Break out your Ben Simmons hand trackers—the NBA is back. We’re counting down the days until the 2018-19 season tips off on October 16 by taking a hard look at the floor and ceiling of every team in the league. This year, each Best Case, Worst Case capsule is also accompanied by The Ringer’s preseason ranking, our staff’s best guess about where that team will finish this season. We look forward to your emotionless, considered responses.
Ringer Preseason Ranking: 16
Last Season: 43-39
Notable Additions: Dwight Howard (free agency), Austin Rivers (trade), Jeff Green (free agency), Troy Brown Jr. (draft)
Notable Subtractions: Marcin Gortat (trade)
Vegas Over/Under: 44.5
Team MVP: John Wall
Best-Case Scenario: The team manages to sort out its long-standing chemistry issues, nobody gets injured, Howard emerges as the productive big man that the team has long lacked, and Washington finishes near the top of the wide-open East.
The recent story of the Wizards has been about small tweaks. Washington has stayed the course, committing and recommitting to its core while the other top teams in the Eastern Conference playoff picture—the Celtics, the Cavs, and now the Raptors—have swapped out main pieces in search of a winning formula. This season, Washington will bring back the same core everybody knows. John Wall, despite his, uh, unphotogenic summer, will spend the season zipping through traffic; Bradley Beal will get his buckets; Otto Porter Jr. will be the team’s Swiss army knife; and Kelly Oubre Jr. will play lockdown defense and make the internet happy. For the past couple of years, that core has been the only thing the Wizards could depend on, but it’s never been enough. Team president Ernie Grunfeld’s tweaks to the rest of the roster over the summer might have finally brought backup. Their new acquisitions look to be more promising than any that Washington has made over the past few offseasons.
Though Howard, Rivers, and Green each come to the capital hauling a trove of memes, it’s hard to argue that the oft-bumbling Grunfeld was shooting in the dark when he brought them to D.C. Basically, Grunfeld has replaced nothing with something, and for a team that has had massive, unaddressed depth concerns in recent years, that will go a long way.
Rivers put up the best numbers of his career as a starter for the Clippers last season, but it didn’t often translate to success. Luckily, he will only need to be serviceable to shore up the reserve unit in Washington. In recent years, the second team has been entrusted to the likes of Tim Frazier, Ramon Sessions, Trey Burke, and Brandon Jennings. But this season, Tomas Satoransky, who started at the point while Wall was injured for a stretch last season, should be able to take charge of a much more capable offense that will include Rivers, Oubre, and Green.
The gods flip a coin when Jeff Green takes the court: You’ll either get a solid performance or a brickathon, but in a new role in Washington, likely as Markieff Morris’s backup at the 4, that won’t be a huge concern. He’ll be a useful addition to Scott Brooks’s substitution patterns as a frontcourt presence with a versatile perimeter skill set. Plus, Green is riding a wave of positivity, coming off a few (relatively) promising postseason performances and returning to a city that loves him. (Green was the leader of the last Georgetown team to get out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.)
Howard is the member of the trio from whom the most is needed. He fills a desperate need for the team, which had rolled out the ghastly combination of Gortat and the kneeless Ian Mahinmi at center for much of the past two seasons. Howard is diminished in comparison with his former self, but in comparison with the aforementioned duopoly, he could look like a superstar. Howard will be the team’s fourth or fifth option on offense, and he might have better looks at the basket than he’s ever had before. During Gortat’s tenure in Washington, he feasted off Wall’s crisp passes; over the last two seasons, when the two shared the floor, Gortat scored nearly two buckets a game via Wall assists, which is notable considering Gortat has averaged four made field goals per game over that span. Wall is known for getting the ball into the hands of his teammates, and he’s especially done wonders for the team’s bigs.
Howard has never shared the floor with a passer like Wall (perhaps the closest he’s ever come was during his Lakers season, where he caught passes from the last vapors of Steve Nash). In the Wizards offense, the big man will get good looks and will have more freedom in the middle as opposing defenses stretch outward to limit Beal and Porter. In short, all the ingredients are in place for a Howard renaissance that will help the Wizards finally turn into a complete unit and a real contender in the East.
Worst-Case Scenario: Howard is a bad chemistry guy. He was bullied out of Los Angeles by Kobe. He fought with James Harden in Houston about not getting the ball enough. When he was traded from Atlanta to Charlotte, his Hawks teammates literally cheered. Despite averaging a double-double in every season of his career, he has been chased to seven different franchises in eight seasons. He seems to be, as the kids say, a bad hang.
“Howard’s career follows a pattern: Every year now, he shows up in a new place. And every year now, the people in the city he goes to hope that Howard will be different,” my colleague Rodger Sherman wrote in July. “But eventually, he reveals himself to be the same old Dwight, and a path toward his inevitable departure begins.”
So, it didn’t seem great when Howard’s first press conference as a Wizard started with this:
Asked about his recent travels the past few years, Howard has a ready-made answer: “I learned Magic for eight years. Went to La-La Land. Worked for a while with Rockets. Learned to fly with some Hawks. Got stung by the Hornets. And it all taught me how to be a Wizard.”— David Aldridge (@daldridgetnt) July 23, 2018
Perhaps that kind of faux-charming banter is what Howard’s teammates on the Hornets were talking about when they told Brendan Haywood that they’d grown “sick and tired of his act.”
Now, keep in mind that these Wizards are not a team known for great chemistry. A few years ago, Beal and Wall seemed to be openly feuding. Last season, many members of the team seemed like they were celebrating while Wall was injured, coining the phrase “everybody eats” to mark the team’s newfound commitment to ball movement. Gortat then subtweeted Wall, sparking another open feud between teammates. The center, of course, was then traded in the offseason.
Throw Howard into that mix, and the worst-case scenario almost seems like an inevitability. The Wizards are a talented but fragile entity. Last season, the team grabbed the eighth spot in the East. And even at its best, the Wall-Beal Wizards won only 49 games during the 2016-17 season. (The franchise has not won 50 games since 1979.) If Wall or Beal get hurt, or if Scott Brooks’s lineups remain uninspired, it’s hard to imagine them contesting the top spot in the East. Add a social firebomb like Howard, and it doesn’t seem impossible that the team will drop out of the playoff picture altogether while the entire roster subtweets itself into oblivion.
TL;DR: If Howard is good, the Wizards could be great. If he’s bad, they might be, too.