In the 1,347 minutes that the Washington Wizards starting five — John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, Markieff Morris, Marcin Gortat — played together last season (more than 500 more than any other lineup in the league), they outscored opponents by an average of 8.1 points per 100 possessions. Stretched across the entire season, that mark would have been the second-best in the league, trailing only the Golden State Warriors.
However, in the 2,624 minutes that group was not on the floor together, the Wizards were outscored by an average of 1.7 points per 100 possessions. To be clear, that is not just bench units. It includes any lineups with four starters, any grouping without the core five. A point differential of -1.7 per 100 possessions is about the same as the New Orleans Pelicans had last season.
That’s the fundamental issue for Washington — their starting lineup is as good as any unit in the NBA. When any of those players leaves the floor, they no longer perform like a playoff team. It was the concern last season and it’s likely to be this year as well.
Markieff Morris, the power forward in that starting group, had surgery for a sports hernia and is likely out until December. In terms of adding depth, the Wizards picked up Jodie Meeks, Mike Scott and Tim Frazier this summer. There is a hypothetical timeline where those three players add shooting, experience and energy to a lackluster second-unit but it may be an absurdly optimistic timeline.
The more likely scenarios or the Wizards taking another step this season are Wall, Beal or Porter taking an individual leap. However, Wall is already a borderline MVP candidate, and both Beal and Porter are coming off career years. Stagnation or regression honestly seem as likely as smashing through any new ceilings — 538’s CARMELO projections estimates Wall to match his production from last year and both Beal and Porter to drop-off. They estimate Kelly Oubre Jr., another crucible of unbridled optimism to make a modest but largely insignificant improvement.
All this is one of the reasons you see win projections for the Wizards pegging them at roughly the same level they were at last year. One of the best seasons in franchise history came because of huge (perhaps unsustainable) leaps from young players and in spite of roster holes that probably haven’t really been fixed.
The Washington Wizards will probably still be very good this season. They will almost certainly finish in the top half of the Eastern Conference and host a first-round playoff series. As to whether they can be more than that, it’s going to take some variables breaking in their favor, variables that aren’t readily apparent right now.