(SportsNetwork.com) - The Washington Wizards enter the 2014-15 season with expectations unseen in the nation's capital for quite some time.
They are the favorites to win the Southeast Division.
After winning a round in the postseason, improving with veteran leadership and getting an assist when LeBron James bolted the Miami Heat for the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Wiz have earned the preseason distinction as one of the Eastern Conference's three best teams.
"Our time is coming now," said John Wall, who made his first All-Star game last season. "We've just got to keep it going."
The Wizards team that finished last season with a second-round playoff loss to the Indiana Pacers in six games would not be strong enough to be mentioned in a group that could win the Eastern Conference.
Enter Paul Pierce.
The future Hall of Famer has something left in the tank and signed with the Wiz as a free agent. This team belongs to the backcourt of Wall and Bradley Beal, but Pierce will provide leadership as well as timely scoring.
"He's a vocal guy, a proven leader," Beal said of Pierce. "He's going to push us to be the very best we can be. It's always great to have a guy who's going to push you to be the best you can be."
Pierce's numbers declined in his one season with Brooklyn, but that was to be expected. At 37, and with a talented Nets roster, Pierce's scoring was bound to go down. He still produced in the playoffs and he is in Washington to make the Wizards a consistent winner.
He was not the only newcomer at Wizards camp.
Kris Humphries and DeJuan Blair were brought in to improve the depth up front. Both are competent big men, hard workers and solid pros. Blair has a winning pedigree in his days with the San Antonio Spurs. Humphries may miss time at the start of the season with a hand injury.
Washington is loaded with veterans. Nene and Marcin Gortat will start with Pierce and an electric backcourt. They are an underrated big-man combo who both hit the glass.
Joining Blair and Humphries on the bench are Andre Miller and Martell Webster. Otto Porter, Jr., the third pick in the 2013 draft, might even see some action this season.
But, the lifeblood of the Wizards is pumped by the guards.
Wall is probably the fastest player in the league and emerged as an All-Star. Confidence is high for Wall and he mentioned championships in some interviews.
No one stirred more of a controversy with his words at the start of camp than Beal. He said him and Wall were the best backcourt in the league and it may be hard to argue. (Although, Cleveland's Dion Waiters disputed the claim on behalf of himself and Kyrie Irving.)
That's a big statement for a pair of young men, neither of whom can legally rent a car in the U.S. That's why the veteran influence is so important on this Wizards team.
Wall and Beal aren't just spouting youthful boasting. This team is balanced, smart and skilled. How they handle being a preseason favorite for a division title remains to be seen. With this much professionalism, it's hard to imagine the Wizards falling into a trap.
And just when everything looks promising, Beal hurts his wrist and will be sidelined close to six weeks. That's a huge blow, coupled with injuries to Humphries and Webster, and could make Washington vulnerable early in the campaign.
Just when everything was starting to look up for the Wizards ...
2013-14 Results: 44-38, 2nd in Southeast; Lost in East semifinals to Indiana
ADDITIONS: F Paul Pierce, F/C Kris Humphries, F/C DeJuan Blair
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE:
PG- John Wall SG- Bradley Beal SF- Paul Pierce PF- Nene C- Marcin Gortat
KEY RESERVES: F/G Martell Webster, F/C Kris Humphries, F/C DeJuan Blair, G Andre Miller, G Garrett Temple, F Drew Gooden, F Otto Porter, Jr., F/C Kevin Seraphin, F/G Glen Rice Jr.
FRONTCOURT: In Brooklyn last season, Pierce put up measly numbers of 13.5 ppg, 4.6 rpg and 2.4 apg. All were career-lows, but it's justified by the fact Pierce averaged under 30 minutes per game for the first time in his career.
But, Pierce still contributes solid defense and great clutch production. He can still be the guy the Wiz count on for fourth-quarter buckets. He wants to be in Washington and lead these guys. Pierce is a proven winner and might just be the missing component that will put Washington in the next echelon.
Where things will take a step back for Washington is defensively at the small forward spot. Pierce is strong and can cover some guys, but Trevor Ariza was an elite defender. Pierce is definitely not that.
Nene hasn't played close to a full season since 2010-11. Age won't help, but when Nene is out there, he's productive. Nene averaged 14.2 ppg and 5.5 rpg, which isn't a high number, but his toughness is unmatched. With the veteran help brought in, Nene can take some nights off to be ready for the postseason.
Gortat was downright unstoppable at times during the playoffs. He enjoyed a strong regular season with 13.2 ppg and 9.5 rpg. He shot 54 percent from the field and was handsomely rewarded in the offseason with a five-year, $60 million contract.
What Nene and Gortat lack in statistical numbers, they make up for with toughness. Pound-for-pound, they might be the toughest big-man combo in the NBA outside of Memphis.
BACKCOURT: Wall played all 82 games last season and logged the fifth-most minutes behind Kevin Durant, Monta Ellis, DeMar DeRozan and Carmelo Anthony.
He averaged 19.3 ppg, 8.8 apg (tied for second in the league) and 4.1 rpg. His 3-point shooting improved to 35 percent. Wall is a solid defender, but the biggest improvement heading into this offseason came in the form of leadership.
"Night and day from last year, he's been our most vocal guy and has been most energized guy out there," head coach Randy Wittman said of Wall.
There was no sophomore slump for Beal. He improved his numbers across the board going up to 17.1 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 3.3 apg while shooting 42 percent from the floor and 40 percent from 3-point range.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Beal's second season was the jumps in numbers he made from the regular season to the postseason - 19.2 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 4.5 apg and 42 percent from the floor and 41 percent from beyond the arc.
Whether these two represent the best backcourt in the game is up for some debate. But they are certainly on the short list, but that's not the issue. They believe in themselves.
BENCH: Humphries had two straight seasons averaging a double-double, but since he was regulated to the bench, the production has slid accordingly. He's a solid banger whose biggest transgression in the sport was marrying a Kardashian. Humphries hasn't always handled bad news great, but in this situation, with a clearly defined role, he should produce.
Blair was solid and reliable in San Antonio, then was the same his one season in Dallas. He's a high-percentage shooter, good defender and tough guy. He fits in perfectly behind Nene.
Miller keeps on ticking. His experience under Brian Shaw with the Denver Nuggets was hideous, but he came to Washington and played decently. Miller won't play as much as seasons past (under 15 minutes per game in 28 with the Wiz last season), but he can still facilitate. Miller is also a master of using his body, be it in the lane, or on the post.
Webster was good during the regular season, but had trouble finding time in the playoffs. He played 10 less minutes in the postseason, but he's a good 3-point shooter. Webster won't be crying for playing time behind Pierce.
Porter was a non-factor last season. The only reason that makes you think he'll be more of one this season is that Pierce in front of him is older.
Gooden was great in the playoffs. Any expectations from him in the regular season are misguided. But, he's yet another veteran presence in that locker room.
Seraphin saw a substantial dip in playing time last season and with the acquisitions of Blair and Humphries, it's hard to see that shifting back.
COACH: Wittman had an awful record as head coach until last season. He was rewarded with a new contract and is the man to lead this team, hopefully into a contender.
Wittman has so many veterans to coach that policing them shouldn't be an issue. Pierce, Nene and company will hold everyone accountable. Wittman may have to talk to Wall and Beal about talking to the media and tempering expectations, but having a dynamic young backcourt is not exactly a headache.
Wittman is tough on his players publicly, but he produced results as the players grew into their roles.
OUTLOOK: The Southeast title is not just realistic, but expected. That will get the Wiz a top-four playoff seed and homecourt advantage in round one. They are good enough to win the division and should.
Long-term is a little scary. They could see the Miami Heat in round one, or even Charlotte, so advancing is no guarantee.
But, the Wizards are a top four team in the Eastern Conference. That backcourt is probably the best in the league and both can get even better. Wittman didn't always trust his bench last season as the reserves played the 26th most minutes and scored the second-fewest points. But, that has been remedied substantially.
Washington has a lot of talent, and a lot of strong leaders. The Wizards should be a top-tier team, challenging for anything as high as the second or third seed in the East.
But, they have to guard against over-inflated worth. Everyone has anointed them as something special this season, including themselves.
The Wizards should be fine and very good.