TrueHoop: Washington Wizards

Grown-ups too: Wiz mature into contenders

January, 21, 2015
Jan 21
By Conor Dirks
Special to
John WallAP Photo/Jonathan BachmanThe first half has been pretty sweet for John Wall and the Wizards, who rank second in the East.
After an uneventful, blowout loss to the Wizards on Monday, Sixers coach Brett Brown took a deep breath and described Washington’s disciplined, imposing style of play: “It was times you look out at the floor, and you saw a bunch of men. You saw a physical, big, playoff-hardened team. They are strong at each position, and they’re physical at each position. And there are times sitting on the bench realizing just the difference in experience and maturity.”

It’s a far cry from the team John Wall inherited in 2010, when the Wizards were as disciplined as wildfire and as consistently disappointing as delivery pizza. Although Brown hoped aloud that his team’s growth could mirror that of Washington’s over the next few years, such a transformation does not happen without the timely intervention of both talent and culture.

According to coach Randy Wittman, in a recent interview with the Washington Post, when he took over for Flip Saunders one month into the 2011-12 season, he went straight to the top with a request. Calling a team that at that time featured mostly rookies and sophomores “career suicide,” Wittman told owner Ted Leonsis they needed fewer young players.

“We’ve got to get it to three or four, and then those other four spots we’ve got to get veteran guys in here that can teach these guys how to play,” Wittman said to his boss. “I said, 'That’s what my belief is,' and they believed it too, and that’s kind of what we’ve done.”

Now Wittman helms a veteran-laden team that has been consistently excellent defensively over the course of his employment and currently ranks sixth overall in that regard. With Wall and the wings acting as shepherds and bigs forming a barrier around the paint, the Wizards force teams to the outside, where the dice roll in Washington's favor. As of today, teams take the second-fewest shots within five feet against Wittman’s defense.

Despite improvement from the past season's scoring output, questions still surface with every poor outing -- and as recently as last week’s 80-point dud against the Brooklyn Nets. If teams such as the Atlanta Hawks and San Antonio Spurs perform basketball like jazz, Washington’s offense is more like a hummed hymn in the back of a church: unassuming, often out of tune, but still recognizable.

That the hum has at times been obscured against the league’s very best teams is a concern, especially given Washington’s unconvincing 0-3 record against Eastern Conference enemies Toronto and Atlanta. It might seem odd to criticize, given Washington’s ascendance and Wall’s MVP-caliber season, but this is an odd mix of a team, with veterans such as Paul Pierce eyeing the NBA Finals and recent draftees such as Bradley Beal still marking the trail. The future is bright, but the window has also, unexpectedly, cracked open.

In today’s data-driven NBA, Washington’s attack is a rare aesthetic. Wittman, a proud champion of yesteryear’s game, preaches openness rather than faith in statistical efficiency. To the former Hoosier, a 15-foot shot is a good shot as long as it’s open. For certain players, such as midrange automaton Kris Humphries, the logic holds. For others, such as 3-point marksman (and midrange apprentice) Beal, you have to wonder if the coach could put his star guard in better position to succeed.

Because when the Wizards launch from behind the line, they do it well. Washington boasts the second-best 3-point shooting percentage yet takes the second-fewest 3-point attempts per game. It flies in the face of the spreadsheet, sure, but it also flies in the face of sense. Framed at times as a false choice between quality and quantity, there’s work to be done if Washington wants to keep up with high-powered offenses such as Mike Budenholzer’s Hawks.

[+] EnlargeWizaeds
AP Photo/Alex BrandonA blend of old and new has helped push the Wizards into the upper crust of the Eastern Conference.
If there’s a path to true contention, Wall will be the engine powering the pilgrimage. Asked about Wall’s progression, Brown listed “world-class, A-to-B speed” that, in traversing a baseline in two steps or fewer, surpasses even Tony Parker at his fastest; a newly developed ability to “[put] somebody in his hip pocket” with a post game; and, importantly, the unconditional trust of his teammates. An effusive Brown admired how Washington’s big men run hard for Wall. Why? Because they know their young point guard will find them on the other side of the court.

That trust was earned. Once viewed by the league as lightning untamed, Wall has gained incremental focus. If at first a song’s chords played all at the same time, his game now has a discernible tempo, bought with the knowledge of when to slow down, when to fire a pass into the corner and, fortunately for D.C., when to burn down the court, ball in hand, faster than anyone in the league.

Whether there’s room for more abandon, with Washington ranked just 22nd in pace and driving to the basket fewer times than any team besides cellar-dwellers Minnesota and New York, is up for debate. Still, Wittman’s imperfect machine chugs along, better maintained than it has ever been and oiled with defensive effort and preventative positioning.

Even for consistent winners, however, keeping leads against the NBA’s best is a complicated task, frustrated by the glut of factors that go into each individual play. After the convincing win against the Sixers, Wall recalled more dubious efforts:

“We just got to find ways to stick with it, and it might seem like it’s no fun or not exciting, but we got to make it a game where we try and get better for the future, especially when we play a team like Chicago, Cleveland or Atlanta, where when you get a lead against those teams, you have to learn how to keep it.”

On a more critical scale, keeping a lead in the Eastern Conference standings against those teams could prove just as difficult. With Cleveland finally rounding into form, Toronto unblinkingly successful against the Wizards and Atlanta tearing through the toughest teams in the West, the East is top-heavy with talented teams, with each believing the conference is open enough to make a run.

That’s all right. Even with newfound administrative aplomb, John Wall knows how to run.

Conor Dirks writes for the TrueHoop Network. Follow him @ConorDDirks.

The other early MVP candidates

January, 15, 2015
Jan 15
Abbott By Henry Abbott
Marc Gasol, Damian Lillard, John Wall and Kyle Korver are all possible MVPs this season, says David Thorpe.

John Wall vs. Kyrie Irving

December, 10, 2014
Elhassan By Amin Elhassan
Is John Wall or Kyrie Irving the better player? ESPN Insiders Amin Elhassan and David Thorpe discuss.

John Wall gets his point across for Wizards

November, 22, 2014
Wallace By Michael Wallace
WASHINGTON -- After spending the previous two days pushing and pleading for his team to show maturity and growth from characteristic lapses to start the second halves of games, Washington Wizards coach Randy Wittman found himself Friday night in a frustratingly familiar place.

Just 48 hours earlier, the same scenario played out at the start of the third quarter, with point guard John Wall spearheading the sloppy play and sulking that gave the Dallas Mavericks an opening to storm ahead for a double-digit lead and eventually a 105-102 victory.

Wittman spent that night and the next day constructively criticizing Wall’s competitive maturity. He challenged his team to grow up and learn how to prevent one bad stretch from leading to another and ultimately costing themselves winnable games.

Yet again, the Wizards were in the midst of a turnover-induced meltdown against Cleveland.

And again, an opposing team had converted those miscues into a string of unanswered baskets.

So again, Wittman tapped his shoulders as he stormed onto the court to break up the action. Only this time, unlike on Wednesday, Wittman’s actions spoke louder than any words he considered delivering.

“I called a quick timeout again,” Wittman said Friday of the pivotal moment before Washington regrouped to shut down LeBron James and the Cavaliers in a 91-78 victory. “Nothing really was said. It was a 20-second timeout. I just let them talk among each other. They knew that this was not the start we wanted. So I thought after that, we got going a little bit.”

[+] EnlargeJohn Wall
Geoff Burke/USA TODAY SportsJohn Wall scored 17 of his 28 points in the third quarter Friday night.
Two days after Wall was called out and took responsibility for the Dallas loss, he shouted back with one of his most complete games of the season. It was a transformation from third-quarter scapegoat on Wednesday to third-quarter catalyst Friday, having scored 17 of his game-high 28 in that period.

Wall relished the opportunity for redemption on several levels. In addition to his stretch of turnover problems Wednesday, Wall also missed 12 of his 17 shots against the Mavericks. That kept him in the practice facility for an extended shooting workout that lasted nearly an hour after Thursday’s practice.

Another motivating factor, although Wall repeatedly downplayed it publicly, was his matchup with point guard Kyrie Irving, who was selected No. 1 overall a year after Wall was taken with the top pick in 2010. Wall has felt overlooked and underappreciated nationally when compared with Irving.

And it was also an opportunity for Wall to shine in a nationally televised game and return some of the same lessons on patience and process to the star-studded but struggling Cavaliers that James, then with the Miami Heat, used to routinely offer to Wall during tough stretches for the Wizards. The Wizards (8-3) are off to their best start in 40 years, but they lacked a signature victory over a quality opponent after losing to Miami in the season opener and recently to Toronto and Dallas.

Considering the state of disarray the Cavaliers are in right now amid a 5-6 start, it’s debatable how much of a statement victory Friday’s game was for the Wizards. But it didn’t lack for luster amid spotlight.

“I feel like, yeah, it’s a statement,” said Wall, averaging career-high marks with 19.5 points and 9.1 assists per game this season. “We lost to Toronto pretty badly. Dallas, we felt like we let that game get away. And we haven’t beaten a big-man team, everybody says. So this game was pretty big.”

But Wall insists the win only resonates and boosts the Wizards' profile as a legit contender if they can follow it up in the second game of a back-to-back set Saturday in Milwaukee.

“When you win this game, you have to back it up,” Wall said. “You win this one and then lose [Saturday], and you’re back to [critics] saying, ‘Are they really that or really this?’ If you want to be a legit team in this league, you’ve got to go right back out and win these type of games.”

Wall personified the three characteristics Wittman hoped to see from his team this week: resilience, toughness and maturity. It all resonated in Wall’s play, specifically in the third quarter. Wittman’s timeout was called about two minutes into the third quarter after Wall and Paul Pierce committed turnovers on consecutive possessions and Cleveland cut a 15-point deficit to nine.

Wall’s 3-pointer out of the timeout pushed the lead back to double figures, and his two free throws later in the quarter gave Washington its largest lead at 74-58. He shot 7-of-9 in the quarter and added two steals, two rebounds and an assist in the most productive quarter by a Wizard this season.

Wittman left his players to discuss among themselves the necessary corrective measures needed during that 20-second timeout. But what was actually communicated during that break?

Depends on which player was asked.

“I was telling my teammates to be aggressive,” Wall said. “If they have open shots, take them. If you miss them, we can live with that. But if we’re living with turnovers and bad shots, that lets a team get into the open court. We moved on. We failed quickly and moved on. Against Dallas, we’d get a turnover and hold our head [down]. Tonight, we just kept it moving, said it was our fault and kept playing.”

It took Wall about 30 seconds to deliver that quote, about 10 more than allowed during the timeout.

Bradley Beal, who had 12 points and five assists in his second game back from wrist surgery, suggested the message among players was about remaining focused and avoiding a repeat from Wednesday.

“We were able to stay poised,” Beal said. “It kind of got out of hand a little bit. We called a timeout and regrouped. We talked about the mistakes we made on the floor and what we needed to do better. And it stopped right there and we turned it around.”

Pierce, a 17-year veteran who has been a calming influence in those moments during his first season in Washington, couldn’t remember exactly what was said.

“I don’t even know,” Pierce said. “It was like three timeouts during that quarter. I’m so pumped with adrenaline right now after the game, I can’t even remember. But I’m sure it was something about our defense. It was the defense. That’s our identity. We have to be a hard-nosed defensive team that can shut down teams when they come in here every night. We’re taking steps in the right direction.”

Friday was more than a step. It was more like a significant leap defensively.

On the heels of giving up 105 points to the league’s top-scoring team, the Wizards held the Cavaliers, who are fifth in scoring, to their lowest output of the season. Cleveland shot a season-low 38 percent shooting from the field, were outscored 50-34 in the paint and 40-9 off the bench.

Add the 24 points the Wizards scored off 19 turnovers by the Cavaliers, and it was a dominant display.

“We were really locked in with five guys, for the most part, all night,” Wittman said. “We were aggressive pretty much all night. John started it, obviously, bouncing back. He wasn’t happy with his last game against Dallas and stepped up and came back. He was really aggressive from the start.”

Pierce senses Wall had an extra edge when he entered the game.

By the time it was over, it was clear Wall had proved his point.

Why Paul Pierce is one of a kind

November, 5, 2014
Abbott By Henry Abbott
Michael Wallace explains why Paul Pierce embraces his reputation as a tough character.

Wizards unwilling to wait

October, 17, 2014
By Conor Dirks
Special to
WizardsChris Covatta/Getty ImagesIs the Wizards' time now? An accelerated rebuilding plan has Washington thinking big (for a change).
In late September of last year, just before the 2013-14 regular season, Emeka Okafor sat in a fold-out chair and looked across the practice arena floor with a neutral expression, waiting for an interview to begin at the Washington Wizards’ media day.

The excitement that normally greets a new season had been dulled just days earlier by the news of Okafor’s disconsolate diagnosis: a herniated disc in the neck. Okafor told the Washington Post: “It’s awkward. I was looking forward to starting this year and getting things kicked off right. Sometimes, you have plans and it doesn’t work out, man, so you have to make other ones and just roll with it.”

It turned out that the team, harried by years of inadequacy and premature announcements of arrival, wasn’t willing to wait.

Less than a month later, and mere days before the start of the season, team president Ernie Grunfeld took Okafor’s advice and traded his starting center and a 2014 first-round pick to the Phoenix Suns for Marcin Gortat. The trade was rightly described as desperate (more a statement of fact than a value judgment), and many worried that Grunfeld, who has shown little ability to mine Round 1 for NBA talent outside of no-brainers such as Wall and Bradley Beal, had made a mistake common among executives fighting for their jobs: trading potentially franchise-altering assets for rented improvement.

But Gortat’s addition did more than save Washington’s season. It liberated the Wizards. With the playoffs in sight, the youthful rebuild -- the mythical adherence to an ambitious model popularized by Oklahoma City -- was abandoned. Former lottery pick Jan Vesely and offseason acquisition Eric Maynor were eagerly traded for the relatively ancient “Professor” Andre Miller. Again, it reeked of desperation, and again, the realness of that desperation did not necessarily invalidate the risk.

Days later, team owner Ted Leonsis and Grunfeld welcomed another veteran, Drew Gooden, to the team, first on a series of 10-day contracts and later for the rest of the season. In a way, it was brilliant electioneering; the public faces of the franchise (Wall and Beal) remained precariously young, while the rest of the team quickly transformed from a mixture of unrealized potential, youth in regress and abandoned project players to a smattering of seasoned veterans ready to prop up the product, if only for a limited time.

For the most part, the behind-the-scenes vintage went unnoticed. Although Wall and Beal were the only two young, inexperienced players in Washington’s rotation (Trevor Ariza and Gortat were even on opposite sides of the 2009 NBA Finals), the team seemed to project that mirage of youth and inexperience during and after their emphatic first-round playoff series win against the Chicago Bulls.

Now, entering the 2014-15 season, Washington inconspicuously carries the league’s oldest roster.

As a result of the team’s paradigm shift towards veteran, rather than peer, support for its young stars and subsequent postseason success, a discussion of Washington’s notable draft and development failures is no longer at the forefront of the conversation about the Wizards, even if some are still anxious to see Otto Porter Jr. show the “NBA-readiness” attributed to him before he was drafted third overall in 2013.

Fortunately for Porter Jr., and the Wizards, the former Georgetown star won’t be rushed into the starting lineup following an offseason back surgery for forward Martell Webster. The Truth is in town.

Paul Pierce’s signing was, at the very least, tentative validation of the philosophy behind the Gortat trade -- a trade that catalyzed this era of D.C. basketball. Pierce, both advocate and proof, told the media in late September that Washington was “becoming a destination.”

Although Pierce told David Aldridge that he feels familiar enough with what Ariza -- who left this offseason for a big payday in Houston -- provided to replicate it, he also touted an added versatility that could help unclog Washington’s inflexible and underdeveloped half-court offense. John Wall will keep his shooters well fed in transition, but he desperately needs a player like Pierce, who can create something out of the final five seconds of a shot clock after a broken play.

Still, it wouldn’t be a Wizards offseason without a setback. Injuries to Webster and Beal -- who will miss at least the first month of the season -- aren’t catastrophic because of the projected brevity of each player’s absence. But combined with Ariza’s departure, what was a strength (Washington was the fourth-best 3-point shooting team in the NBA last season) becomes a massive uncertainty: The team will start the season without a proven ace.

[+] EnlargeNene and Marcin Gortat
Chris Covatta/Getty ImagesTrading for Marcin Gortat was a risk, but he and Nene have given the Wizards some needed muscle.
At full strength with the additions of Pierce, Kris Humphries and DeJuan Blair, these Wizards still aren’t quite stacked enough to challenge Cleveland for the Eastern Conference crown, are older than you might think and remain helmed by a limited coach who --- outside of the Chicago series -- didn’t show the ability to turn what was one of the best starting lineups in the NBA into a consistent winner.

But what separates this team from the fun but deficient Wizards of the mid- to late aughts is that, if they aren’t up to the task, there is an escape route that doesn’t involve starting from scratch.

Instead of re-signing Ariza long-term and committing to a good, but not great, roster, Washington structured each of its offseason contracts to terminate neatly before the summer of 2016. In 2016, with Wall and Beal coming into their prime, the Wizards will have money for a franchise-altering talent (or two, considering the NBA’s prodigious new TV deal). It’s been suggested, with no semblance of subtlety (even in self-conscious satire), that D.C. native Kevin Durant might be that talent.

For once, the Wizards are both good and not hamstrung indefinitely. That flexibility will allow Grunfeld to pivot when an opportunity emerges from the fog. That flexibility allows for joy, rather than obligation, in chasing increasing expectations.

The since-abandoned Oklahoma City model was never much of a “model” at all. Mimics in the method, such as Washington, Charlotte and Orlando, have discovered that Sam Presti’s rebuild of the former Seattle Supersonics was a process to pull ideas out of rather than trace from a template.

Having top-six lottery picks in four consecutive drafts was not enough. Youth, with all of its compelling vibrancy, was not enough. Especially when the losses piled up and fans became aware that the overused “rebuild” term was more of a branding effort than prima facie evidence of smart management.

After losing in overtime to Charlotte in the last week of the 2013-14 regular season, the Wizards, inconsistent as ever, seemed destined to be surpassed by a surging then-Bobcats team, fall prey to Miami in the first round of the playoffs and cease mattering long before anyone outside of D.C. started paying attention.

A loss from Charlotte to the struggling Celtics, stars resting in Brooklyn and four straight Washington wins to end the season changed this team’s trajectory, setting the stage for a playoff series win that gave the Wizards something they’ve sorely lacked since Wall arrived: relevance.

Conor Dirks writes for the TrueHoop Network. Follow him @ConorDDirks.

The back of the envelope guide to Las Vegas Summer League: The East

July, 11, 2014
By D.J. Foster
Special to
Jabari Parker and Andrew WigginsGetty ImagesJabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins, the draft's top two, will get their first taste of NBA ball in Vegas.
There’s something for everyone at Las Vegas Summer League. For the prized rookies in the 2014 draft class, it’s a chance to get their feet wet. For the prospects who haven’t found luck in the league yet, it’s an opportunity to jump-start a career. For others, it’s simply a shot at getting on the radar.

The following is our annual "back of the envelope" guide to the Las Vegas Summer League teams, highlighting some of the more promising and intriguing prospects who will take the floor. The East guide is below, and the West guide is here.

Atlanta Hawks

Adreian Payne: Stretch big men are here to stay, and the Hawks continued to hoard them by drafting Payne, a dangerous pick-and-pop threat with legitimate 3-point range. It’s rare to see this kind of size, skill and athleticism in one player, but Payne might be limited to a smaller role because of a lung condition that affects his ability to play long stretches and big minutes.

Dennis Schroder: Watching Schroder run the point is an adventure. He applies legitimate full-court pressure on ball handlers nearly every time up the court, and he’s not bashful about trying to thread the needle through traffic for perfect dimes on the other end. There’s no fear here, and there’s rarely a dull moment, either.

Walter Tavares: It’s stranger than fiction, but Taveras was completely off the basketball radar until a German tourist in Cape Verde recruited him to try out. He had never even touched a basketball until 2010, but at 7-foot-3 with a reported 7-foot-9 wingspan and traffic signal-sized hands, he has what can't be taught.

Charlotte Hornets

Noah Vonleh: His draft-night fall was plenty fortuitous for Charlotte, as it would ultimately need a stretch 4 to pair with Al Jefferson, with Josh McRoberts now committed to the Miami Heat. Vonleh is a little reminiscent of Chris Bosh offensively, and his length and mobility defensively will cover up for mistakes while he learns the ropes. He could be the steal of the draft.

Cody Zeller: Last year’s fourth overall pick surprised a lot of folks by shooting jumpers and playing on the perimeter during last year’s summer league, but it didn’t pay dividends when the real games started. Zeller shot just 27 percent from 16 feet and out as a rookie, and it’s still unclear what his role will be at the NBA level. He’s a great athlete and very active, but Charlotte will need more than that justify his draft slot.

Roberto Nelson: The name might ring a bell if you’ve read George Dohrmann’s excellent book “Play Their Hearts Out." It’s a testament to Nelson’s drive that he’s made it to this point despite some well-documented efforts by AAU sharks to submarine his career. Here’s hoping he gets some minutes to show his stuff.

Chicago Bulls

Doug McDermott: In this strange setting where Anthony Randolph and Adam Morrison have looked unstoppable, McDermott might not quiet concerns of his ability to keep up in the NBA, regardless of how well he plays. That said, he made mincemeat of college competition for four straight years at Creighton, so he’s a strong bet to win MVP in Vegas. For your own sake, though, don’t bet on summer league.

Tony Snell: After an incredibly disappointing rookie campaign wherein Snell had a PER of 8.0 and shot 38.4 percent from the field, he’ll be looking for some redemption. You get the feeling Tom Thibodeau would have never played him if it wasn’t out of total necessity, but the scoring wing could earn some trust going forward with a more assertive offensive performance in Vegas.

Cameron Bairstow: A former teammate of Snell’s at New Mexico, Bairstow exploded on to the draft scene after Snell’s touches started to go his way. Bairstow is a serious inside-outside threat offensively, and if he expands his range on his jumper out to the 3-point line, he’ll be a nice weapon for Thibodeau to utilize off the bench.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Anthony Bennett: After missing out on the opportunity to play in front of UNLV fans last year at summer league because of rotator cuff surgery, Bennett should draw a big crowd even if the hype balloon has deflated some after a rough rookie season. It’s about baby steps at this point with Bennett, though, and showing that he’s at least in shape and playing fast will calm some nerves in Cleveland.

Andrew Wiggins: Another year, another first overall pick from Canada. Wiggins is the wing defender Cleveland desperately needs now, and perhaps he’ll be much more than that down the line. He’s not a stranger to big expectations, but the first days on the job always leave you under the microscope. If his college career foretold anything, no one in Vegas will have his performances more closely scrutinized.

Matthew Dellavedova: He was one of the only players Mike Brown could get consistent effort from last season, which led to more playing time than expected in his rookie season. With Jarrett Jack off to Brooklyn and Kyrie Irving’s shaky injury history, Dellavedova might be thrust into serious action again next season. These could be important reps.

Miami Heat

Shabazz Napier: Kobe Bryant isn’t even following poor Kendall Marshall on Twitter, but LeBron James wasn’t bashful about giving Napier his stamp of approval even before the two were teammates. While that confidence from the best player in the world is great to have, it also puts a big, red bull's-eye on his back. LeBron called him the best point guard in the draft, after all, so now it’s on the former UConn guard to start proving it.

James Ennis: This is just what Miami needs, right? Ennis is an athletic, 3-and-D wing who opted to play professionally in Australia after being drafted in the second round by Miami last season. He has glue guy written all over him, and with Shane Battier stepping away, Ennis could potentially have a role in Miami next season.

Justin Hamilton: He received plenty of burn in the Orlando Summer League (Miami is double-dipping this year along with the Houston Rockets and Philadelphia 76ers), and after playing very well in the D-League last season, the former LSU big man could win a roster spot, particularly if he continues to shoot the ball well from distance. If you haven’t caught on yet, that’s a niche every team wants to fill.

Milwaukee Bucks

Giannis Antetokounmpo: The “Greek Freak” was Cirque De Soleil on a basketball court last season, and now he’s reportedly 2 inches taller and presumably even more capable of ridiculous feats. Few players in this setting will illicit this level of reaction -- you’ll drop your jaw, you’ll yell, you’ll jump out of your seat. He’s big fun.

Jabari Parker: The Bucks might be the hottest ticket in Vegas. Parker, the second overall pick of this year's draft, was touted as being the most "NBA-ready” prospect out there, and he’ll get plenty of chances to show why that is. Milwaukee doesn’t have to get too cute offensively –- just get Parker the ball and get the heck out of the way.

Nate Wolters: It never hurts to have a steady hand at point guard, especially since summer league is basketball’s Wild West. Shots fly everywhere and guys scramble all over the place, but Wolters has shown he’ll stay cool in less-than-ideal circumstances. In 58 played games in hi3s rookie season, Wolters had more than one turnover only 13 times. He’ll be a sight for sore eyes.

New York Knicks

Shane Larkin: The speed merchant might end up being the key to the Tyson Chandler trade despite the fact that he’s coming off a shaky rookie season. Triangle point guards are typically bigger and more physical than Larkin, but he should provide a drastic change of pace to Jose Calderon when he comes off the bench, at the least.

Cleanthony Early: Is he a 3, a small-ball 4, both or neither? Tweener forwards rarely have it easy in the early stages of their careers, but Early is an impressive athlete with a nice stroke that caught a lot of eyeballs during Wichita State’s superb season. His lack of ballhandling skills and ability to score off the dribble probably limit him to being a role player for now, but that’s not the worst thing.

Thanasis Antetokounmpo: He’s one of the few siblings of an NBA player who actually belong here. Nepotism runs wild at summer league, but Giannis' older brother earned his spot by playing very well in the D-League last season as a defensive specialist capable of wreaking havoc in transition. He’s a legitimate prospect, even if he needs more seasoning offensively.

Philadelphia 76ers

Nerlens Noel: There’s some debate over whether Noel will play in Vegas after performing well in Orlando, but maybe that’s just Philadelphia keeping its best-kept secret under wraps a little longer. Don’t forget about the shot-blocking big man in the rookie of the year race this season -- he’s got a leg up on knowing Brett Brown’s playbook (hint: run!), and he’ll get plenty of playing time and opportunities throughout the season.

Jordan McRae: Be still, Jay Bilas' heart. McRae has a 7-foot wingspan despite being just 6-foot-5. Although the Tennessee grad and second-round pick isn’t an insane athlete, those long arms and his decent burst allow him to sneak up on opponents at the rim on drives. He’ll need to hone in on one transferable skill and bulk up that lanky frame, but he’s a whole lot of limbs coming right at you.

Scottie Wilbekin: Being one of the best college players doesn’t always translate to NBA success, and Wilbekin’s lack of size will have him fighting an uphill battle. System-less basketball isn’t always kind to guys who excel at getting their team into sets and managing the game, so it will be interesting to see how the Florida point guard can perform in the chaos.

Toronto Raptors

Bruno Caboclo: He should start a support group with Mickael Pietrus (the “French Michael Jordan”) after being dubbed the “Brazilian Kevin Durant” by Fran Fraschilla on draft night. Caboclo has a 7-foot-7 wingspan and a prayer at ever getting anywhere close to Durant’s level, but performing well against legitimate competition right away could help justify the boldest pick of the draft.

Lucas Nogueira: The Bebe and Bruno show should give Brazilians a nice distraction from their World Cup hangover, as there should be plenty of highlight moments to go around. Nogueira won a lot of fans last year in summer league with his energy and amazing hair, and opposing guards should proceed with caution while he’s patrolling the paint.

Dwight Buycks: Lots of players are fighting just for a camp invite, but Buycks has a little more on the line. If he’s not waived before July 22, which is right after the end of summer league, the point guard’s contract for next season becomes guaranteed. After a performance last season that really put him on the radar, he’ll be scrapping to keep his status this time around.

Washington Wizards

Otto Porter Jr.: It’s been a rough 365 days for last year’s third overall pick, as his awful debut in summer league led right into a completely unproductive rookie season. Truthfully, it would have been a bigger deal had Anthony Bennett not absorbed all the ire, but Porter has to put it all behind him. The Wizards might need the jack-of-all-trades forward to play a big role next season with Martell Webster out three to five months for another back surgery and Trevor Ariza still an unrestricted free agent.

Glen Rice Jr.: They’ll be teammates here, but they might be battling for the same playing time. Rice Jr. barely played last season, but his 3-point stroke could come in handy for the Wizards. He’s been pretty solid as a shooter and scorer in the D-League, so he’ll get plenty of chances, especially if Porter looks out of place once again.

Khem Birch: We’ll see how the UNLV faithful treat him; he was very productive and won Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year two seasons in a row, but he also left after his junior year only to go undrafted. Birch should win neutral fans and general managers over anyway, as he’s a good hustle player and an active athlete at the 4.

D.J. Foster is an NBA contributor for, ClipperBlog and others. Follow him, @fosterdj.

Gift of Love: 29 trades for 29 teams

May, 21, 2014
Harper By Zach Harper
Special to
Kevin LoveBrad Rempel/USA TODAY Sports
The end is nigh. Or so it seems. Reports about Kevin Love’s uncertain future with the Minnesota Timberwolves are coming out left and right. Every team in the league is positioning itself to capture the star power on the market right now.

With the draft a little more than a month away, it would behoove the Timberwolves to maximize the trade market now while cap flexibility, draft picks and crushed lottery night dreams are fresh in the minds of the potential suitors.

The Wolves don’t have the upper hand in this situation, but they do have the ability to leverage ravenous front offices against one another and create a trade-market bidding war. As team president Flip Saunders and owner Glen Taylor face a gut-check moment of whether to risk Love leaving for nothing in summer 2015, here are the deals I would blow up their phones with if I were in charge of one of the 29 teams in the league.

Atlanta Hawks

The deal: Trade Machine

Hawks receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Paul Millsap, Dennis Schroder, the rights to Lucas Nogueira, No. 15 pick in 2014

This is a big haul for the Hawks to give up, with three rotation guys plus the pick going to Minnesota. But pairing Love and Al Horford together in Mike Budenholzer’s offense would be an alien invasion without Bill Pullman and Will Smith to fight it off. For the Wolves, Millsap is a nice option you can win with now and flip if he isn’t happy; Schroder is the backup point guard they crave; and Nogueira would give the Wolves a tandem with Gorgui Dieng that makes Nikola Pekovic and his contract expendable.

Boston Celtics

The deal: Trade Machine

Celtics receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Kelly Olynyk, Jared Sullinger, Brandon Bass, Phil Pressey, Vitor Faverani, Nos. 6 and 17 picks in 2014, Celtics’ first-round pick in 2016

Here, the Wolves are basically getting the picks and then a bunch of cap filler and former first-rounders. There’s no reason to pretend Olynyk and Sullinger would be pieces for the Wolves at all. Being a Wolves fan since they've come into the NBA, I am pretty good at recognizing overvalued first-round picks who won’t be as good as you hope they are. This is about the picks, and with Nos. 6, 13 and 17 in this draft, they could load up or move up.

Brooklyn Nets

The deal: Trade Machine

Nets receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: The 2003 Kevin Garnett

Look, I don’t know how owner Mikhail Prokhorov got his hands on a time machine, either, but billionaires have access to things we don’t. Let’s just take advantage of the opportunity to grab 2003 Kevin Garnett and get this team back into the playoffs.

Charlotte Hornets

The deal: Trade Machine

Hornets receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Zeller, Gary Neal, Nos. 9 and 24 picks in 2014

The Wolves never got to truly test out the Al Jefferson-Love big man tandem because Love wasn’t that great yet and Jefferson hurt his knee. They get a redo in Charlotte in this scenario, and with coach Steve Clifford’s defensive stylings, it could actually work.

Wolves would get a former No. 2 pick with potential; Zeller, whom they were enamored with before last year’s draft; and two first-round picks. The Pistons conceding the No. 9 pick to the Bobcats makes this a very attractive deal.

Chicago Bulls

The deal: Trade Machine

Bulls receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Carlos Boozer, Jimmy Butler, the rights to Nikola Mirotic, Ronnie Brewer, Nos. 16 and 19 picks in 2014

Of the most realistic trade scenarios for the Wolves in unloading Love for assets, cap relief and picks, this is probably the best move they could make, unless Phoenix is willing to be bold. You could also swap out Boozer for Taj Gibson, but his long-term money isn’t ideal for a rebuilding team. The Wolves could flip him to a contender later. The Bulls would be giving up a lot, but a big three of Joakim Noah, Love and Derrick Rose (assuming he's healthy) is an amazing way to battle whatever the Heat end up being after this season.

Cleveland Cavaliers

The deal: Trade Machine

Cavaliers receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters, Alonzo Gee, No. 1 pick in 2014

Why would the Cavaliers possibly trade the No. 1 pick in a loaded class, plus three rotation players, for Love? Because they seem to have a pipe dream of bringing LeBron James back to Cleveland this summer and this is the way to do it. It’s not stockpiling a bunch of young role players for James to play alongside. He wants to play with stars, and having Love and Kyrie Irving in tow would go a long way.

Dallas Mavericks

Mavericks receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: 2011 NBA championship banner and one free pass for a business idea on “Shark Tank”

I’ve always had a problem with teams hanging up “division title” banners in an arena because it seems like a lower-level franchise thing to do. Considering the Wolves are about to lose their best player and potentially miss the playoffs for an 11th straight season, it’s safe to consider them on that lower level right now.

It would be nice to take down the 2003-04 division title banner and replace it with a championship banner. And the extra revenue from getting a business idea funded through “Shark Tank” could give this organization a little extra money to play around with during the next few years. The Wolves are renovating their arena, so they could use the cash.

Denver Nuggets

The deal: Trade Machine

Nuggets receive: Kevin Love, Kevin Martin
Wolves receive: Kenneth Faried, Danilo Gallinari, Darrell Arthur, Randy Foye, No. 11 pick in 2014

Coach Brian Shaw gets his coveted big-time power forward and a nice offensive complement to Ty Lawson in the backcourt. While Martin isn't even close to being a defender, he at least has some size to utilize on offense.

The Wolves get a lot of quality players and a couple of veterans (Arthur and Foye) they can flip. They could even add a lottery pick here in this draft, although this sort of feels like a lot in return. Oh, who cares? The Wolves get to be greedy here.

Detroit Pistons

Pistons receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Stan Van Gundy

I don't want your horrible Josh Smith contract and shot selection that makes most government agencies look like well-oiled machines. I don’t want an improbable sign-and-trade deal with Greg Monroe. I don’t want any of the young players. I don’t even want the pick. I want SVG in all of his coaching glory and I’m willing to relinquish this fake GM power to him when the trade is completed. I’m going full-on Veruca Salt on this one. I want Stan Van Gundy to coach the Wolves and I want it now!

Golden State Warriors

The deal: Trade Machine

Warriors receive: Kevin Love, Kevin Martin
Wolves receive: David Lee, Harrison Barnes, Klay Thompson, right to swap picks in 2015 and 2016

I don’t actually think this is a good trade, but it allows me to bring up a point. I get the mindset of wanting to maximize the value you receive in a trade versus what you’re sending out. But there are Warriors fans worried about giving up Thompson and Barnes in a deal for Love, while ridding themselves of Lee’s contract. Back when the Clippers were trading for Chris Paul, there were fans and writers who thought it was a bad idea to include Eric Gordon. Think about that now. Sometimes it can get out of hand for players who probably won’t be All-Stars.

Houston Rockets

The deal: Trade Machine

Rockets receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Jeremy Lin, Donatas Motiejunas, Chandler Parsons, Jordan Hamilton, first-round picks in 2015 and 2017

This is an incredibly tricky situation because while the Rockets have lots of assets to move, the inclusion of Parsons makes the deal really difficult. The Wolves would need to pick up his team option for next season, but that means he’s an unrestricted free agent in 2015. How likely is it that he will want to stay in Minnesota?

Lin’s contract will cost more than owner Glen Taylor wants to pay for a non-winning team. Motiejunas would be the best prospect in the deal and you’re taking late first-round picks in the future. Can we just forget this deal and ask Hakeem Olajuwon to be an adviser to the Wolves instead?

Indiana Pacers

The deal: Trade Machine

Pacers receive: Kevin Love, Nikola Pekovic
Wolves receive: Roy Hibbert, David West

I want to see just how good of a coach Frank Vogel is. The Wolves were 29th in defending the restricted area this season, and I would guess the only reason they weren’t the worst is because of Dieng’s late-season rim defense. The Pacers were the best at defending the rim this season. Can Vogel keep that defensive prowess with these non-shot-blockers? Can the Wolves defend the rim with these two big men? These two teams don’t match up at all in the trade department, so we might as well experiment.

Los Angeles Clippers

The deal: Trade Machine

Clippers receive: Kevin Love, Kevin Martin
Wolves receive: Blake Griffin, Jamal Crawford

I don’t know why the Clippers would ever do this trade, but it’s unfair for other fan bases to have all of the fun and none of the depression. Griffin gets to receive alley-oop passes from Ricky Rubio while Crawford dazzles the media members with his dribbling and charm.

The Clippers get another shooter to stretch the floor to allow DeAndre Jordan to further develop. Martin wouldn’t exactly add anything to what the Clippers do now, but again, I’m sick of all the depression in these scenarios, so just take one for the team, please.

Los Angeles Lakers

The deal: Trade Machine

Lakers receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Steve Nash, Robert Sacre, Nick Young, MarShon Brooks, No. 7 pick in 2014, future first-round pick, Flip Saunders gets a statue outside Staples Center, Minneapolis Lakers’ title banners

In this scenario, I suffered a head injury when I tried to pull off one of those 360 layups Swaggy P loves to do so much and I fell into the celebrating elbows of Sacre. It left me a little woozy, but I think I came up with a good deal to finally get Love to Los Angeles. Nash's deal is expiring, Sacre and Ronny Turiaf form the greatest bench-cheering duo ever, Young gets to teach me that layup and Brooks is cap filler. Those Minneapolis Lakers banners will look great at Target Center, too.

Memphis Grizzlies

The deal: Trade Machine

Grizzlies receive: Kevin Love, Kevin Martin
Wolves receive: Zach Randolph, James Johnson, Jon Leuer, Jamaal Franklin, first-round pick in 2017

This does one thing that’s pretty cool: It gives a Grizzlies team that struggled to score in the half court two very good half-court scorers. They lose some toughness but they can actually round out their overall game quite a bit. For the Wolves, it gives them the potential for a Pekovic-Randolph-Johnson frontcourt, which, if Randolph opts in this summer, will protect Minnesota when the zombie apocalypse happens. Nobody is taking out that frontcourt.

Miami Heat

The deal: Trade Machine

Heat receive: Kevin Love, Kevin Martin
Wolves receive: Chris Bosh, Norris Cole, right to swap first-round picks in 2016 and 2018

The Wolves are torn between a full-on rebuild (try selling that to the fans again during this decade-long playoff drought) and trying to still find a way to sneak into the playoffs. Granted, Bosh has to agree to this deal by not opting out of his contract this summer, but the Wolves would at least remain hyper-competitive on the playoff bubble. They’d also grab a backup point guard who isn’t as erratic as the incumbent, J.J. Barea.

The Heat get younger and give LeBron the chance to really have a great second scorer with him in his next deal in Miami.

Milwaukee Bucks

The deal: Trade Machine

Bucks receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Larry Sanders, O.J. Mayo, No. 2 pick in 2014, Wisconsin has to pretend the Vikings are the best team in the league

Sure, Sanders has the potential to be a nice defender in this league for a long time, Mayo would be a possible cap-relief trade chip in a year and the No. 2 pick, whoever it ends up being, could be a major star in this league. But the win here for Minnesota is Wisconsin having to pretend the Vikings are the best. A fan base that was 27th in attendance in the NBA and 13th in attendance in the NFL doesn't really care how they make out in any Love deal. They just want the football win. Vikings fans aren't used to getting a lot of those.

New Orleans Pelicans

The deal: Trade Machine

Pelicans receive: Kevin Love, Chase Budinger
Wolves receive: Anthony Davis, Eric Gordon

Sure, you guys are laughing at me and how ridiculous this is, but in my head the deal has been made and I’m doing a little dance of celebration. Have your laughter, and I’ll have my delusional mind, and never the twain shall meet.

New York Knicks

The deal: Trade Machine

Knicks receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: [processing ...]

The Knicks gave up a first-round pick to get Andrea Bargnani. Comparable value means they’d have to give up the entire Wall Street district for Love. I can’t even pretend there is a combination here that works for the Wolves. Maybe they could do a double sign-and-trade and swap Love for Carmelo Anthony? Someone ask cap guru Larry Coon if this is allowed. Can we get a reality show just recording La La’s face when Melo has to tell her they’re moving to Minneapolis?

Oklahoma City Thunder

The deal: Trade Machine

Thunder receive: Kevin Love, Kevin Martin
Wolves receive: Serge Ibaka, Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones III, Hasheem Thabeet, Mavericks’ first-round pick in 2014, Thunder’s first-round pick in 2017

I’m not going to be unrealistic and pretend Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook are in play here, but there’s no reason the Wolves can’t ask for Ibaka, while also unloading Martin’s deal (three years, $20 million left) and picking up young talent in Lamb and Jones, a first-round pick this year and an unprotected pick in 2017. Why 2017? Let’s pretend this Thunder thing doesn’t work out and Love and Durant both leave in 2016. In this scenario, the Wolves position themselves to take advantage of a team falling apart. It’s like what every team does to Minnesota every single time it trades a draft pick.

Orlando Magic

The deal: Trade Machine

Magic receive: Kevin Love, No. 13 pick in 2014
Wolves receive: Victor Oladipo, Andrew Nicholson, Jameer Nelson, No. 4 pick in 2014

I recognize that the Wolves getting the No. 2 pick from last year’s draft plus the No. 4 pick in this draft seems like a lot, but Love is a lot better than Oladipo and it’s not all that close. Even if Oladipo maximizes his potential, he’s probably not reaching Love’s status. Flip was enamored with Oladipo heading into the 2013 draft and would probably be willing to swap firsts with the Magic this year in order to complete this trade.

Philadelphia 76ers

The deal: Trade Machine

76ers receive: Kevin Love, Kevin Martin
Wolves receive: Thaddeus Young, Jason Richardson, Nos. 3 and 10 picks in 2014

The Wolves get a young asset, cap relief and two lottery picks in this draft in exchange for Love and getting rid of Martin’s deal. It sounds like the Sixers are giving up a lot here, but they have assets to spare. You’re teaming Love with a defensive-minded center in Nerlens Noel and a pass-first point guard in Michael Carter-Williams. Plus, the Sixers still have room to add another major player.

Phoenix Suns

The deal: Trade Machine

Suns receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Eric Bledsoe, Timberwolves' first-round pick in 2015

This is the dream scenario. The Wolves would have to convince Bledsoe to want to play in Minnesota, and then execute a sign-and-trade. Most likely, they’d have to max out Bledsoe in the process. The Suns do it because of the knee concern for Bledsoe, and Love is a much better player who fits coach Jeff Hornacek’s style of play. Getting their top-12 protected pick back for dumping Wes Johnson in Phoenix helps, too. It’s a risk by the Suns and a concession by the Wolves, but this is the “fingers crossed” scenario.

Portland Trail Blazers

The deal: Trade Machine

Trail Blazers receive: Kevin Love, medium-quality bike lanes from Minneapolis
Wolves receive: LaMarcus Aldridge, second-best bike lanes from Portland

This needs to happen and it doesn’t have anything to do with basketball. I just want to see both fan bases reverse course on the vitriol thrown each other’s way when discussing which power forward is better. The Blazers fans would have to embrace Love as the top PF while the Wolves fans pretend they never meant the things they said about Aldridge’s rebounding.

The bike lane aspect of this trade would really help Portland take back its title as top cycling city in the country.

Sacramento Kings

The deal: Trade Machine

Kings receive: Kevin Love, Kevin Martin
Wolves receive: DeMarcus Cousins, Derrick Williams, Jason Terry

This one doesn't even involve a draft pick because Cousins has so much potential. The Kings can take a big man with the No. 8 pick this year and pair him next to Love. Martin returns to Sacramento and doesn't have Tyreke Evans to hog the ball and make him want to get out of town. Terry is salary-cap relief for the Wolves, and they can to try a do-over with Williams. This trade can’t happen until after July 1, so that and reality are the only two hang-ups right now.

San Antonio Spurs

Spurs receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Gregg Popovich

This works out perfectly in a couple of ways. Let’s say the Spurs win the title this year and we see Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili ride off into the sunset. Love would immediately be the replacement for Duncan and give the Spurs a bridge from this era into the next successful one.

For the Wolves, I don’t even want to subject Popovich to coaching the team. He should just be a consultant for a month and let the organization know all of the awful ways in which they do things and the way the Spurs “would never consider something like this.” He’d essentially be The Wolf in "Pulp Fiction" for Minnesota.

Toronto Raptors

The deal: Trade Machine

Raptors receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Jonas Valanciunas, Terrence Ross, John Salmons, No. 20 pick in 2014, Knicks’ first-round pick in 2016

It would leave the Raptors searching for a big man to protect the paint, but in today’s NBA, you could get away with a Love-Amir Johnson frontcourt against a lot of teams. The Wolves get the young assets they crave, the draft picks they need and the cap relief necessary to keep their options open. They’d have to move Pekovic next, and they don’t get rid of Martin's contract in this scenario, but it’s a good start to the rebuilding plan. This might be a lot for the Raptors to give up, but general manager Masai Ujiri can just fleece the next four trades he makes and even it all out.

Utah Jazz

The deal: Trade Machine

Jazz receive: Kevin Love
Wolves receive: Derrick Favors, Jeremy Evans, John Lucas III, Rudy Gobert, No. 5 pick in 2014

Requesting the Jazz’s top big man and the fifth pick is asking Utah to do the Wolves quite the ... Favor(s) ... you know? No? Wait, where are you guys going? I still have one more team to poach players from!

Washington Wizards

The deal: Trade Machine

Wizards receive: Kevin Love, Kevin Martin
Wolves receive: Bradley Beal, Nene

This would be an incredibly tough decision for the Wizards to make. They have one of the best young shooting guards in the NBA, and pairing him with John Wall would produce an awesome tandem for a decade. And yet, they could upgrade for Love while still keeping a scorer at the shooting guard position. In the process, they’d rid themselves of the long-term money owed to Nene. They would owe long-term money to Martin, though.

It’s not an ideal scenario in a few ways, but you’d be making this team a big threat. Plus, it would give coach Randy Wittman a chance to apologize for telling a young Love that he should abandon the 3-point shot.

The Wizards will not go down quietly

May, 15, 2014
By Conor Dirks
Special to
John Wall AP Photo/Darron CummingsRound 2 has been a bit of a bummer for John Wall and friends, but the Wizards are putting up a fight.
Sometimes, before shuffling off of this playoff coil, a team will take a last gasp. But rarely is it a full-throated roar.

The Wizards, after an out-of-nowhere 23-point win in Indiana against the best regular-season home team in the NBA, are standing atop their deathbed and ripping out the oxygen tubes.

Marcin Gortat, who became the first Wizards player with at least 30 points and 15 rebounds in a playoff game since Moses Malone in 1987, felt far from expired. “At some point, in the middle of the game, it was just fun to be in the game,” Gortat told reporters. “Everything works, you feel immortal.”

Essentially, this is Wizards basketball. Not the blowout of the East’s best regular-season team but the fact that no one saw it coming. At 44-38, the pre-playoff Wizards put every interested heart and mind through an industrial-strength dryer cycle.

With each loss to the Pacers in this conference semifinals series, the same Wizards who almost swept the favored Chicago Bulls looked more recognizable: a frequent, crippling dependency on inefficient jump shots, a tendency to replace weapons rather than adapt them and, most painfully, an inability to finish out games that seem firmly within their grasp. After blowing a 19-point lead at home in Game 4, the Wizards had lost 12 games this season in which they led by double digits.

Close losses are nothing new, either. No other team this season attempted more “clutch” shots, or played more “clutch” minutes (defined as occurring in the last five minutes of a game when a team is leading by five or fewer points). But the Wizards were just 20th-best in the league at making those clutch shots, resulting in an inordinate amount of local heartbreak.

Before Game 5, it had been a trying second round for John Wall, who had as many turnovers (12) in two games at the Verizon Center against the Pacers as he did in the entire series against the Bulls. Passing up a wide-open, potentially game-tying 3-pointer in Washington on Sunday with under a minute left in favor of a chance for Bradley Beal to take the shot -- whether it was the right decision or not -- was a visible indication of how far undone Wall had come.

Flooded by a chorus of encouragement, advice and criticism, Wall receded into his own mental hellscape after Game 4.

“Well, ever since that game, I haven’t really talked to nobody. … All day yesterday, I just sat in my room and watched movies,” Wall confessed at the postgame lectern after a redemptive 27-point performance in Game 5. “You can get down on yourself pretty easy.”

There were two voices, however, that cut through the static.

When Wall confided to Randy Wittman after Game 4 that he had no idea how to rehabilitate his game, Wittman told him -- with typical Wittman-esque frankness -- that he never wanted to hear the usually self-assured franchise centerpiece say that again. Wittman followed up with a text on game day. After the game, Wall told the media that it read “Just believe. Just believe in yourself, John Wall.”

If that sounds like the final chapter of a self-help book on the rack of one of America’s now-defunct bookstores, then surely you’ll forgive Wall for needing the nudge. The 23-year-old guard had less than 48 hours between the two biggest games of his young career.

Gortat, a conspicuous nonfactor in Games 3 and 4, pounded his point guard on the chest twice just after the starting lineups were called and forced a reluctant Wall, drowning in the burgeoning tide of playoff pressure, to hear one last thing: “No, John, there’s just one thing I’m going to tell. I’m with you. It doesn’t matter which way it would go, I’m supporting you,” Gortat recounted in a postgame monologue.

[+] EnlargeBradley Beal and Randy Wittman
AP Photo/Darron CummingsAfter making quick work of the Bulls, the Wizards are looking like themselves again. Unfortunately.
It’s impossible to tell whether Gortat’s promise was the life preserver Wall and the Wizards needed, but here this absurd, sometimes great, sometimes awful team is, the last unknown value left standing in an Eastern Conference playoff bracket otherwise populated by familiar faces.

Eventually, these Wizards will go under. They might bury themselves, as they did in Game 3, where the team’s offense crossed the event horizon of the Pacers' defense, blindly firing up hopeless shots. Or they might go the way of the rest of their unready playoff kin, simply beaten by a better unit in this round or the next.

For a 44-win team that just a few weeks ago seemed pleased just to be in the playoffs after so many consecutive lottery appearances, staving off elimination in a second-round playoff game on the road is unexpected. It’s also something that resembles growth.

As the Wizards prepare for a Game 6, the up-and-down season that wouldn’t have qualified for the playoffs in the West is fading from collective memory. And that’s a good thing. Even though this isn’t Washington’s year to make a play for the throne, it was important for the Wizards to become relevant again in the eyes of potential free agents.

When Washington throttled the Bulls, it inspired an incipient belief that the Wizards of the regular season had finally grown beyond their inconsistent roots. That wasn’t quite right.

Alternatively, a fatal loss in Game 5 seemed inevitable after three consecutive demoralizing defeats. But this is a team that punishes faith and doubt equally. Just as you're about to shovel the last pile of dirt on a season run past its expected course, the Wizards look up, wink and say "not yet."

Meet the Wizards

May, 9, 2014
By Kyle Weidie
Special to
Who are the Washington Wizards? Or rather, who are they to each other? This investigation of a budding NBA playoff team starts with cooking, takes a backpacking trip across Europe while writing prose, and ends with a journey into the land of spirit animals to find the answer.

Daily Postseason MVP rankings

May, 8, 2014
Thorpe By David Thorpe
Check back daily for our latest Postseason MVP rankings. Here's the current Top 3:

Also, check out our weekly Insider column on the Top 10 Postseason MVPs every Friday.

Daily Postseason MVP rankings

May, 7, 2014
Thorpe By David Thorpe
Check back daily for our latest Postseason MVP rankings. Here's the current Top 3:

Also, check out our weekly Insider column on the Top 10 Postseason MVPs every Friday.

In Wall they trust

May, 7, 2014
By Conor Dirks
Special to
John WallGeoff Burke/USA TODAY SportsHe may not be the potent scorer his athleticism suggests, but John Wall has become a force in D.C.
If you’re still waiting for John Wall to take over the postseason with his point totals, don’t hold your breath. One of the NBA’s fastest players down the floor prefers to craft a more diverse spreadsheet.

Against Indiana in Game 1, Wall’s mosaic impact was understated: 13 points, nine assists, five rebounds, two blocks, one steal, one turnover.

Can a point guard break out as a game manager?

“I always tell these guys that I don’t worry about scoring unless I’m hot,” Wall said after a Game 4 win, and a 10-assist outing, against Chicago on April 27. “I don’t mind being a decoy.”

Wall sped past Pacers defenders Monday and fed his wing artillery the proper coordinates all game as the defense collapsed around him. Bradley Beal and Trevor Ariza shelled Indiana from behind the arc, connecting on nine of their 11 3-point attempts. Asked about his role in the win, Wall told reporters he was just “getting those guys involved, getting those guys the shots they needed.”

Wall, the NBA’s third-leading assist man in the regular season, hasn’t always been viewed as a distributor, even though there are few monikers he’d carry better. In the rush to understand a unique player burdened with the long-term fate of a faceless franchise, assumptions about Wall’s game flew like buckshot in every direction. Many missed the mark.

In Washington, D.C., early attempts to measure Wall’s potential and predict his trajectory remain infamous. NBA agent David Falk cast a curiously anachronistic vote of no confidence for Wall’s future in February 2013, as Wall ripped through the league after recovering from a stress fracture: “He doesn’t have a feel for the game. He only knows how to play one speed. Magic Johnson had a great feel, a court sense, by the time he was a sophomore in college. Chris Paul had it by the time he was a sophomore in high school.”

And, finally: “You want to know the reason why just nine teams have won an NBA title in 40 years? Because if both of them came out today, 99 percent of all general managers would still take John Wall instead of Kyrie Irving. They’d take the athlete over the ballplayer. And they’d be wrong.”

Luckily for the Wizards, there is no law of nature, nor of logic, that prevents an athlete from being a ballplayer too.

Perhaps it’s nostalgia for a different NBA, perhaps a failure to acknowledge the reconciliation of speed and care, but there’s a lazy need to fit every point guard into one of the two categories of several neat dichotomies. Pass-first or shoot-first. Facilitator or scorer. Game manager or game-breaker.

You’ll find Wall in the gray area. If you can find him. The Wizards haven’t been on national TV in the regular season since Wall was a rookie, in 2010-11 (a blowout loss to the Atlanta Hawks).

[+] EnlargeJohn Wall
AP Photo/Michael ConroyNo need to try to categorize John Wall. Passes like this one say it all.
Not all stories accelerate from zero to 60. As a player, Wall has learned to pump the brakes, pull back and look up, locating opportunities for his teammates. In his rookie season, the Wizards had the lowest assist ratio of any team. This season, the Wizards were tied for seventh best in the league.

Things change. Players evolve. Over the course of years, or even within a season. "Earlier in the season, me or Brad or Nene or those guys would try to do it on our own,” Wall said at a between-series practice. “I think now we understand we don't have to. We've got six or seven guys who scores in double figures for a reason.” In Game 1, six Washington players had 12 or more points.

Despite a breakout half-season last spring, there were still doubts about whether it would be wise to hand Wall the keys to the kingdom by offering him a maximum extension. That conversation was led by The Washington Post’s Jason Reid, who wrote that Wall wasn’t as valuable as other players who did not receive the max, like “old-school floor general” Mike Conley Jr., “shooting star” Stephen Curry and “one-man fast break” Ty Lawson, and questioned Wall’s decision to renege on his no-tattoo stance.

Many pixels were expended, but the Wizards ultimately did what most expected them to do: They bet on John Wall becoming one of the best point guards alive.

After gaining a measure of All-Star and playoff validation, Wall looks more the part. When he pounds his chest and tells the D.C. crowd, “This is my city,” it will raise some eyebrows, but it will raise hairs on your neck too. Make no mistake: In Washington, pride is found in the assist.

In Indiana, Wall did more than involve his teammates. He featured them. A blur down the lane ending in a pass that wrapped around Roy Hibbert’s back and led to one of Nene’s signature, bruising dunks. A backbreaking fourth-quarter dime with three Pacers caving in on him to a trailing Beal. Some point guards manage games by plodding through a half-court set. Wall manages games in additional, unexplored ways: on the fly, in midair, even on his way out of bounds.

And now, with a Game 1 win against Indiana in hand, he has managed to take the Wizards farther than they have been since 1982: three wins from an unexpected berth in the Eastern Conference finals.

Conor Dirks writes for the TrueHoop Network. Follow him @ConorDDirks.

Rapid Reaction: Wizards 102, Pacers 96

May, 5, 2014
Friedell By Nick Friedell

INDIANAPOLIS -- Let's take a quick look at how the Washington Wizards earned a 102-96 win over the Indiana Pacers on Monday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Wizards lead the series 1-0.

How it happened: Bradley Beal had a huge game for the Wizards going off for 25 points, seven rebounds, seven assists and five steals. Trevor Ariza added 22 points and six rebounds as the Wizards set the tone early in this one and never let up. David West led the Pacers with 15 points and 12 rebounds, but they created too big of a hole for to climb out of down the stretch.

What it means: The good vibes just keep coming for the Wizards. After dominating the Bulls in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, Beal and his teammates zoomed past the Pacers in the final minutes of this game. As they did in the Bulls series, they played with poise and made big shots when they needed them. They appear to be gaining confidence after each game -- not surprised by their recent success at all. If they continue to get contributions up and down the roster, and Beal continues to develop into an even bigger star, there's no reason not to believe they won't be heading to the Eastern Conference finals in the near future.

Hits: Marcin Gortat had 12 points and 15 rebounds for the Wizards.

Misses: Roy Hibbert had zero points, zero rebounds and five fouls in 18 minutes of play.

Stat of the night: The Wizards outrebounded the Pacers 53-36. The Wizards had 17 offensive rebounds.

What's next: Game 2 is Wednesday night in Indianapolis.

Daily Postseason MVP rankings

May, 2, 2014
Thorpe By David Thorpe
Check back daily for our latest Postseason MVP rankings. Here's the current Top 3:

Also, check out our weekly Insider column on the Top 10 Postseason MVPs every Friday.