outstanding job coaching that team, leading that team, being strong in the face of tough times, holding on to the rope, which became contagious with the players where they bought in.
“I think it’s a different look for them because they certainly have post-up players that are skilled that they can take advantage of, at certain points of the game, but it really gives — adds versatility to that basketball team when you look at that dynamic backcourt in Wall and Beal, playing at a faster pace, creating an offense, stretching the floor is only going to make them tougher to defend, and I think ultimately a tough out in the Eastern Conference.”
If anyone knows about the importance of playing to the skills and abilities of a dynamic young backcourt duo, it’s Jackson. It’s what led to the rise of the Golden State Warriors during his tenure as he catered his system to Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
Wall and Beal are not Curry and Thompson, and there’s no one suggesting as much.
But they are talented in their own right and on a trajectory that could very well push the Wizards into the realm of teams capable of upsetting the projected East order before whatever free agent splash the team is planning for the summer.
Yes, we’re working on the fumes of the preseason, and that’s always a dangerous predicament.
But if you’re trying to both engineer a revolution and outperform expectations, as Beal and the Wizards are this season, you have to start somewhere.