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WASHINGTON – During a recent discussion of his long-term expectations for the Washington Wizards, owner Ted Leonsis said: "Fifty wins is kind of a demarcation of a team that is a legitimate contender."
First, the Wizards need to get to 30.
They've won 19, 26, 23, 20 and 29 over the last five seasons. They last reached 40 in 2007-08, when they went 43-39 on the way to their last playoff appearance. They last reached 50 in 1978-79, when the team then known as the Bullets were 54-28 and lost in the NBA finals.
In their quest to return to such a lofty status, the Wizards are hitching their hopes to John Wall, the 2010 No. 1 overall draft pick who has yet to channel his immense talent into consistent NBA success.
Wall has issues with turnovers and injuries, but it's easy to forget that he's only 23 years old and still learning how to handle the responsibilities that come with being a franchise player. He did energize the locker room when he returned from a knee injury last season, getting the team to play .500 ball after a 4-28 start.
And anyone associated with the franchise is quick to point out that the Wizards were 15-7 when Wall, Bradley Beal and Nene were healthy enough to play in the same game. They were 6-2 when all three started.
Here are five things to notice as the Wizards try to make 2013-14 something more than another lottery season:
A WALL THAT LEAKS: The biggest red flag from preseason is that Wall still has trouble taking care of the ball. He's averaged 3.7 turnovers in his career, more than any other player since he entered the league. He was somewhat better last season, when he averaged 3.2 over 49 games, but he's been especially sloppy this month: five turnovers each against the New Orleans Pelicans and the Miami Heat, four each against the Chicago Bulls and Brooklyn Nets. Coach Randy Wittman has said, "This team is not going to get over the top until they take better care of the basketball."
BETTER BEAL: For the Wizards to make a mark, Wall and Beal need to be Park Place and Boardwalk, a backcourt joined at the hip, able to read each other's minds on the fly. Beal is no longer the wide-eyed rookie he was a year ago, when he was finding his way as a No. 3 overall pick. He's played with much more confidence this preseason. "I have a whole year under my belt. I know how he plays, he knows how I play," Beal said. "I've gotten better, he's gotten better."
AND OTTO MAKES THREE: The going theory is it takes a Big Three to win a title in today's NBA, so the third piece of the long-term Wizards puzzle is this year's No. 3 overall — Otto Porter. The Wizards don't need Porter to start right away because they've got Trevor Ariza and Martell Webster at small forward. That's a good thing — because Porter has been sidelined since the start of training camp with a right hip flexor injury.
GET WELL, STAY WELL: Porter isn't the only ailing player. Center Emeka Okafor is out indefinitely with herniated disk in his neck. Wall has missed about a quarter of his games with various injuries since entering the NBA. His knee injury last year forced Leonsis to back down on his statement that another season out of the playoffs would be "unacceptable." Beal and Nene also battled injuries last season. It can't keep happening if the Wizards want to make the playoffs — they simply don't have a sufficient margin for error to lose starters for significant periods of time.
LAME DUCKS: Both the coach (Wittman) and general manager/team president (Ernie Grunfeld) are in the final season of their contracts. The message is clear: It's time for the long, slow rebuilding process to pay dividends, or Leonsis could very well be looking elsewhere for people to run the front office and the bench come next spring. Asked if "unacceptable" applies to a non-playoff record this season, Leonsis said: "I would think you could find the articles that you wrote last year and just do them again. Yeah, we have much higher expectations. It's the fourth season of the rebuild. We expect to be a much, much better team."
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