The start of another NBA season is upon us and the Washington Wizards hope to have a better showing in the 75th anniversary of the league compared to years past. In Wes Unseld Jr.’s first season at the helm of the franchise where his father starred, there will be immediate expectations for Washington to be a larger factor in an improved Eastern Conference after general mediocrity since the 2016-17 season. With Bradley Beal unlikely to sign a four-year, $182 million extension offered to him since October 1, the Wizards have this season to prove to him he can contend for a championship in DC otherwise he will command a 5-year, $230 million max contract from any team better poised to make him a winner sooner.
It is a tradition like none other for NBA teams including the Wizards to have a large amount of optimism during training camp, but in recent years Washington fans have been disappointed by injuries to John Wall and Russell Westbrook that has derailed seasons. With the decision not to re-sign Scott Brooks which played a role in Westbrook preferring to play for his hometown Lakers, general manager Tommy Sheppard completely revamped the Wizards roster. In a ridiculous five-team trade where salary cap expert and assistant GM Brett Greenberg earned his salary, the Wizards acquired guard Spencer Dinwiddie from the Brooklyn Nets; guard Aaron Holiday, the rights to forward Isaiah Todd, and cash considerations from the Indiana Pacers; and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, and Montrezl Harrell from the Los Angeles Lakers.
Having inherited a porous hand from his predecessor, Sheppard knew going into this offseason that it could not simply be a run-it-back team from last season. In less than a calendar year, he turned John Wall’s supermax contract into three solid rotation pieces. The Wizards have legitimate depth with 11 or 12 players that could contend for playing time on most teams and that is something truly rare in recent memory that always led Wall and Beal to average nearly 40 minutes per game just to stay afloat. Here’s a look at what Washington’s depth chart looks like at Wes Unseld Jr.’s disposal to start the season.
PG: Spencer Dinwiddie / Raul Neto / Aaron Holiday
SG: Bradley Beal / Corey Kispert
SF: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope / Deni Avdija
PF: Kyle Kuzma / Rui Hachimura / Davis Bertans / Isaiah Todd
C: Daniel Gafford / Montrezl Harrell / Thomas Bryant
In the continued age of positionless basketball, the Wizards view Dinwiddie less as a traditional point guard, but as a combo guard similar to Beal. Unseld plans to stagger his two top guards as he has tinkered with during preseason. Neto and Holiday could play together or across from Dinwiddie in a shooting guard role when needed. Corey Kispert may seem like the odd man out of the rotation early but has been impressive through training camp to the point of earning playing time, especially if others struggle.
Although some viewed Beal’s good friend Kentavious Caldwell-Pope as his primary backup at shooting guard, all indications point to KCP starting at small forward and taking on the opposing team’s best wing scorer on a nightly basis. Deni Avdija presumably will continue to come off the bench where Unseld hopes to unlock more of his secondary playmaking abilities that were buried in his rookie season under Scott Brooks. Avdija will play and defend multiple positions for Washington this season and could see the ball in his hands often when splitting those responsibilities with Beal when Dinwiddie is off the floor.
With Rui Hachimura just recently returning to Washington D.C. after dealing with personal issues that had him absent from training camp, it will be at least several days and possibly into November until the likely starting power forward is back in the rotation. He has cleared COVID protocols possibly as an unvaccinated player and has begun 1-on-1 drills with coaches, but is still far away from 5-on-5 scrimmaging and NBA level conditioning. That leaves a starting spot open for recently acquired Kyle Kuzma who the Wizards hope to unlock more potential than his recent seasons behind LeBron James and Anthony Davis in LA. Kuzma is encouraged to shoot when the opportunities present themselves but admitted he is still trying to find his role on a new team.
When Hachimura is fully back and if Kuzma can fill additional minutes off the bench, it could squeeze Davis Bertans out of the rotation (although an $80 million contract will keep him in as long as possible). Bertans has been back in the practice facility since Labor Day, unlike last season, with many of his new teammates so conditioning is not the issue, but he had a mediocre preseason that the Wizards need him to break out of as the season begins. Even if Bertans is making three-pointers at a 40 percent clip, it may not be at a high enough volume to make up for his subpar defense.
Washington is rich at the center department with rising star Daniel Gafford anchoring the unit as a great lob threat and rim protector. Rewarding the 23-year old with a three-year, $40.2 million extension for his continued diligence this summer keeps the Arkansas product under contract until the 2025-26 season. Arguably the most impressive preseason showing went to Montrezl Harrell who is coming in with a big chip on his shoulder after sparing usage last season with the Lakers. Harrell fills the energy and passion void left by Westbrook and the city of DC will continue to fall in love with the dog in the Louisville product. Thomas Bryant continues his rehab from a partially torn ACL injury and is expected to be available around December to stretch the floor for Washington. It is plausible that Harrell or Bryant are moved at the trade deadline regardless of the Wizards being buyers or sellers.
One of Tommy Sheppard’s go-to quotes is that even though it looks good on paper, the game is played on wood and we will have to see how the Wizards can put things together with several new players and new coaching staff. Bradley Beal and everyone in the organization has already lined up the early season excuse of patience, but Washington can ill afford a 2016-esque 2-8 start to the season that will not be out of the question with a tough schedule early. Montrezl Harrell and others are welcoming the underdog mentality where no one expects the Wizards to make serious noise, but maybe that finally works to their advantage after years of underachieving. The optimist in me has Washington going 45-37 this season, but getting bounced in the first round as a No. 6 seed. Unless the likes of Hachimura, Kuzma, or a dark horse candidate can really make an All-Star level jump, I don’t see the Wizards ceiling moving too much.