The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Yes, the Wizards are better. But so is the Eastern Conference.

The Wizards' Deni Avdija, much like the rest of the roster, brought a different look to the team's media day. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Several of the Washington Wizards have emerged from their long summer with different looks. Deni Avdija dyed his hair. Kristaps Porzingis grew a beard. Bradley Beal, though still appearing as youthful as he did 11 years ago when he started this journey, now sports the grown-up visage of a dad of three.

The Wizards’ roster as a whole has a different look and feel.

There’s Monte Morris, who has followed his childhood friend Kyle Kuzma to D.C. to provide Washington with a starting point guard. Will Barton, who came over in the same trade from Denver as Morris, here to get buckets as soon as he checks into the game. And Delon Wright, ready to pick up his man for all 94 feet and pump up the team’s defensive mojo.

Somehow, a team with 11 returning players still looks different. And, yes, better.

After failing to make the playoffs last season — a year that started promising but ended with the top players either injured or sitting out, while the fresh faces took their lumps — the Wizards spent the summer reshaping the lineup in specific ways.

They can all look around and see it. From team president and general manager Tommy Sheppard and Coach Wes Unseld, Jr. to the players themselves, they notice how the talent — and, just as important, the veteran presence — has improved.

“We’re all being brought in here to win. To help Brad,” said Porzingis, who if you think about it, should be considered as the Wizards’ first summer acquisition, at Friday’s media day. Porzingis arrived in Washington following a deal at the trade deadline, but since he appeared in 17 games, his play could only hint at the future.

“We’re trying to do the best job we can,” Porzingis said. “But I think we’re making moves in the right direction.”

For sure, the Wizards spent all summer making the right moves. They look deeper and better. The only problem: The Eastern Conference got better, too.

The young teams that fought to make the play-in are now better.

The Atlanta Hawks acquired all-star guard Dejounte Murray to pair with all-star point guard Trae Young. And in Cleveland, the rising Cavaliers added even more athleticism to the mix with the trade for Donovan Mitchell.

The veteran teams that didn’t deliver on high expectations are also better.

The Philadelphia 76ers strengthened their rotation by signing P.J. Tucker and at the same time weakened a conference rival in Miami. And despite causing chaos with his trade demand, Kevin Durant chose to return and fulfill his contract in Brooklyn (for now), keeping the Nets in the top echelon.

Though there’s messiness in Boston, with head coach Ime Udoka now serving a one-year suspension for violating team rules, the defending conference champion Celtics improved with the addition of guard Malcolm Brogdon. And even a couple of non-playoff teams from last season — the New York Knicks getting their big free agent signing in Jalen Brunson and the Detroit Pistons trading for sharpshooter Bojan Bogdanovic — moved the needle and got better.

So where does that leave the Wizards? In a familiar spot where outside expectations remain muted. But the principle players in D.C. see hidden potential, such as the matching of Beal, Porzingis and Kuzma. Arguably, they are the team’s top three guys, but they’ve yet to develop any chemistry together.

“It’s a waiting game because we haven’t seen each other on the court either,” Kuzma said. “I like the possibilities of it all. Watching open gym and just imagining certain lineups, certain things. We are all interchangeable. We all can score, obviously; we’re all willing passers; we all know how to play the game of basketball. We’re all … three unique, different players.”

Similarly, Sheppard would like to take a wait-and-see approach on the bigger picture: whether these changes will produce more wins and a playoff appearance.

When asked at his pre-training camp news conference if he feels the 2022-23 Wizards are a playoff team, Sheppard answered with a 2½ minute response. He spoke about the young players having to prove themselves, the older veterans bringing their experience from winning programs and the defensive concerns that have been addressed. Sheppard’s main point, however, focused on the simple concept of nightly improvement.

“Playoffs, absolutely, that’s the goal. That’s everybody’s goal. I just want to see the improvement that we believe is already happening,” Sheppard said. “We got to see it translate out on the floor, and it only translates in wins. It really does. So that’s going to be a big challenge for all of us to manage expectations of this team, see how they’re performing.”

The Wizards certainly do have a new look — Avdija with his frosted, blond streaks and Porzingis getting used to his facial hair. But the changes will be simply cosmetic if the team stalls.

“I go out and my main focus is winning games and trying to help this organization hold up a Larry [O’Brien trophy] one day. That’s my goal,” Beal said. “That’s my dream. I showed that I can score with the best of them. I showed that I can be an all-star. I showed that I can be an all-NBA player. Check almost every box, so now I have to win and be a winner. So that’s my final box I want to check and will check it. So that’s my main focus. That’s what I want to prove — that I can win.”

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