Out is Randy Wittman after parts of five seasons and a 178-199 record that also included a 12-9 playoff mark and two straight victories in the first round in 2014 and 2015 despite not having the home-court advantage.
Fired after the 2014-15 season after going 338-207 in parts of seven years in OKC, Brooks emerged this spring as a hot candidate during the annual coaching carousel.
He inherits a team that is at a much different stage of development than the Thunder club he previously led.
At the epicenter is three-time All-Star point guard John Wall, who scored a career-best 19.9 points to go with a career-best 10.2 assists per game last season, while matching the best mark in his six NBA seasons with a 35.1 percent mark from three-point range.
Then there is Wall’s fragile backcourt mate, Beal, who has never missed fewer than nine games due to injury in his four NBA seasons and has only been available for 247 of a possible 328 games during that span.
Beal still cashed in to the tune of a five-year, $127 million deal as a restricted free agent, as the Wizards decided his potential and production outweighed his frequent absences.
The bench, meanwhile, has been radically restructured while the Wizards will also get the benefit of a full season of power forward Markieff Morris, acquired from the Phoenix Suns last February.
Despite all of the moving parts last season–Washington used 49 different starting lineups, none more than 10 times, the Wizards fell just three games short of a playoff berth, so there is some talent there.
The Washington Wizards are gambling that the potential Trey Burke flashed–rarely–over his first three seasons with the Utah Jazz will be enough to replace the steady Ramon Sessions as John Wall’s backup at the point.
Sessions averaged 9.9 points and 2.9 assists in 20.3 minutes per game last season and was the only Wizard to play in all 82 games, but he left as an unrestricted free agent to return to the Charlotte Hornets, where he played from 2012-14 (when they were still the Bobcats).
After two years as a part-time starter for the Jazz, Burke rolled into a reserve role last season and averaged 10.6 points and 2.3 assists in 21.3 minutes per game on .413/.344/.817 shooting, with the field goal and three-point marks representing career highs.
The ninth overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft out of Michigan, Burke underwhelmed in three seasons with Utah and was deemed expendable after the club acquired George Hill.
Andrew Nicholson showed great potential as a rookie with the Orlando Magic in 2012-13, but his playing time regressed each season–along with his per-36 minute stats, which is never a good combination.
Despite being limited to 56 games last season, however, Nicholson bounced back, averaging 6.9 points and 3.6 rebounds in 14.7 minutes (16.8 and 8.8 per 36, respectively) and shot a career-best 36 percent from long range.
The wild card for the Wizards is Satoransky, a second-round pick (32nd overall) out of the Czech Republic in 2012 who spent the last two seasons with FC Barcelona Lassa in Spain’s top-level league, the ACB.
He averaged 10.0 points, 4.3 assists and 2.9 rebounds in 24.3 minutes a game last season, playing in 73 games in domestic, Euroleague and Spanish Cup play, shooting an efficient .537/.407/.768.
A big guard at 6-foot-6 and 200 pounds, the 24-year-old will work as a reserve for the Wizards … unless Bradley Beal goes down, again.
The backcourt partnership of John Wall, left, and Bradley Beal hasn’t been without its ups and downs. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Three Key Storylines: 1. Can John Wall, Bradley Beal Co-Exist?
Since being taken with the third overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, Bradley Beal has formed half of the Washington Wizards’ regular backcourt tandem, along with 2010 No. 1 overall pick John Wall.
While there have been moments of success such as a pair of playoff series wins in 2014 and 2015, there have also been points where the relationship seemed more like shotgun wedding than seamless tandem.
“I think a lot of times we have a tendency to dislike each other on the court. … We got to be able to put that to the side. If you miss somebody on one play or don’t have something go right … as long as you come to each other and talk. If I starting arguing with somebody I’m cool. I’m just playing basketball.”
As for Beal’s jackpot in free agency this summer, Wall said it’s not an issue personally.
“Now that you have your money you got to go out there and improve your game. I want you to be an All-Star just as much as I’m an All-Star. If we were playing well as a tandem like the other two superstars that play together as a backcourt, play as a tandem, one night it’s going to be his night, one night it’s going to be mine, some nights it might be both of us. Those are nights it’s going to be tough to beat us.”
Beal thinks he understands the competitive nature of the rocky partnership.
“It’s tough because we’re both alphas. It’s always tough when you have two guys who firmly believe in themselves, who will bet on themselves against anybody else, who want to be that guy. We can both be that guy.
“Sometimes I think we both lose sight of the fact that we need each other. I wouldn’t be in the situation I’m in without John. John wouldn’t be in the situation he’s in without me, without the rest of the team. It goes hand-in-hand so it’s kind of a pride thing. We got to (hash) out our pride, figure out what our goals are individually, help each other achieve those goals, figure out what our team goal is, where do we see ourselves five years from now, 10 years from now and go from there.”
New coach Scott Brooks gets the job of trying to do what predecessor Randy Wittman could never quite accomplish–get Wall and Beal on the same page.
Wall does want to make one thing clear, however. He’s not concerned with Beal’s contract, or anyone else’s.
He likely believes that, too. However, in a sport where everyone knows what everyone else makes, coupled with the hyper-competitive nature of being professional athletes, there has to be a certain amount of “I’m better than (Player A), so why does he make more than me?” happening.
In any event, how well Wall and Beal come together under Brooks’ tutelage in 2016-17 will go a long way toward determining the eventual fate of the Wizards, particularly since the two are among the team’s veteran leaders now.
Markieff Morris had an acrimonious exit from the Phoenix Suns last year, but his play didn’t markedly get better once he arrived with the Washington Wizards. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
Three Key Storylines: 2. Can Markieff Morris Bounce Back?
It was one of the dominant storylines in the summer of 2015, the bad blood that was brewing between the Phoenix Suns and power forward Markieff Morris after the Suns traded twin brother Marcus Morris to the Detroit Pistons.
Markieff felt betrayed and an atmosphere of mistrust surrounded his relationship with the team and its front office.
But the Suns kept Morris around before finally unloading him to the Washington Wizards in February.
Morris told AZCentral.com that it was hard to focus in that environment.
“It was just tough to do certain things with no trust and play for people that you really don’t trust.”
Morris regressed badly while with the Suns in 2015-16, losing his starting role by the end of his tenure and averaging 11.6 points and 5.2 rebounds in 24.8 minutes per game in the 37 games in which he appeared.
His shooting cratered to .397/.289/.717 before the trade.
Those numbers were down from career-highs of 15.3 poiints and 6.2 rebounds per game in 2014-15, when he started all 82 games and averaged 31.5 minutes per game.
The twins are unquestionably close. They played together at the University of Kansas and were reunited when the Suns acquired Marcus from the Houston Rockets in 2013.
Heck, the Suns even negotiated their contracts together, signing the Morris twins to four-year contract extensions in September 2014, with Markieff getting $32 million and Marcus receiving $20 million.
“It didn’t matter if it was me getting $5 million and Mook (Marcus) getting $8 million. We told them it didn’t matter. If they just put $13 (million) a year for the Morris twins, that would’ve been great. They wouldn’t even have to say our names. We’re $52 million players.”
The turning point came when Phoenix unloaded Marcus in a failed attempt to land free agent LaMarcus Aldridge in the summer of 2015.
By the time the Suns finally made a deal to get Morris out of their locker room, the Wizards gave up DeJuan Blair, Kris Humphries and a first-round pick in last June’s draft.
In 27 games with the Wizards, Morris started 21 times and averaged 12.4 points and 5.9 rebounds in 26.4 minutes, with his shooting ticking up to .467/.316/.764.
His 14.0 PER with the Wizards was light years better than the 10.8 he put up for the Suns, but still below the NBA average of 15 in that stat and well below the 18.4 he posted as a sixth man for Phoenix in 2013-14.
With Nene gone to the Houston Rockets, the power forward spot belongs to Morris, with still-unproven Andrew Nicholson, journeyman Jason Smith and undrafted rookie free agent Daniel Ochefu the only alternatives on the current roster.
If the Wizards are to bounce back from a one-year playoff hiatus, Morris will have to be on his best bounce-back behavior as well.
Scott Brooks takes over the coaching reins for the Washington Wizards after a year away from the NBA. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Three Key Storylines: 3. What Does Scott Brooks Bring To D.C.?
Scott Brooks spent almost seven full seasons as the head coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder, taking over a team that was 1-12 to begin its first season in Oklahoma after moving from Seattle and earning Coach of the Year honors the next season by leading that team to 50 wins.
The following year, the Thunder were in the Western Conference Finals and a year after that, Oklahoma City reached the NBA Finals.
Russell Westbrook’s knee injury in the 2013 playoffs short-circuited a 60-win regular season and Oklahoma City fell short in the conference finals in 2014.
The Thunder missed the playoffs despite 45 wins in 2014-15, a season during which Kevin Durant was limited to 27 games because of a broken foot, Westbrook sat 15 games because of injuries and Serge Ibaka was out for the final 18 games.
But Brooks was not recognized as a great tactician in Oklahoma City; the knock on him was that rather than running sets, he was content to let Durant and Westbrook do their thing.
Hired by the Washington Wizards in April to replace Randy Wittman, this is an opportunity for Brooks to show what he can do without two transcendent stars.
His first priority is to keep the Wizards’ two stars, John Wall and Bradley Beal, available, and he told Chris Mannix of The Vertical Podcast (via The Washington Post) in July he had a plan to do just that.
“I know as I was growing as a coach, I understood the wear and tear on the bodies were important to really manage. We had such a young, dynamic team that our practices were so much fun and intense and very competitive.
“But as I grew as a coach, I understood that we have to be really efficient in what we do and figure out what’s really important and cut our practices down. The analytics tell you that. The thing I didn’t focus on was minutes per game; I focused on minutes per practice. If you could play a guy 36 minutes and cutting it down a minute but still practicing him for 2½ hours and still having an hour and 20 minute shootarounds, that minute is really nothing.”
Wall averaged 36.2 minutes a game last season and underwent surgery on both knees in May. Beal missed 27 games and has battled injuries throughout his four-year career.
What Brooks does have in Washington that is similar to his time with Oklahoma City is young talent.
Brooks developed Westbrook into an MVP candidate while shepherding Durant to the MVP award in 2013-14. He has a host of young players to work with now in D.C.
“One of the things I’ve learned is, when you’re dealing with young players, you can’t always talk about them being young. You have to treat them as NBA players. We have a bunch of young players on our team now. Kelly Oubre’s only 20. Otto Porter’s 23. Bradley Beal’s only 23. John Wall is 25.
“But I’ve already told them and I’m going to continue to tell them: We’re Washington Wizards and I don’t care how old you are. The competitive spirit that you have to display night in and night out is going to get you playing [as a] team and it’s going to get our team to the level we need to get to.”
It starts with Wall and Beal, but the Wizards have a solid veteran presence in the middle in Marcin Gortat, who isn’t a star, but can be depended upon for 10 rebounds and a couple of blocks a night.
Porter and Markieff Morris are penciled in at the forward spots and if Brooks’ pedigree for developing players is as advertised, the Wizards can be right back in the playoff hunt.
And with a coach who has proven he knows how to win in the postseason, that could lead to better days ahead in Washington.
Marcin Gortat has been a consistent force in his three seasons with the Washington Wizards, averaging 13.3 points, 9.3 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game on 55.8 percent shooting. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Best Case Scenario
John Wall and Bradley Beal are healthy, wealthy and, most importantly, willing to work together. As their chemistry grows, so to does the Washington Wizards’ standing in the Eastern Conference.
A bounce-back season by Markieff Morris helps immensely and the bench benefits from having proven bigs such as Ian Mahinmi and Jason Smith to give them solid minutes in relief.
Otto Porter takes the next step in his development and suddenly the Wizards are flirting with 50 wins and a top-four finish in the Eastern Conference.
Throw in Trey Burke starting to figure things out while providing valuable minutes at point guard and the expected growth of Kelly Oubre’s game and Washington is not just a playoff team, but a legitimate threat.
Worst Case Scenario
Beal can’t stay healthy, Wall can’t stay happy and the Wizards don’t just miss the playoffs again, but they miss them by a lot.
Marcin Gortat’s game starts to show some wear as he approaches his 33rd birthday, Morris can’t seem to shake completely out of the funk that began when his twin brother was traded away in Phoenix and Brooks discovers it’s hard to win in the NBA when one doesn’t have two top-10 players at his disposal.
After a .500 finish in Randy Wittman’s final season, that mark looks like an oasis as Washington slides out of contention with a win total in the mid-30s.
The Washington Wizards brought back Marcus Thornton’s wing scoring off the bench on a one-year, veteran’s minimum deal. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports
It’s not inconceivable that the Washington Wizards could not improve their record at all from last year and jump five places in the conference standings.
That’s because of anticipated slides by several playoff teams of a year ago including the Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets, Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat, while the team that just missed the postseason–the Chicago Bulls–are an … interesting … team on paper.
Washington probably doesn’t have enough to challenge the top four teams in the East, but a fifth seed isn’t out of the question if the Wizards can get to .500 or a shade better.
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A lot of it depends on the health of Bradley Beal. If Washington can get 75-80 games out of Beal, their chances of winning 43-45 games increases exponentially.
If they are forced to play unproven European import Tomas Satoransky for extended minutes over an extended period of games, that could throw a crimp in the Wizards’ hopes of getting back over .500, even if it’s likely 37-39 wins will get a team into the playoffs.
If John Wall can return healthy and explosive after double knee surgeries in the spring, though, you have to like his chances for a fourth straight All-Star berth and a return to the postseason party, where this group has at least shown it knows how to survive the first round opening on the road.