Wizards could be one of East's teams on the rise for the future

Wizards could be one of East's teams on the rise for the future
April 30, 2014, 10:00 am
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There’s disappointment, to be sure, about the Bulls’ early playoff exit, but after the Wizards’ 4-1 first-round series win, there isn’t much debate about which team was the more talented one in the matchup.

Entering the series, despite Washington’s 2-1 regular-season record against the Bulls, the lower-seeded squad was underestimated, as it was assumed that its collective lack of playoff experience as a unit — not individually, however, as the explosive backcourt of All-Star point guard John Wall and second-year shooting guard Bradley Beal, as well as backup power forward Trevor Booker, are the only players who could be described as either young or postseason novices — would be the main issue against a battle-tested Bulls team with home-court advantage. Not only did that quickly prove to be a false premise with the Wizards winning the first two games of the series in Chicago, but Beal and Wall, in particular, showed that they had mental toughness beyond their years.

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Washington now has to be regarded as one of the Eastern Conference’s up-and-coming teams moving forward, no matter what happens later in the playoffs, as it has a 10-year starting backcourt, a rock-solid veteran big-man tandem in Nene and Marcin Gortat and Wizards head coach Randy Wittman, in the final year of his contract, actually got the better of Bulls counterpart Tom Thibodeau, known as one of the elite coaches in the league, during the series.

Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld, also in the last year of his current deal — but like Wittman, it’s likely that he receives a contract extension — has some decisions to make over the summer, specifically whether or not to pay Gortat or veteran small forward Trevor Ariza, an underrated and versatile two-way player. It might not be feasible for Washington to pay both players, who should attract considerable attention from other suitors around the league, and size usually wins in those scenarios, so Gortat should remain a Wizard, especially since reserve sharpshooter Martell Webster received his own extension from the franchise just last summer.

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Additionally, keeping cap space available for Beal’s future contract will be important, as will positioning the organization for a dream scenario of bringing home Washington-area native Kevin Durant in a few seasons. Durant is the rare superstar who doesn’t shy away from sharing how much his hometown means to him and assuming Oklahoma City, presently on the brink of elimination, shockingly loses in the first round to seventh-seeded Memphis, doubt about the Thunder’s chances at contending could begin to creep into his line of thinking, meaning the Wizards acquiring him in free agency isn’t as far-fetched as people think.

But for now, simply taking another step, both in the playoffs and in terms of their players individual development, should suffice for the Wizards.

Wall, the former No. 1 overall pick, has learned how to harness his speed and become more of a floor general, while Beal, at only 20 years old, is already one of the league’s top shooting guards. Gortat is a physical inside presence and Nene showed off his full offensive arsenal against Bulls’ All-Star center Joakim Noah, the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year, albeit a hobbled version by the end of the series. With role players like Ariza, Webster, 38-year-old backup point guard Andre Miller and Booker — another free agent-to-be, the undersized big man has also raised his profile with his defensive versatility, high-energy play and better-than-advertised offensive game — whether Atlanta, currently up 3-2, or Indiana advances to the second round, either opponent will have their hands full against the Wizards and it wouldn’t be a complete surprise to see them advance to the Eastern Conference Finals and give Miami, assuming the defending champs get by the Brooklyn-Toronto series winner, some headaches.

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So while the Bulls’ disappointment will linger into the summer, there’s a good chance that with Derrick Rose’s return to the lineup and some offseason roster upgrades, they will have the opportunity to lock horns with Washington again in the playoffs for years to come.