By Steve BowenThe Washington Wizards have a few reasons to be excited.
For starters, the roster is starting to gel, and the talent is starting the process of finding a new identity.
But more importantly, the young players are starting to take shape and the team has an edge in the conference.
A few years ago, the Washington team was a scrappy, scrappy team.
Now, it’s playing hard, and it has the edge on the other conference teams.
“We’ve got to keep it loose and to get a little more aggressive, get a lot more creative with the shots, and just have fun with it,” guard Marcin Gortat said.
“The last few games have been really fun, especially with the playoffs starting up.
It’s been good to see our guys getting to know each other.”
The Wizards were one of the worst teams in the NBA in 2016-17, losing 105 games and averaging more than 29 points a game.
They’re going to have to start winning a lot of close games if they want to improve and finish as a top-10 team.
That’s what happened in 2016.
The team’s talent is at an all-time high, and if they can continue to play like that, it might even get to the playoffs.
Gortat, a first-round pick in 2015, has been a key piece to the team’s recent success, averaging 19.3 points per game and shooting 47.7 percent overall.
But he has been hampered by injuries throughout his career, and his season has been marked by a lot on the bench.
Gortatt was one of just four Wizards who averaged less than 16 points per contest, while five others posted at least 14.
A lot of those injuries have been to the small forward position.
Washington’s reserves are averaging 13.8 points per 100 possessions, but Gortats numbers are down from the same season in 2015-16, when he shot 38.3 percent.
“It’s kind of funny that we’ve gotten a lot better at our defensive end of the floor this season,” Gortatin said.
“Our defense is actually getting better.
The second unit, our bigs have really been getting a lot tougher, which is nice.”
A lot has changed over the last two seasons, with the team moving into a more traditional line-up, and playing less pick-and-rolls.
They’ll have to do a lot differently next season if they hope to get back to the top of the standings.
“The defense is definitely getting better, so it’s just about finding the right balance and just going with the flow,” Gontat said, when asked what’s next.
“We’ve been in this position before, so we’ve always tried to find the right mix of plays.”
But the team will have to find a way to stop opponents from dominating in the paint.
The Wizards are shooting 42.2 percent from 3-point range, the fourth-worst mark in the league.
They’ll also have to stop the bleeding from losing John Wall, who suffered a broken right leg last season and was forced to miss the entire season.
He’ll return this season, but his return could take a while, with coach Scott Brooks trying to find his starting lineup.
The Wizards will be without their top scorers.
Trevor Ariza will miss four to six weeks with a torn meniscus, while Marcin Cone is out for the year with a sprained right ankle.
Washington will also be without its leading scorer, and they’ll have a bit of a tough time stopping the big man.
“I think we’re probably better than we were last year,” Brooks said.
Cone averaged 12.8 rebounds per game in 2016 and 12.1 rebounds per contest in 2015.
The 7-footer averaged 14.5 points per outing, but was a liability defensively.
Ariza had a breakout season in 2016, averaging 14.8 and 12 rebounds, and he’ll be back this season with the Wizards.
Cone, meanwhile, will miss at least three months with a fractured right foot.
Brooks said he won’t know until he gets some test results, and Gortattedts return is uncertain.
“For a guy who’s had so much injury, we’re hoping to be able to find some rhythm,” Brooks joked.
“I’m really hoping to get some healthy guys back.
I’m really looking forward to it.”