The Wizards start their 2017-18 season against the Philadelphia 76ers. Game one brings hope for a great season as well as concern for a subpar showing. Most project the Wizards to garner home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs and win between 46 and 52 games in the regular season. While I agree that is the most likely outcome, the scenarios below describe situations that could lead the Wizards to exceed expectations or fall short of their goals.
Best case scenario for the Wizards in 2017-2018: 55-60 wins and a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals
The Wizards return the same lineup that achieved success last year, winning 49 games and reaching game seven of the Eastern Conference finals. In a league where rosters fluctuate frequently, continuity helps, and the Wizards return the same starting lineup for the third consecutive season. Last year the Wizards' starters -- John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, Markieff Morris, and Marcin Gortat -- played over 50% more minutes together than any other five-man unit in the NBA.
The Wizards' organization has invested heavily in their core, agreeing to contacts in the past two offseasons worth a combined $404 million for Wall, Beal, and Porter. And for good reason, when these three are on the floor together the Wizards outscore opponents by 7.2 points per 48 minutes. All three are entering their primes -- at ages 27, 24, and 24 -- and, if they remain healthy, could post career-best seasons. While Wall put together his best season to date last year, he has room to grow, especially on the defensive end, where he must merit an all-NBA first team defensive selection to complete his #mambachallenge.
The Wizards should also improve by virtue of upgrading one of the worst benches in the NBA. Kelly Oubre Jr. has shown steady improvement over the last two seasons and at times looks poised for a breakout. The Wizards will become a much stronger team if Oubre can provide twenty minutes of tenacious defense a game and hit his, largely wide open, three-pointers. Additionally, the Wizards added Tim Frazier, Jodie Meeks, and Mike Scott. Frazier played quality minutes for the Pelicans last season and is a significant upgrade over Trey Burke. Ian Mahinmi should upgrade to the Wizards' front-court depth, provided that he can stay healthy. While the bench remains a work in progress, it is a significant upgrade over last year's unit.
In addition to internal improvement, the Wizards may also benefit from the dysfunction atop the Eastern Conference. Both the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics are in flux. If Isaiah Thomas is not healthy, the Cavaliers are worse than last season, essentially trading Kyrie Irving for Jae Crowder and a future draft pick. The Celtics made significant improvements, but they also lost Thomas' offensive brilliance and Avery Bradley's defensive process. While the Celtics are built for future success, youngsters like Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum may provide more potential than production this season.
Worst case scenario for the Wizards in 2017-2018: injuries cause the Wizards to miss the playoffs
Barring injury, the Wizards certainly have enough power to reach the Eastern Conference playoffs. However, the Wizards have one of the thinnest benches in the league and an injury to Wall or Beal could easily derail the Wizards' playoff aspirations. Last season the Wizards went 2-7 in games without Wall or Beal and cannot withstand a lengthy spell without either player. Both Wall and Beal have lengthy injury histories, Beal has suffered a variety of ailments including stress fractures in his legs and Wall somehow played 78 games last year after double knee surgery last offseason.
Markieff Morris, the Wizards' starting power forward, is already injured and set to miss the start of the season with a hernia injury. This setback could lead to a sluggish beginning, akin to last season's 9-14 start, to the season and force Coach Scott Brooks to play his starters heavy minutes. Last season Wall ranked in the top ten in the NBA in minutes per game at 36.4, while Beal ranked in the top 20 at 34.9. If the Wizards again rely on the backcourt stars to play heavy minutes they only increase their chance of injury.
The Wizards lack of front-court firepower could also spell doom for their 2017-2018 season. Marcin Gortat has dutifully manned the starting spot over the last four years, playing in 320 of 328 regular season games during that time. But, Gortat turns 34 this season and is clearly on the backend of his career. While he still plays hard, sets solid screens, and rolls well to the rim, his Wizards essentially ignore him on offense. Jason Smith was a pleasant surprise at times, particularly as he shot 47% from three, but he cannot play heavy minutes. Finally, Ian Mahinmi missed most of last season, and while he should provide more this season, he is also a center in his thirties with his athleticism in decline.
The Wizards simply do not have the depth to withstand a rash of unfortunate injuries or sustained poor play. While unlikely, a sluggish start and time missed by either Wall or Beal could quickly derail the Wizards' season and lead to a disappointing 2017-2018 campaign.