RICHMOND, Va. — The Washington Wizards are not timid.
“I feel like we’re the best team in the East, I really do,” Bradley Beal said. “That’s how we feel coming into the season.”
“I feel like I am the best point guard in the Eastern Conference,” John Wall said. “Maybe people didn’t get to see me on national TV as much last year, but they will this year.”
“There’s a confidence to our team,” coach Scott Brooks said. “But we still have to get better.”
The Wizards’ brashness is part of their personality, and it exudes from their franchise player, Wall. He is one of the NBA’s treasures when it comes to quotes; he’s almost always honest. His point about his standing among East point guards had merit. He was one of only three players to average 20 points and 10 assists a game last season. The other two were Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Wall also led in the NBA in steals.
“I want to be in the MVP conversation,” Wall said. “My expectations are very high.”
All this also comes out of a bit of an inferiority complex. It bothers the Wizards when they are not included in talk about the contenders. It’s irritating to them that the summer was focused on the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics.
True, they fell short of the conference finals last season after a bitter Game 7 loss in Boston in the second round. They also haven’t won 50 games in 38 years. They won their first division title since 1978 last spring, though only two teams in the Southeast were over .500.
No matter — the Wizards want to be heard and they intend to back up their words. The team’s mojo was flowing last week during training camp at Virginia Commonwealth University. Continuity was the buzzword. In an era where there’s huge turnover in the league — especially in aforementioned Boston and Cleveland — the Wizards are bringing back their entire core from last season.
Thanks to a huge financial outlay to Wall, who signed a four-year, $170 million extension, and to Otto Porter, who got a $106 million deal, the Wizards are generally all paid. Beal is in the second year of a $128 million deal, and Marcin Gortat and Markieff Morris, the other expected starters, have multiple years left on long-term deals.
“I admire [general manager] Ernie [Grunfeld] and [owner] Ted Leonsis for their loyalty and trust in us,” Beal said. “They’ve taken care of us. Now they expect big things from us too, and we put that same pressure on ourselves.”
After starting 2-8 last season — which is still a sore point because they had to play a Game 7 on the road — the Wizards went 47-25. They were one of the best teams in the league on their home court, going 30-11.
They believe, and there’s little use convincing them otherwise, that the Cavs tanked down the stretch last season so they would be on the opposite side of the bracket in the East playoffs. Cleveland lost its final four games, sliding from the No. 1 seed to No. 2 and didn’t have to face Washington.
The Cavs won two of the three regular-season meetings. But in late March, the Wizards crushed the Cavs in Cleveland — Wall had 37 points and 11 assists that night — and the Cavs beat them in overtime in Washington in February only when LeBron James banked in a long 3-pointer at the fourth-quarter buzzer that was one of the most miraculous shots of the NBA season.
“To be honest, I think they said [to themselves] if we’re going to see them, we don’t want it to be until the East finals,” Wall said. “We were the team that gave them the most trouble in the East. That’s my opinion, some people might not agree with me.”
Beal said as much on television in May when the Cavs thrashed the Celtics in the conference finals, and it elicited a strong response from JR Smith on social media.
If you don’t knock it off! Win game 7 an then talk. Till then sit home an enjoy the show! https://t.co/aZkZ7Lpi4u
— JR Smith (@TheRealJRSmith) May 20, 2017
Beal hasn’t changed his feeling, though.
“We love the matchup against them and why not?” Beal said. “I said it and JR didn’t like it too much, some of their other guys didn’t like it too much. But I felt that way. It’s not disrespect with them, I’m not saying we’d have won the series, but I feel like our competition level and matchups would’ve been better. I’d have loved to see it, but at the end of the day you tip your hat to them. They’ve been in the Finals for the last three years.”
Bottom line: The Wizards are talented, and they have stability that should serve them well, although Morris is going to be sidelined until November after sports hernia surgery. Last season they had depth issues, which really showed up in the Celtics series when Brooks had to ride his front line heavy minutes. Wall admitted he’d lost his legs by the end of Game 7, when he had a weak fourth quarter while the Celtics rode the finest game of Kelly Olynyk’s career to a series win.
This summer, Grunfeld signed a group of veterans — Jodie Meeks, Tim Frazier and Mike Scott — and the hope is they can deliver in reserve roles. Ian Mahinmi, their big 2016 free agency acquisition, played only 31 games last season because of knee issues. He’s healthy and has dropped a bunch of weight and is hoping for a better season as a backup to Gortat.
Beal, who is only 24, is coming off the best season of his career. It was also the healthiest season of his career, as he played in 77 games after averaging only 61.8 games per season in his previous four years. Notably, Beal averaged a career-high 23.1 points and shot a career-best 40.4 percent from 3-point range and 48.4 percent from the field overall. Porter got a max offer sheet from the Brooklyn Nets after shooting 43.4 percent on 3-pointers. Gortat was one of 12 players in the league to average a points and rebounds double-double last season.
With an overall weaker East, there’s reason to believe the Wizards will break that 50-win drought and position themselves better for the postseason. But they’re going to have to do a lot of playing to back up their September words.
“I feel like we’re the team to beat,” Beal said. “But we’ve got to prove it.”