Over the course of a dream regular season in which they won 57 games, finished with the third seed in the Western Conference and helped George Karl finally claim his first coach of the year trophy, the Denver Nuggets only failed to defeat two NBA teams: the champion Miami Heat and the Washington Wizards.
The Nuggets were ousted in the first round of the playoffs and later dismissed Karl, who recently joined ESPN as an NBA analyst. During a conference call this week in advance of the regular season with fellow ESPN analyst and former Wizards coach Doug Collins, Karl acknowledged his former team’s struggles against the Wizards last season and stated his belief that the franchise’s five-season playoff drought should come to an end this April.
“I think their expectation is to make the playoffs, and if I had to pick them, I would say they’re going to make the playoffs,” Karl said. “They beat us twice last year. And they beat us once at home and they beat us kind of right when we were playing really good basketball. So I have a lot of respect for their basketball team.”
Karl coached Wizards big man Nene for parts of nine seasons in Denver but became an admirer of Washington after watching how well they performed after John Wall returned from a stress injury in his left knee and led the Wizards to a 24-25 record. The Wizards were awful on the road, before and after Wall’s return, but they were among three teams to win at Pepsi Center last season. In that 112-108 victory, Bradley Beal scored 23 points and Wall had 14 points, 14 assists and a huge block on Ty Lawson in the closing seconds. Karl is high on the potential of that back court.
“I love John Wall and his speed with the ball,” Karl said. ”I think the way we played in Denver last year we liked the guard to be always on the attack mode and he’s one of those guards that is so fast with the basketball and is so committed to penetrating the ball into the paint that he makes a lot of things happen. And he’s gotten to be very, very good at making good things happen more often than making bad things happen.”
On Beal, Karl said: “The Beal kid, in the second half of last year had shot the ball extremely well. He reminds me a little bit of Ray Allen early in his career, his ability when you get him open — he’s got a quick release and he’s deadly and he has a confidence to his game that I think is first class.”
Karl’s only concern with the Wizards is overall depth, especially because the team was only able to have Wall, Beal and Nene in the lineup for just 22 games last season. The Wizards’ record without at least one of those pieces was dreadful.
“How they fill in their bench is a big part of what they’re going to be and how they’re going to perform,” Karl said. “I’m a big believer that the bench is a key to a lot of teams that win championships. And I think right now with some of the injuries they’ve had I don’t know what their bench is going to be like.”
Collins, who was dismissed from the Philadelphia 76ers last summer, was also a victim of the Wizards’ flurry in the second half of the season. The best month of Wall’s career actually started in the fourth quarter of a 100-97 victory in which Beal was forced to leave with a severely sprained ankle. Wall led the Wizards to the win by scoring the final six points of the game and making the clinching block on Evan Turner.
But Collins believes the key to the Wizards season will be the health of Nene. “How many games can he play?” Collins asked of Nene. ”He’s so vital to them. Good offensive player. I think he’s going to be very happy to have [newly acquired center Marcin] Gortat with him. I love Wall and Beal and what they bring. They’ve got to shoot the ball better.
“I thought last year people didn’t realize what an improved defensive team they were,” he continued. “They really, really did a good job on the defensive end of the floor. Can they get easy scores, can they get out in the open court, can they knock down threes? I’m with George, can Al Harrington and [Martell] Webster and maybe [Eric] Maynor give them a bench?”
Karl still believes the Wizards have enough: “I think they should make the playoffs. I think they expect to make the playoffs and I would bet they will make the playoffs.”
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