After five straight appearances in the NBA Draft Lottery, the Washington Wizards are all in for the 2013-14 playoffs. The team has enough pieces to compete for a lower-level seed in the Eastern Conference, but to make that happen, the Wizards need a few things to go their way.
Key No. 1 -- Stay Healthy
The Wizards' 2012-13 season got off to a rough start with injuries to the team's two most important players, point guard John Wall and forward/center Nene. Wall was sidelined for the first 33 games with a knee injury, while Nene missed the first nine games, and 21 games overall, with a nagging case of plantar fasciitis in his left foot. The Wizards got off to a 5-28 start and couldn't recover, finishing with a record of 29-53. This year, both players are starting the season healthy, and had a full slate of training camp, preseason games and practice.
When starting center Emeka Okafor was sidelined indefinitely with a herniated disc in his neck, the Wizards traded Okafor, along with a 2014 protected first-round pick, to the Phoenix Suns for 6-foot-11 center Marcin Gortat.
"It was a first-class move by an owner and an organization that said they're serious this year," ESPN analyst George Karl said of the trade during an NBA conference call. "I think their expectation is to make the playoffs, and if I had to pick them, I would say they're going to make the playoffs."
Wizards coach Randy Wittman said he expected Gortat to be an ideal fit for the Wizards' style of play.
"He's got good hands and he can run the floor, which fits in with us," Wittman said. "We want to run and obviously John has the ability to find people in transition. [Gortat] plays one way -- he plays hard -- and that's another talent, whether in practice or in games."
With Gortat at center, Nene can spend more time at his preferred power forward spot, which should help ease some of the wear and tear that affected him last season.
Key No. 2 -- Be More Consistent On Offense
Washington will need to improve its offensive execution, starting with cutting down on turnovers. During the 2012-13 season, the Wizards averaged 15.1 turnovers per game (tied for 23rd in the league) and 21.6 assists per game (19th in the league). It's a positive ratio, but short of the ideal 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio that playoff teams strive for.
"We've got to make a positive step offensively," Wittman said, "and I think it begins with taking care of the ball. You're going to make and miss shots, and I think we've got guys who can knock shots down, but you don't have an opportunity to make or miss a shot if you turn it over."
The Wizards averaged 93.2 points per game last season (tied for 28th in the league), while giving up an average of 95.8 points. The team's offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) was 97.8 last season, the worst in the NBA. The Wizards also had a bad habit of giving up leads late and throwing away games during the closing minutes.
"We have to be top five in execution," forward Martell Webster said. "We've been known to give up games in the fourth quarter, or even in the second half. Instead of playing down to our competition, we have to always play like we're playing against a top team in the league."
Key No. 3 -- Maintain Consistency On Defense
The Wizards may have had a dismal offensive rating, but they were stronger on defense. Washington finished the season with a defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) of 100.6 (eighth in the league). Wittman said he hoped the team could maintain that standard, and Webster agreed.
"Our defense was great last year, so picking up where we left off last year is very important," Webster said.
Key No. 4 -- Get Improved Bench Production
Washington upgraded its bench for the 2013 -14 season by adding point guard Eric Maynor and a sharp-shooting No. 2 guard in Glen Rice Jr., who mirrors his father. Rookie Otto Porter will be a well-rounded small forward who plays both ends of the court, although he's currently sidelined with a hip injury. Veteran forward Al Harrington brings stability, maturity and a scoring punch. The goal for any aspiring playoff team is to have as little drop-off as possible from the first unit to the second, which this season's bench players have a better chance of doing than last season's backups did.
"I know how valuable a bench is," said ESPN analyst Doug Collins, who coached the Wizards from 2001-03, on an NBA conference call. "I think Washington's bench is going to be critical."
Collins also said he thought Washington would contend for a 2013-14 playoff spot.
Key No. 5 -- Have Breakout Seasons From John Wall And Bradley Beal
Wall said he's ready, and hopeful, that this will be the year he makes a move toward the upper echelon of NBA point guards, while Beal has taken a step forward in maturity and confidence since his rookie season. During the preseason, Beal averaged 20.7 points per game on 51.9 percent shooting from the floor, and he has grown an inch taller since last year. He and Wall have excellent chemistry and could develop into of one the NBA's top backcourt duos.