- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 5, 2018

Unprompted, new Wizards guard Austin Rivers shared his view of the NBA landscape with LeBron James joining the Los Angeles Lakers. 

After 15 years — marked by eight straight finals appearances — James will be playing in a different conference for the first time in his career.

“More so, just look at how wide-open the East is now with LeBron going out West,” said Rivers, who was traded to Washington from the Los Angeles Clippers last week. “It’s really wide-open for anybody to take.”

That’s true to an extent. The Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers are the two favorites in the East to make the finals now that James is gone. Both teams have a mix of stars, young talent and reliable role players that will create problems for opponents, even those out west.

But Boston and Philadelphia don’t carry the same feeling of inevitability that James did for years in the East — or the Golden State Warriors currently have in the West.

There’s room to potentially make a dent, and the Wizards are well-aware of the opportunity.

“Our window is open,” general manager Ernie Grunfeld said. “We want to win and we want to compete right now. And we have a very good young core of players who have been through playoff experiences already. … We have a real nice core of young players that we can continue to build with, but are also ready to compete today.”

Grunfeld said every year the Wizards try to improve but acknowledged James leaving the conference does open the door for other teams.

Washington, though, will need to take a step forward to show they belong among the East’s best. The Wizards were a game away from the conference finals in 2017 but regressed last year amid a disappointing, inconsistent season. They were eliminated by the Toronto Raptors in the first round in six games.

This offseason, Grunfeld has made moves in order to re-tool around the team’s core of John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter. Washington’s biggest splash came Tuesday — when center Dwight Howard reportedly agreed to join the Wizards for the mini mid-level exception ($5.3 million).

Washington also acquired Rivers, veteran forward Jeff Green and used the 15th pick to draft wing Troy Brown Jr.

The Wizards lost center Marcin Gortat (traded for Rivers) and free agent Mike Scott, who joined the Clippers.

On paper, the Wizards are a better team than they were last year. But part of their growth depends on if Wall (27), Beal (25) and Porter (25) can continue to improve. Another question mark will be how Howard, a chemistry concern, jells with the club.

“Obviously last year, with some players being injured and missing quite a few games, we weren’t as consistent as we would have liked, especially against lesser teams,” Grunfeld said. “That’s an area that we have to do better at. But I think last year we showed when we came to play, we can compete with anybody.”

In the Wizards’ favor, there is a significant talent gap between the two conferences. Of the 12 players to make an All-NBA first-team selection in the last five years, 11 belong in the West. The lone exception is New York’s Joakim Noah, who is now far past his prime and rides the end of the bench.

Of the conference’s remaining stars, three, or four depending on how you view Al Horford, play for Boston (Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward and Jayson Tatum). Two — Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid — play in Philadelphia.

Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo might be the East’s best player with James in Los Angeles, but he has lacked the supporting cast to make the Bucks an elite team. Toronto, with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, is trending downward.

At their best, Wall and Beal have looked like stars. But can they do it on a night-to-night basis?

“Here the East is really like anybody can get there,” Rivers said. “You can go to the finals or the conference finals if you’re a playoff-caliber team, which this team is. I think that puts a different confidence, focus, energy on a team.

“That will probably be a focal point in training camp. I’m sure the coach, everybody’s going to say, ‘Guys, this is something we need to take advantage of.’”

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