The Wizards entered this season not only with playoff expectations, but also the hope of taking a big step forward after bowing out in the second round in 2014-15. They committed to the small lineups that led them to success in that postseason run and made personnel choices based on that new identity. The idea was to combine the excellent defense that had characterized them in the past with a juiced-up, fast-paced offense led by John Wall.
Everything that was promising in theory fell apart this season. The defense regressed, the offense never got off the ground and the new style was largely scrapped halfway through in a desperate attempt to salvage the season. A nine-point loss to the lowly Kings Wednesday put the Wizards 3.5 games out of the East's No. 8 seed with only seven contests left to play. It also led to Bradley Beal calling out the team's effort after the game, which did not sit too well with Marcin Gortat.
This season has undoubtedly been a huge disappointment for the Wizards, especially because this was always going to be a pivotal offseason. Now, they must try to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it. Here are the three biggest questions they will need to answer to make that happen.
1. What kind of team do they want to be?
In 2014-15, the Wizards were a grind-it-out team that played two traditional big men, didn't attempt a lot of three-pointers and depended on its defense to win games. That was good enough to earn the fifth seed in the East, but that team had glaring weaknesses. The offense was in the bottom half in the league and only really improved in the playoffs because the team went small more often.
Trying to adopt a small-ball identity full-time was supposed to be the cure to those offensive woes. In theory, splitting the Nene-Marcin Gortat duo to add another shooter and giving Wall free rein to push the pace were great ideas, but they simply never translated into the type of offensive production that offsets the natural defensive decline the move was expected to cause. The transition ultimately didn't work on either end.
Judging by the results, the answer may be to return to the old approach, but that's not so easy. It's tempting to glorify the past, but the Wizards weren't that special when they played big and slow, either. This season, they also dealt with injuries to wing players like Beal and Alan Anderson who would have made their small units much more dangerous, so it's hard to determine if the new approach would have worked under different circumstances.
Fortunately for the front office, they have the flexibility to make the decision to either go back to their old style or try to build on their recently adopted identity. Both Nene and the wing depth the Wizards accrued just for this season come off the books this summer, allowing them to build their supporting cast from scratch. Randy Wittman's contract is up (he has a 2016-17 team option), so they will get to pick a coach as well.
How they fill out the roster and whom they hire should provide a good indication of the identity they want going forward.
2. Do they need a front-office shakeup?
Ernie Grunfeld has been Washington's president of basketball operations since 2003. He built the Gilbert Arenas-led playoff teams of the mid-aughts and was also there for the fallout. Ownership changed and he survived, which is not common. There aren't a lot of executives who have Grunfeld's staying power despite a middling overall record.
Indeed, he was responsible for building a team that made the playoffs four years in a row after a seven-year drought. That period wasn't all good, though. One of the trades he made at that time -- the fifth overall pick in the 2009 draft for Mike Miller and Randy Foye -- haunts the franchise, as they could have had Stephen Curry or other good prospects. In the end, the Arenas Wizards only made it past the first round once before imploding in spectacular fashion. A similar story is playing out with this iteration of the franchise, though the implosion is only happening on the court this time around.
The Wizards will have to rely on free agency to make upgrades, since the first-round pick they traded to the Suns for Markieff Morris will likely convey and the team doesn't have many assets to move. That's unfortunate, because while Grunfeld has made some of his best additions via trades, Arenas is his only home run free agent signing. (Getting Paul Pierce for a year was also nice, but short-lived). This doesn't inspire a lot of confidence heading into a summer in which Washington will have enough room to offer a max contract.
Grunfeld has been with the team for a long time and owner Ted Leonsis didn't made a change before when the situation was more dire. Still, a change is something the Wizards should consider as they enter a crucial offseason. Maybe it's time to try something new.
3 Is their young core really that promising?
One of the reasons many expected the Wizards to take a step forward this season was internal development. John Wall was expected to build on a terrific 2014-15 campaign that saw him start the All-Star Game for the first time. Bradley Beal had showed flashes of immense potential and was a breakout candidate following a banner postseason. Otto Porter emerged in the playoffs as a key weapon, and he was supposed to step into Pierce's role as the team's starting small forward.
Unfortunately, all three failed to blossom. Wall regressed in some key areas, Beal continued to struggle with injuries and Porter didn't make the type of full-fledged leap the team hoped he would. They are all still young enough that they could emerge as a killer three-man foundation, but it's fair to wonder if maybe their ceilings have been overstated.
Is Porter just a role player? There's nothing wrong with that, but that's a question that needs to be answered. The vast majority of his field goals are assisted, and he mostly scores in spot-up and transition situations. That's not a problem next to Wall and Beal but it rules out any chance of him taking an expanded role by anchoring units without them. His defense has also been a disappointment.
There are few questions about Beal's talent. He's definitely a skilled offensive player who can create for himself in halfcourt situations and still has one of the league's prettiest jump shots. The problem is he has never played more than 73 games in a season (and averaged only 60) thanks to a string of leg injuries. When he has played, he's been inconsistent and battled minutes restrictions. At his best, he's a good second option worthy of the maximum salary he will likely get this offseason in restricted free agency. Will he ever be healthy enough to fulfill that potential, though?
As for Wall, he's definitely a superstar, but it's unclear how good a team can be if he's their best player. Last season's version was definitely a franchise star. This year, he has seen his scoring efficiency, finishing around the rim and defensive effort fall off, though he did improve his three-point shooting. Ultimately, the Wizards will need him to again be the best point guard in the East if they want to eventually build a contender.
If the front office is confident in the ability of those three players to live up to their significant potential, striking out on a star in free agency won't be the end of the world. If they don't believe they have the foundation to build an elite team already in place, however, tough decisions will have to be made eventually.
Those tough decisions are now on the table after a season gone awry.