It’s easy to watch what transpired this summer and look at the Eastern Conference as a wasteland. Paul George and Jimmy Butler were shipped West for little return. LeBron James is not so quietly planning a move to LA himself, leaving the East wide open for any star who is willing to take a seat at the throne. Assuming LeBron leaves it will be the first time someone else will represent the East in the Finals.
Things are definitely in limbo to say the least. But with so much star talent outbound there will be a lot of opportunity for the other guys. John Wall has carried himself like a superstar and now he can finally make that run. Giannis Antetokounmpo made some noise last year. With just LeBron in his way the Greek Freak could start his ascension as the new king of the East.
Same goes for the two unicorns in the Atlantic division, Kristaps Porzingis and Joel Embiid. Can they start to carry their struggling franchises back to relevance or will the Boston Celtics reign supreme? A lot of moving parts to get to in a conference that is going through a rebuild itself.
Let’s break it down with takes from Mike Cortez and Tyler Birss of H&H.
Can the Wizards capitalize on the shifting conference dynamics and finally become a true contender?
The mass exodus to the West should benefit the stars in the East, right? That’s just basic cause and effect. Sadly, that can’t be said for the Wizards here. The East is considerably weaker with Paul George and Jimmy Butler gone, but the top remained untouched. The top two teams – Cavs and Celtics – swapped point guards and the Celtics added a star. That puts the Wizards at third best, which is their ceiling assuming no major injuries to the Cavs or the Celtics.
Last season was the chance for the Wizards to reach the Conference Finals. John Wall’s knees were refurbished, Bradley Beal was healthy, and Otto Porter came into his own. The odds of all three things happening again is not something I’d feel confident betting on. Porter just signed a fat contract but what if he isn’t the 43.4 percent three point shooter he was last year?
With or without Porter the backcourt of Wall and Beal is good enough to snag a top three seed out East. They will swap spots with the Raptors but the Celtics are still the clear-cut number two. It has nothing to do with the front line guys. You can still talk me into the Wizards starting five over the Celtics. The bench is where things remain unbalanced.
The sole reason the Wizards fell to the Celtics last season was their lack of depth. Wall and Beal were dead. There was no backup for Wall in that series and there is still no backup, at least one you can realistically rely on. They are contenders in name only, becoming the immediate beneficiary of any chaos up top.
The Washington Wizards have teased us for years. Well, maybe they’ve teased you, collective NBA audience, not me. Nearly every year, John Wall’s ascension and Cleveland’s wobbly regular season status pens the pages with claims of which Eastern foe will finally prevent LeBron James from reaching the Finals. People love a dark horse, a pick that they select which will make them appear smart and thoughtful if it comes true. Friend A – “You see Wall and Bradley Beal this year? I think they could challenge Cleveland.”
The hapless idiot on the receiving end of the words files the comment away in his mental cabinet, researches some stats and sees a few Wall dunk highlights, then recites the same line to another friend. Time is a flat circle much like the Wizards are a tease. Before too long, the unique faith in Washington among casual NBA watchers becomes something of a trend. People start to actually believe they could challenge Cleveland.
Except it never happens. I don’t mean a Wizards victory over the Cavs never happens – I literally mean the desired matchup never even happens. Last year was a quality time to strike with the Boston Celtics looking woeful in the playoffs. The Wizards had enough to eliminate the shaky Celtics and finally meet the Cavs in a meaningful postseason showdown. It didn’t happen last year, and with Kyrie Irving plus Gordon Hayward now in Boston uniforms, additions that should prevent the Celtics from being shaky, I don’t see that changing.
This is what has occurred in the East over the course of the offseason, and I mean this specifically to what it means for 2017-18 – the Cavs became worse but remain heavy favorites, the Celtics became better and closed the gap between them and Cleveland, and Washington’s firm placement as the third best conference team increased in stability. Barring an unexpected injury for Cleveland or Boston, there’s nothing that tells me the Wizards will surpass either organization.
Some of Wall’s dunks or Beal’s offensive explosions might tease you into thinking otherwise. With Otto Porter still in DC and improving every year, the teasing might increase. This will be amplified by Cleveland having an even worse regular season than last year, prompting the inevitable questions of who will knock them off in the playoffs. Boston will be the logical potential pick, but Washington will be the sexy one. And in the minds of casual NBA fans, why be logical when you can be sexy?
The Wizards win 51 games, lock up the three-seed, and once again fail to make meaningful noise in the playoffs. It’s prophecy.