Playoff Result: N/A
Key Additions: Otto Porter (draft), Glen Rice Jr. (draft), Martell Webster (re-signed), Eric Maynor (free agent)
Key Losses: Cartier Martin (free agent), AJ Price (free agent)
Projected 2013-14 Record: 44-38 (7th in East)*
What to Expect: Barring injuries, most NBA prognosticators have the Heat, Bulls, Pacers, Nets and Knicks (in whatever order) penciled in as the top 5 teams in the Eastern Conference. The Hawks, owners of a streak of six consecutive postseason appearances, are expected to compete with up-and-coming teams such as the Cavaliers, Pistons and Washington Wizards for the remaining three playoff spots in the East.
As USA Today’s Sean Highkin noted in his NBA Watchability Rankings, the Wizards were two completely different teams last season. The team started 5-28 as point guard John Wall recovered from a knee injury, then went .500 the rest of the way and looked like a playoff team. Sadly, due to the Wizards’ imbalanced roster construction and a preseason injury to starting center Emeka Okafor, the team may struggle early again.
The Wizards are sort of the anti-Hawks. Whereas the Hawks have depth at point guard, power forward and center, the Wizards have only three players 6-10 or taller. Okafor is one of those, and if he misses extended time it will mean extra work for Nene, a PF/C not known for his durability. Despite all its struggles last season, the Wizards still managed to finish in the top 10 in defensive efficiency (although the team was dead last in offensive efficiency). Nene isn’t nearly the defender Okafor is. Unless the latter recovers quickly, Washington faces an uphill battle.
Beyond Okafor and Nene, the team’s only other big man is the unproven Jan Vesely, who had an encouraging run over the summer for his native Czech Republic at the European championships. The sixth overall pick in the 2011 NBA draft has looked like a bust until now. The Wizards must hope he develops into a rotation NBA big man because the team doesn’t have any other options.
While the Wizards are thin up front, the team boasts wing depth the Hawks can only dream of. Despite preseason injuries to Chris Singleton and third overall pick Otto Porter (a player I was not fond of in my draft preview), the Wizards still have veterans Trevor Ariza, Martell Webster and Al Harrington at small forward. The latter was a player I hoped the Hawks would bring back, and who could have made a significant impact on Atlanta’s wing depth.
Meanwhile at shooting guard, as Highkin noted in the article linked above, Bradley Beal played like a potential All-Star after Wall’s return last season. His 3-point percentage shot from an anemic 32% in Wall’s absence to almost 47% upon his return. The combination of Wall and Beal figures to be one of the most dynamic and entertaining back courts in the NBA this season, assuming injuries to the front line don’t set the team on a course similar to last year.
Beal is backed up by veteran Leandro Barbosa, promising guard Garrett Temple and second round pick Glen Rice Jr. The latter, a product of Walton High School and Georgia Tech, I expect to succeed as an NBA player. However, he may have a tough time breaking in with the Wizards due to the log jam on the wing, where Webster and Ariza will see time at both small forward and shooting guard.
Matchup with the Hawks: Given the contrast in roster construction, the matchup between Atlanta and Washinton will be fascinating. Okafor’s return to health will be key for the Wizards as Nene and Vesely will get abused inside by Al Horford and Paul Millsap in his absence. Meanwhile, presumptive Hawks wing starters Kyle Korver and DeMarre Carroll will have their work cut out for them guarding Washington’s laundry list of wings.
But the real matchup to watch when the Wizards play the Hawks will be Jeff Teague vs. Wall. Teague came into the league almost as an afterthought in the 2009 draft that produced point guards Stephen Curry, Ty Lawson, Jrue Holiday, Brandon Jennings and Ricky Rubio. Wall came into the league as the first overall pick a year later, and was anointed as a superstar-in-waiting from day one. However, despite Wall’s higher profile, he has yet to prove himself in the playoffs as Teague has. Look for Teague to continue his steady progress and lead the Hawks to a 7th consecutive playoff appearance while attempting to keep Wall’s Wizards on the outside looking in.
*predicted record based on Bo’s ESPN Forecast projections for every team