'Best backcourt' in NBA? Wizards have to prove it
Less well-documented was the second half of his statement: ''At the same time, we've got to prove it.''
The Wizards have come a long way, brash enough to be talking about being the best at something after years in which mediocre would have been an upgrade. Last season's return to the playoffs has made them a fashionable choice as an on-the-rise team, so much so that 10-time All-Star Paul Pierce decided it was worth his while to sign with an organization he would have dismissed out of hand only a year or so ago.
''We've got a target on our back. A big `X' on our back,'' veteran forward Drew Gooden said. ''We're not in a rebuilding process anymore.''
The Wizards were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs last season, so the next step would be the conference finals, a distinct possibility given that LeBron James' return to the Cleveland Cavaliers has left with the East without a clear-cut favorite.
To get there, Beal and John Wall really do have to be something close to the best backcourt in the league. Wall's outside shot has steadily improved since he was chosen No. 1 overall in the 2010 draft. He played in all 82 games for the first time last season and made his first All-Star appearance, but he also led the NBA in turnovers and was third in turnovers per game.
Beal has a shooting stroke that is the envy of many; he just needs to keep his slumps to a minimum and get healthy soon after breaking a bone in his left (non-shooting) wrist in preseason.
Pierce, Nene, Marcin Gortat and the supporting cast all have their roles, but it's the pair on the perimeter who are the key. Maybe they will be the best, maybe they won't.
Here are some further thoughts as the Wizards prepare to open their season Oct. 29:
BEAL'S INJURY: The Wizards, in fact, do not currently have the best backcourt in the NBA because Beal is expected to miss the first month or so of the season. Swingman Martell Webster is still recovering from back surgery, and Glen Rice Jr. has a sprained right ankle, leaving coach Randy Wittman short on alternatives. Garrett Temple could be the next man up for the season opener.
PIERCE'S VALUE: Pierce just turned 37, but he doesn't expect his skills to erode anytime soon because his game has never relied heavily on athleticism. He won't play tons of minutes, but he's already providing valuable leadership and doesn't see his move to Washington as anytime like a retirement party. ''My body feels good, my mind is in the right place, I still have the hunger, desire to get up every day and want to be in the gym,'' Pierce said.
WHITHER OTTO: The Wizards got almost nothing out of No. 3 overall pick Otto Porter last season. Injuries, ineffectiveness and a logjam at his position all had something to do with it. This year there needs to be a payoff. Pierce won't play as many minutes as Trevor Ariza, who signed with the Houston Rockets. Webster is sidelined for the time being, as is Kris Humphries (finger surgery). There will be plenty of chances for Porter.
KEEP THE FIRE BURNING: The Wizards have made it back to the party, but they'll be kicked out the door if they try to coast on last year's success. Washington was 86 games under .500 during Wall's first three seasons, and he doesn't want to see such depths again. ''I went through the tough times of switching coaches and switching teammates left and right,'' Wall said. ''And it took me four or five years to figure it out, and I had to get better every year, and we started adding pieces around here, so I think our team has come.''
WIDE, WIDE EAST: If their time has indeed come, James' departure from the Miami Heat gets an assist. The Wizards couldn't have timed their ascendance better. ''Everybody's saying the East is wide open; it is wide-open,'' team President Ernie Grunfeld said.
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