- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The Washington Wizards have a new practice facility in Southeast D.C. They have new pieces, including a new starting center. Maybe it’s finally the year they’ll have new results, too.

For the first time in nine years, the Eastern Conference will be represented in the NBA Finals by a team that does not include LeBron James, the longtime Cleveland and Miami superstar who is in now in Los Angeles.

James’ departure leaves the East wide open, though the general consensus is that either the Boston Celtics, the Philadelphia 76ers or the Toronto Raptors are the conference’s top contenders.

But the Wizards, if they can answer lingering concerns about team chemistry, think they have the talent to make that trio a quartet.

Washington, which opens the season at home Thursday against the Miami Heat, has faced questions about whether the team can legitimately expect to compete for a title if its core players don’t even get along with each other.

Adding Dwight Howard, who has been called a bad teammate before, isn’t likely to put those questions to rest.

“You want to know what a great locker room is?” said veteran Jeff Green, who signed with the Wizards this offseason. “There isn’t one. There’s always conflict. There’s always guys who [are] jealous of another guy. I mean it happens. It’s a competitive league. Everybody wants what somebody else has.

“But the main thing is when you get on that floor, you have to play [together].”

Only two seasons ago, the Wizards were a game away from the Eastern Conference Finals, eventually losing to Boston in Game 7. Led by John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter, the Wizards were confident in their ability to grow with all three players entering their prime and under contract for the foreseeable future.

What a difference a year makes. In 2017-18, the Wizards underwhelmed — finishing 43-39 before being eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.

Part of the problem was a tendency to follow up wins over the league’s best with losses to NBA cellar-dwellers. Washington went 20-15 against sub-.500 teams last season — the worst among playoff teams.

Beal called that “unbelievably terrible” compared to the Raptors, who went 35-2 against teams that finished below .500.

“We’ve still got to go out and win,” Beal said. “We realize that. We’re done pretty much talking about it. Coach is sick of hearing it. … And you know, we’ve just got to go out and win games, man. Especially against teams who are under .500. That’s unacceptable.”

Howard is a part of the attempt to change those numbers.

The former All-Star replaces center Marcin Gortat, who was shipped off to the Los Angeles Clippers. The Wizards hope Howard, who is questionable for opening night with a buttocks injury, will help with his athleticism.

Kelly Oubre and Tomas Satoransky again will play key minutes off the bench. The 32-year-old Green and combo guard Austin Rivers enter the picture, as well as first-round draft pick Troy Brown Jr.

“The minutes are going to be competitive, and it’s good to see,” coach Scott Brooks said. “As a coach you want guys to earn those minutes. Our bench has done a really good job. There’s minutes there that they’re going to be fighting for. As long as they’re fighting for the betterment of the team, then I like that.”

The Wizards traded away suspended shooting guard Jodie Meeks on Monday, leaving just 13 players on the roster for now.

But the Wizards also have more of a farm system than ever before with Monumental Sports and Entertainment’s new NBA G League franchise, the Capital City Go-Go. Devin Robinson and Jordan McRae are on two-way contracts, so the Wizards can call them up in a pinch.

Do the Wizards have enough talent and depth to propel them to the top of the East? They’ll be tested early on.

After the Heat, the Wizards on Saturday host the Raptors, who added former Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard. Then, the Wizards leave for a five-game, mostly-West Coast road trip that includes the defending champion Golden State Warriors.

If you ask Markieff Morris — who claimed at media day that “Boston has never been better than us” — the Wizards have enough talent to be among the NBA’s elite.

Here’s their latest chance to prove it.

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