It's another season of hope for the Washington Wizards.
Hope they can survive a season without major injuries. Hope young stars emerge and old ones endure. Hope a new coach can teach them winning isn't a sometime thing.
Washington opens the 2016-17 season in Atlanta Oct. 27 with many pundits believing the Wizards will finish in the middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference. Some believe, maybe, they're a touch better than last year's underperforming 41-41.
And while the Wizards didn't get free-agent superstar forward Kevin Durant or even a draft pick, their starting five of point guard John Wall, shooting guard Bradley Beal, small forward Otto Porter Jr., power forward Markieff Morris and center Marcin Gortat isn't bad. Wall and Beal are star players, and the remaining trio could start for many teams. Throw in rising second-year forward Kelly Oubre Jr., and a healthy team could contend in the spring if it truly follows new coach Scott Brooks' system of hustle and defense.
Of course, that's a big if. Wall, Beal and Gortat have endured injuries through recent years, especially Beal. The guard has only played more than 63 games once during the past four seasons and managed just 55 last year. Wall underwent double knee surgery during the offseason.
Still, Wall and Beal are among the NBA's top backcourts, when healthy. The former made the All-Star Game three straight years, and the latter will certainly do so if healthy. It's a slightly strange dynamic, with the pair admitting they compete against each other at times on the court, rather than opponents. They both like to score, with Wall averaging 19.9 points last season to Beal's 17.4. But it's not a competition that undermines team chemistry.
Expectations are raised for Beal after signing a five-year, $128 million deal last summer. He spent the preseason forcing opposing big men to defend him inside. Yet Beal is also a 39.7 percent 3-point shooter, so penetrating more often with players like Wall gives the Wizards a versatile offense to confuse opponents.
With their backcourt once more set, the Wizards now have a faster frontcourt sans the plodding Nene. Gortat is an excellent passer and rebounder, while Porter and Morris score enough. If Oubre scores as expected, the Wizards have enough balance to avoid panic should injuries once more cripple them.
Now, can they play defense? Former head coach Randy Wittman stressed it, but once Washington moved to a small-ball offense late last season, its defense collapsed, and Wittman's influence evaporated. The Wizards needed a new voice, so now it's Brooks trying to get players to concentrate on the game's thankless tasks. With a young roster, including three undrafted rookies, Washington allowed the NBA's sixth fewest points through the preseason.
Ultimately, the Wizards are good enough to challenge in the Eastern Conference, though cracking the top five, much less challenging the defending NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers in the postseason, is ambitious. But for a franchise with little to show during the past 30 years, at least Washington promises to be competitive, and maybe a little more.