- - Wednesday, October 17, 2018


Welcome to a new NBA season, where a “vacancy” signs hangs atop the Eastern Conference.

The team that occupied the penthouse for four years remains in the building. But it was forced to downsize and relocate to a lower level when its head of household departed for Hollywood. Several tenants, including the Washington Wizards, are vying to move in and replace Cleveland.

We can guarantee that the coveted digs will have a new occupant to represent the East in the NBA Finals. We can also guarantee that LeBron James won’t enjoy his customary view now that he switched coasts. Like everyone else out west, he’s looking up to the Golden State Warriors, who show no signs of vacating the premises.

But at least James isn’t blocking upward mobility back here anymore. That’s good news for all parties involved. The Wizards aren’t among the favorites to replace the Cavaliers, but at least the stone wall has become a cracked door.

“I think all the coaches and teams already were competitive anyway,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said via NBA.com. “Look, you wanted to knock LeBron off. But he’s gotten a lot of coaches fired and a lot of players traded. Now it’s definitely wide open.”

“Wide open” might be a stretch, but we’ll play along.

This could be the season that the Wizards end two long droughts — winning 50 games and advancing to the conference finals. They certainly have their best shot since John Wall and Bradley Beal joined forces six seasons ago. Possessing one of the league’s top backcourts isn’t enough by itself (see: Portland), but it’s a great foundation.

Each player should be a bit wiser and more mature entering Thursday’s season-opener against the visiting Miami Heat. For Wall, it’s the result of missing 41 games last season and hearing absurd suggestions that the team was better in his absence. For Beal, it’s the result of carrying the load without his running mate and then becoming a father in July.

In many respects, the duo has lacked sufficient help in getting Washington over the hump. That’s not to say they haven’t had areas that needed improvement, but their All-Star status is earned and well-deserved. Lack of depth has been the Wizards‘ problem more than backcourt production.

Management did a nice job in addressing the thin bench and bolstering the starting five. Center Dwight Howard — if healthy and cordial — should be an upgrade over Marcin Gortat. By acquiring Austin Rivers and Jeff Green to strength the second unit, Washington should be able to ease the burden on Wall and Beal. Brooks often had no choice in giving them heavy minutes to chase or secure a victory.

The guards were up for the task emotionally, but their legs told a different story. Their mouths, however, never strayed from their self-proclaimed company line that Washington is a legitimate threat. They maintained that overly optimistic stance with King James in the conference. But that doesn’t mean they should keep spouting off with a better team after his exodus.

“Just focus on us and playing,” Brooks told reporters recently when asked about the East’s open competition. “Stop talking. There’s enough talk. Players and teams that talk are the ones that usually don’t have success. The players that just let their play speak for themselves are the teams that are successful, so we just want to focus on being a good basketball team. A team that plays hard and plays for one another. A team that our fans can respect and come out every night to enjoy watching us play.”

There will be plenty to enjoy if you like your team to hoist 40 three-pointers and drive to the basket the rest of the time. The Wizards ranked 23rd in three-point field goal attempts last season and Brooks wants to be in the Top 10 this season. He has asked D.C. residents and Wizards fans everywhere: If you see Otto Porter, implore him to shoot more.

Porter is a candidate to be Washington’s biggest factor besides Wall and Beal. Howard’s inside presence should create even more opportunities for the silky former Hoya. Then again, maybe Howard evolves into the linchpin. Or Markieff Morris. Or maybe the reserves win the honor as a whole for best supporting cast.

Either way, Wall and Beal are on record stating that this is the deepest team they’ve been on in Washington. It might not be enough to plug the conference’s gaping hole at the top, but this could bounce higher than it’s been for 40 years.

Going up?

Which floor?

Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @DeronSnyder.

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