Washington Wizards 2021-22: Season Preview
The 2021-22 NBA season is right around the corner and the Washington Wizards have something to prove. A team with a reconstructed roster and a new head coach will always generate excitement; the Wizards are no different. A very important season for the franchise is on the horizon; a look into what the Wizards have done in the offseason and what they look to accomplish this season.
Washington Wizards 2021-22: Season Preview
New Head Coach
The Wizards had another busy offseason. First starting with the hiring of former Denver Nuggets assistant Wes Unseld Jr. as head coach. The son of late Wizards legend Wes Unseld, Unseld Jr has been one of the highly regarded assistant coaches throughout his time in the league, interviewing for multiple head coaching positions over the years.
During his 5-year stint with Denver, Unseld Jr. was instrumental in the development of Nuggets stars Michael Porter Jr., Jamal Murray, and reigning MVP Nikola Jokic. Unseld Jr. was also the architect of Denver’s defense, which improved from 29th to as high as 10th in defensive rating during his tenure.
In his first stint as a full-time head coach, Unseld Jr. will be tasked with improving a Wizards defense that has not finished higher than 19th in defensive rating over the past three seasons and facilitating the development of recent draft picks Rui Hachimura, Deni Avdija, and Corey Kispert, while integrating a new system on both sides of the ball with a roster that has undergone tremendous turnover.
Trades & Signings
Washington appeared to be rolling into the 2021-22 season led by the electric backcourt of Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal. That all changed on NBA Draft night when general manager Tommy Sheppard dealt Westbrook to the Los Angeles Lakers for center Montrezl Harrell, forward Kyle Kuzma, wing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and the 22nd pick in the 2021 draft.
This kickstarted a flurry of moves that turned into a five-team, 13-player megadeal. In the end, Washington got their new starting point guard in Spencer Dinwiddie as part of a sign-and-trade deal with Brooklyn. The Wizards also acquired Aaron Holiday and Isaiah Todd by way of the Indiana Pacers. Raul Neto, a surprise standout from last season, also returns to DC on a one-year deal.
With their 15th pick in the draft, the Wizards drafted wing sharpshooter Corey Kispert out of Gonzaga. Widely regarded as the best outside shooter in the draft, Kispert combines size on the wing (6’7”) with a high basketball IQ. He is a tremendous shooter off the catch and plays well off the ball, which bodes well for his future in Washington. In the preseason, he also flashed some shot creation skills off the dribble while being able to attack closeouts and finish at the rim.
Under Sheppard, the Wizards have not been a stranger to change, undergoing significant moves in each of the past three off-seasons. Now no longer constrained by the anchoring contracts of Westbrook and John Wall, the Wizards have built a well-rounded roster grounded on versatility and flexibility, essential qualities in today’s NBA.
The new additions to the Wizards roster give the team a dimension it has lacked in recent years–quality depth in their second unit. Harrell is only one year and change removed from winning 6th Man of the Year with the Los Angeles Clippers. His presence as a finisher, roller, and on the offensive glass gives the Wizards firepower off the bench.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope & Kyle Kuzma
Caldwell-Pope and Kuzma were integral parts of the Lakers’ championship run in the Bubble. Their ability to defend multiple positions and knock down shots on the perimeter was an aspect the Wizards lacked. Kuzma in particular could be a strong asset for the Wizards.
New starting PG Spencer Dinwiddie came to D.C. on a 3-year, $54M deal to fill the void created by Westbrook’s departure. Fully healthy after only playing 3 games in 2020-21 due to an ACL injury, Dinwiddie is a premier offensive talent who excels in the pick-and-roll: He can get into the teeth of the defense at will while being able to finish through contact, spray passes out to the perimeter and throw lobs to bigs inside.
In 2019-20, Dinwiddie appeared in 64 games (49 starts) with averages of 20.6 points per game and 6.8 assists per game as a Brooklyn Net. If Dinwiddie can match or even exceed his production from a couple of seasons ago, it would be a big boost for the Wizards’ playoff prospects.
High-energy five Daniel Gafford is poised to be the team’s full-time starting center. His addition at the deadline last season gave the Wizards life. With strong rim protection and elite rim-running and finishing ability, Gafford gives Washington an inside presence it has lacked for years. Only 23 years old, a breakout season from Gafford would further cement him as the Wizards’ center for the future.
Protecting the paint 🚫🚫🚫
Three blocks in 23 seconds from Daniel Gafford!
— NBA (@NBA) October 9, 2021
Will Bradley Beal stay or go?
Any Wizards-related conversation starts and ends with Bradley Beal, and rightfully so. He is the team’s franchise player and an All-NBA talent.
Beal had another spectacular season in 2020-21, averaging 31.3 points per game, 4.7 rebounds per game, and 4.4 assists per game while earning All-NBA 3rd Team honors. Beal’s outstanding production since John Wall’s injury has made him one of the coveted trade targets in the league.
To his credit, Beal has remained loyal to DC amidst constant roster turnover and underwhelming playoff crusades. However, Beal enters the last year of his contract with a player option that he could decline and become an unrestricted free agent.
As with any star potentially hitting free agency, Beal’s commitment—or lack thereof to the Wizards will be a talking point throughout the entire season.
The Wizards have reportedly offered Beal a 4-year extension worth $181 million. However, if Beal decides to wait until the offseason and re-up with Washington, he could sign a 5-year deal worth $242 million.
Even if Beal plans to wait and re-sign in the offseason, the chatter surrounding his situation will persist. There is also the reality that ultimately, plans change.
Beal wants to win; A slow start could have his sights set on requesting a trade or entering free agency. The roster is the deepest it has ever been around Beal and there is pressure to win now in DC. No matter what happens, Beal’s status will be monitored closely as the Wizards season unfolds.
Can Rui Hachimura make ‘The Leap?’
Depending on your opinion of Spencer Dinwiddie, what the Wizards currently lack is an established second option on offense. Enter third-year forward Rui Hachimura.
Hachimura’s statistics from Year 1 to Year 2 may not jump off the page, but he did have some stretches that could point to big production as soon as this season.
In a 10-game stretch during March last season, Hachimura averaged 20.2 points per game to go along with 7.8 rebounds per game. What was more impressive was how he shot the ball, notching a 52.8 field goal percentage and a 40.6 three-point percentage on 3.2 attempts per game.
He averaged 14.8 points per game and 7.2 rebounds per game in the playoff series against the Philadelphia 76ers, while having a 61.7 field goal percentage and converting 60 percent of his three-pointers.
Hachimura has a diverse array of scoring moves. He can put the ball on the floor and knock down pull-ups in the midrange. At 6’8″ with a 7’3″ wingspan, he can also shoot over shorter defenders.
Hachimura also made some strides defensively last season, specifically as a one-on-one defender. He has the strength to check bigger wings and forwards, and uses his wingspan well to contest shots. It is why Hachimura ranked as the #1 isolation defender by points per possession last season.
Rui will play a big role for the Wizards this season. A lottery pick in 2019, it would bode well for himself and the Wizards if he has a breakout season; Hachimura becomes eligible for a rookie contract extension next off-season.
The Wizards roster may not be improved on the surface, but their roster is also much more suited to play in today’s NBA. Last season’s roster lacked depth and size on the wing, but this season’s roster may have a surplus of it.
Interestingly, Montrezl Harrell was on a team that had a similar makeup to this current Wizards team: the 2018-19 Clippers, who won 48 games and finished as the 8th seed in the Western Conference. Both teams were in a transition period after disappointing eras of basketball, and both rosters had considerable depth.
The Eastern Conference has collectively gotten better, however, and the Wizards lack the top-end talent outside of Beal to make serious noise. But, they are better suited to handle the inevitable injuries and poor play from key players that pop up throughout the year. Expect the Wizards to contend for a play-in spot once again, with the potential to move up a few spots if the roster gels quickly and hits the ground running.
Ceiling: 5th Seed
Floor: Missing the Playoffs / Losing in the Play-In Tournament
Prediction: 8th Seed
Embed from Getty Images