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Morning tip: 'Mentally weak' label no longer applies to Wizards

Morning tip: 'Mentally weak' label no longer applies to Wizards

The Wizards teams that advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals, with the long-since departed Trevor Ariza and then Paul Pierce, had a closeness that aided them in winning first-round series despite lacking homecourt advantage. But those teams often lacked discipline during the regular season that prevented them from holding home-court advantage.

That's also why they never won more than 46 games and couldn't get higher than No. 5 seeds. The Wizards are 20-6 at Verizon Center without the same type of veteran support behind John Wall and Bradley Beal. There was no way to anticipate these would be the results, but in a way that was the point to test their mettle as leaders. Gone are the questions about their mental toughness, observed by Ariza and Al Harrington and then co-signed by current starting center Marcin Gortat who said they were "mentally weak" after repeated losses to inferior teams on the heels of important wins.

"I'd even say even (more confidence now than) the playoff teams," Beal said after Tuesday's 117-101 destruction of the New York Knicks. "The joy that we have and the fun we're having is amazing. It's always positive in here and we want nothing but the best for one another. It's great camaraderie. We just take it all on the floor. We play for each other, don't care who scores, who gets the most points. We don't care who has a good night, who has a bad night just as long as it's a win at the end of the night."

Those moments weren't frequent last season, when the Wizards missed the playoffs for the first time in three years at 41-41. The effort to keep that bond between the 15 players in the locker room never waned but it was a challenge because of so many injuries and a locker-room wide rift with then-coach Randy Wittman. Those team-financed gatherings only if all 15 players participated still happened. 

"We kept it the same last year," Wall said. "It was frustrating and more difficult when you're not winning. We still hung out. We still did the other things that we did with all the others. It was nothing that we changed."

They gathered for a team dinner before a five-game upset of the Bulls in Chicago in 2014. They went bowling in Toronto before the sweep of the Raptors in 2015. To Wittman's credit, he encouraged them all to learn "police" and "coach" one another and have in-game conversations to smooth out the rough spots. Accepting criticism from teammates was a sore spot for yeras because some players took things too personally, but those experiences appear to have made Wall and Beal better. They don't defer to veterans anymore, and Gortat, for instance, is more than happy to let them run with it even though he's the oldest at 32.

Those Wizards playoff teams may have been more talented top to bottom, but could this team be better at 28-20?

[RELATED: Wizards won't rush to beat trade deadline]

This version of the Wizards, now with the second-longest home winning streak in franchise history at 15 games, toyed with the Knicks. In their first meeting this season Nov. 17, a 119-112 victory was actually a blowout, it looked more competitive because the Knicks scored 47 points in the fourth quarter. That lack of focus in closing out a game was typical of those earlier Wizards teams and the Wizards earlier in this season.

Since that 2-8 start, they've developed a better killer instinct that would make Ariza, Pierce and Harrington proud. The starters are playing the best basketball of their careers. All five scored in double figures for the 17th time which leads the NBA. 

They came out in the third quarter following a closer-than-expected first half and stomped out the Knicks with an immediate 16-2 run. Markieff Morris, who was acquired at the trade deadline a year ago, is blossoming into the stretch four they envisioned after failed experiments with Kris Humphries and Jared Dudley that shook everyone's confidence.

Morris had 24 points and 10 rebounds Tuesday. If the Wizards are able to reach that next level -- for Wall that would be the conference finals -- it'll be because of Morris who at 6-10 can post up other bigs or face up smaller players and beat them off the dribble. The Wizards have never had that, and even Morris hasn't always brought the kind of efficiency to the table.

"I just feel like rebounding now," said Morris, who has six double-doubles with five of them coming since the start of 2017. "Something woke up in there."

The three ball from Morris has opened the floor with Beal and Otto Porter already deadly from long range. 

"We started off the season without a legit four. We had Jared Dudley at the time. Then we were trying to play guys out of position, trying to put Kris Humphries at a stretch four," Wall said about the differences between last year and this group "Brad was going through injuries and stuff. Right now we have the luck of being healthy, then we got a legit four that can battle against these other fours we have problems with, like Paul Millsap, Patrick Patterson and all those guys. I think that makes a heck of a difference. Otto (Porter) is playing at a heck of level. Then me and Brad, this probably the first time we've both been healthy and playing at a high level."

The Dec. 6 loss to the Orlando Magic, who scored an uncharacteristic 124 points, marked the turning point. That ruined Wall's career-high 52 points, and it also was the last time the Wizards lost at Verizon Center. They don't panic late in close games. They erase double-digit deficts with ease and are producing better starts for a bigger cushion to make closing easier.

"When we started 2-8, that wasn't us and we knew it. We were adjusting to one another and adjusting to the system," Beal said. "We weren't playing with one another. Now we've figured it out. We figured out our defense and our offensive schemes. We're just playing with a lot of confidence right now. We're the team that we knew we could be at the beginning of the year."

[RELATED: Brooks' methods are welcomed change for Wizards]

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NBA offseason grades: LeBron James leaving changes everything in Central Division

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USA Today Sports Images

NBA offseason grades: LeBron James leaving changes everything in Central Division

Here is a look at how the 2018 NBA offseason went for teams in the Central Division...

Cleveland Cavaliers, C

2017-18 finish: 50-32, lost in NBA Finals
In: G Collin Sexton, F Channing Frye, F Sam Dekker
Out: F LeBron James, F Jeff Green, G Jose Calderon

Technically, the Cavaliers had the worst offseason of any team in the NBA simply because they lost James in free agency, but overall they did quite nicely for themselves as they prepare to enter a new era as a franchise. Sexton seems like a solid first round pick and gives them a nice young piece to build around. They also signed All-Star Kevin Love to a contract extension. Cleveland should have enough to remain competitive, at least for the back-end of the playoffs, but they need to clear some salary to justify the step back they are about to take.

Indiana Pacers, B+

2017-18 finish: 48-34, 1st round of playoffs
In: G Tyreke Evans, G Aaron Holiday, F Doug McDermott, F Kyle O'Quinn
Out: G Lance Stephenson, F Glenn Robinson III, F Trevor Booker

There was nothing flashy about the Pacers' offseason, but they did a good job adding talent and depth. Evans on a one-year, $12 million deal is almost certain to work out well for them. McDermott should add shooting and O'Quinn is an underrated big man. And Holiday, their first round pick, is an intriguing young guard who could help on both ends of the floor. Indiana may not have enough to join the top teams in the conference, but they should be set up to recreate the success they had last year.

Milwaukee Bucks, B

2017-18 finish: 44-38, 1st round of playoffs
In: C Brook Lopez, F Ersan Ilyasova, G Pat Connaughton, G Donte DiVincenzo
Out: F Jabari Parker, G Jason Terry

The Bucks didn't have a whole lot to play with in terms of money in free agency or trade assets, and they let Parker go, so it wasn't a great summer for Milwaukee. They did, however make some smart moves in acquiring Lopez and Ilyasova for reasonable prices. The reason they got a 'B' has a lot to do with their decision to hire Mike Budenholzer as head coach. Beyond young guys like Giannis Antetokounmpo getting better, Budenholzer offers the Bucks their best chance to improve year-over-year.

Detroit Pistons, C+

2017-18 finish: 39-43, missed playoffs
In: G Kyhri Thomas, C Zaza Pachulia, F Glenn Robinson III, G Jose Calderon
Out: F Anthony Tolliver, F James Ennis III

It was another low-key offseason for the Pistons, who didn't have much money to spend in free agency and didn't make any major trades. Their biggest acquisition was through the draft with Thomas, a guy who offers intrigue on both ends of the floor. They get a decent grade, however, because of the move to hire Dwane Casey as head coach. If it weren't for that, their grade would be very low.

Chicago Bulls, B+

2017-18 finish: 27-55, missed playoffs
In: F Jabari Parker, F Wendell Carter, Jr., F Chandler Hutchison
Out: F Noah Vonleh

The Bulls had arguably one of the better offseasons in the East. They got Parker on a bargain and brought in two nice young players as first round picks in Carter and Hutchison. Carter was particularly impressive in the Summer League and could form a nice combination with Lauri Markkanen, who looks like a future All-Star. The Bulls might be one draft away from having the necessary pieces to start ascending into the next stage of their rebuild. They just keep chugging along with smart moves.

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NBA offseason grades: With Kawhi Leonard, Raptors shined most in Atlantic Division

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USA TODAY Sports

NBA offseason grades: With Kawhi Leonard, Raptors shined most in Atlantic Division

Here is a look at how the 2018 NBA offseason went for teams in the Atlantic Division...

Toronto Raptors, B+

2017-18 finish: 59-23, 2nd round of playoffs
In: F Kawhi Leonard, G Danny Green, C Greg Monroe
Out: G DeMar DeRozan, C Jakub Poeltl, C Lucas Nogueira

The Raptors had one of the more consequential offseasons of any NBA team this year. First, they fired Dwane Casey, the 2017-18 NBA Coach of the Year, following a season in which they won 59 games. Then, they pulled off the biggest trade of the summer, a deal that featured two perennial All-NBA players. They let go of DeRozan and brought in Leonard in return. If they hadn't parted with DeRozan and Casey, they may have gotten an A. But it's hard to tell how much better they will be following the deal and Leonard does bring with him some concerns based on his quadriceps injury and the fact he has only one year left on his contract. The Raptors do, however, also get points for re-signing point guard Fred VanVleet.

Boston Celtics, C

2017-18 finish: 55-27, conference finals
In: C Robert Williams, G Brad Wanamaker
Out: C Greg Monroe

One year ago, the Celtics flipped nearly their entire roster and brought in Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. This year, they mostly stood pat and didn't add much of anything in free agency or trades. Their biggest acquisition was Williams, who they took 27th overall in the first round of the draft. The Celtics will hope they improve from within. They re-signed Marcus Smart and Aron Baynes, and should get Irving and Hayward back from injuries. They should have plenty of talent to compete for an NBA Finals berth, but as far as this offseason goes, they didn't do much.

Philadelphia 76ers, D+

2017-18 finish: 52-30, 2nd round of playoffs
In: F Wilson Chandler, C Mike Muscala, G Zhaire Smith, G Landry Shamet
Out: G Marco Belinelli, F Ersan Ilyasova

Where do we begin? This summer was about as dramatic and bad as it could get for the Sixers. First, they had to fire their general manager because of a burner Twitter account scandal. Then, they struck out miserably in free agency with LeBron James and Paul George, and in trade talks for Leonard. After that, Smith - their first round pick - hurt his foot. And along the way, Ben Simmons has been dating a Kardashian, flirting with the curse that has claimed many pro athletes before him. Philly did re-sign J.J. Redick and Johnson, and the Chandler trade was nice, but all in all it was an offseason that fell way short of the Sixers' expectations. That said, they can still get way better next season based solely on their young players taking another step.

New York Knicks, B

2017-18 finish: 29-53, missed playoffs
In: F Mario Hezonja, F Kevin Knox, F Noah Vonleh, C Mitchell Robinson
Out: F Michael Beasley, G Jarrett Jack, F Kyle O'Quinn

It's been a while since the Knicks had an offseason to write home about and this one is no exception. There was nothing they did that would flirt with an A-grade. However, the early returns on their draft are excellent. Knox and Robinson were both standouts in the Summer League and offer fans a little bit more hope about the team's future. As long as Kristaps Porzingis can return this season safe and sound from his ACL tear, the Knicks could take a step forward in 2018-19.

Brooklyn Nets, C+

2017-18 finish: 28-54, missed playoffs
In: F Ed Davis, F Kenneth Faried, F Jared Dudley
Out: F Dante Cunningham, G Nik Stauskas, C Jahlil Okafor

The best news about the Nets' offseason is that their trade with the Celtics, the one that stripped them of years of first round picks, is finally over. Next year, the Nets will have a first round pick. This summer, they once again didn't add any major pieces in the draft, but seemed to make some smart moves in free agency. The Davis deal is solid and Faried may benefit from a change of scenery. More baby steps for Brooklyn.

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