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Wizards' 2018-19 storyline No. 3: Where do the Wizards fit in the new-look East?

Wizards' 2018-19 storyline No. 3: Where do the Wizards fit in the new-look East?

With Wizards training camp set to begin next week, we at NBC Sports Washington are counting down the five biggest storylines for the team as they start a new season. Today, at No. 3, a look at the remodeled Eastern Conference and where the Wizards fit… 

The transformation of the NBA's Eastern Conference this summer was not unlike the end and beginning of a new era in presidential politics. LeBron James, who reigned over the conference for nearly a decade, is gone. His eight-year term of Finals appearances out of the East is complete. Now a wide range of candidates are lining up to be the next power-players and it's a crowded field.

Seizing the empty throne

James' departure has had a massive effect on teams in the East, whether they ran into his Cavs or Heat in the playoffs repeatedly over the years or were affected by his presence indirectly. James going West paves the way for a new East representative in the NBA Finals and that allows everyone to dream a little bigger.

Though the Wizards never faced James in the playoffs during his streak of eight straight NBA Finals appearances, Washington players themselves have remarked about the opportunity created in wake of James leaving. They, along with the Celtics, Sixers, Raptors and other perennial playoff teams in the East, are gunning to pick up where James and Cleveland left off.

That arms race included significant changes for the Wizards this summer. They shook up their starting lineup by trading Marcin Gortat and signing Dwight Howard to a two-year contract. They brought in veterans like Austin Rivers and Jeff Green to shore up depth on their bench. They also kept their draft picks for the first time since 2015, using the first round selection to take Troy Brown, Jr. of Oregon.

Though questions remain about how it will all be put together, the Wizards appear to have improved themselves year-over-year. As long as John Wall is healthier than he was last season when he missed 41 games, it's logical to expect them to be back in the mix as contenders in the East. Exactly how high they are capable of going, however, is a big question entering this season.

Continuous growth

That's because despite James leaving, the East has grown deeper at the top in recent years. The Celtics have made the Eastern Conference Finals in two straight seasons and last year finished one win away from the NBA Finals. They did that without Gordon Hayward, who was lost for the season on opening night, and Kyrie Irving, who missed the playoffs due to injury.

The Celtics were good enough to win 55 games last season and without their two of their best and most accomplished players. If they are healthy and guys like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown continue to develop, the Celtics deserve their status as favorites in the East.

The Raptors disappointed in the playoffs this past spring by getting swept by James and the Cavs in the second round. But they still won 59 games during the regular season and should be able to maintain their success with Kawhi Leonard now in DeMar DeRozan's place.

Toronto will ultimately be judged by what they do in the playoffs and they have plenty to prove, but no one should underestimate their ability to take care of business during the regular season. The Raptors have won at least 48 games in each of the past five years and 50 or more in the last three.

The Sixers had by any measure a dreadful offseason, first with the firing of their general manager and then with a fruitless free agent period, followed by an injury to first round pick Zhaire Smith. But Philadelphia didn't really have to add much to their roster to remain in the East's elite.

The Sixers already won 52 games last season and boast two of the best young players in the NBA in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. If they, along with Markelle Fultz, can stay healthy and continue developing, the Sixers will only rise from here.

Most would probably put the Wizards in that next tier, after the trio of Boston, Toronto and Philadelphia at the top, in terms of expected playoff seeding. But they should enter the season hopeful they can supplant one of those teams because they have the talent to do so.

By any means

One problem is that history shows the Wizards have struggled to make that leap. To get there, they would probably have to win 50 games or more and they haven't done that since the 1978-79 season. They also haven't been higher than a four-seed in the playoffs since that year.

The Wizards have been the No. 4 seed as recently as 2016-17, and that comes with the nice bonus of home court advantage in the first round. But to go higher than four, they will need to demonstrate a level of consistency not seen for their franchise in almost 40 years.

Before the Wizards set their sights on the top teams in the East, they will need to separate themselves from the others who are in a similar position. Just like the Wizards, teams like the Pacers, the Bucks and Heat have dreams of a breakout year.

The Wizards definitely have the roster talent to finish ahead of that pack. Washington has two All-Stars, something those teams can't boast. But all three of those teams had better records than the Wizards did last season and Indiana and Milwaukee have All-NBA players. Giannis Antetokounmpo, in particular, is good enough to change the landscape in the East on his own, if he makes the MVP leap many have been waiting for.

In order for the Wizards to emerge from the middle of the conference and become Finals contenders, health will of course be key. They will also need to get re-establish a homecourt advantage and find a way to capitalize against lesser teams. Last season, the Wizards had the fewest home wins and victories against below-.500 opponents of any playoff team.

With James out of the picture, the Eastern Conference appears more open than it has been in years. The Wizards eye an opportunity for themselves, but they aren't alone.

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5 must-see moments from Wizards' loss to the Raptors, including Kelly Oubre Jr's putback slam

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USA Today

5 must-see moments from Wizards' loss to the Raptors, including Kelly Oubre Jr's putback slam

The Washington Wizards lost to the Toronto Raptors 117-113 on Saturday night in the Wizards' 2018-19 regular season opener. Here are five plays or moments worth revisiting...

1. Early on in this one, there was a difference in Otto Porter Jr. He came out firing from long range after not taking a single three in the Wizards' season-opening loss to the Heat earlier in the week.

This was Porter's best play. Off an incredible fastbreak pass from John Wall, Porter knocked down a near-corner three and got the and-1:

It's often you see a four-point play. Porter finished with 11 points in 24 minutes after fading in the second half.

2. This may have been the best play of the night for the Wizards. Wall zoomed down the floor and missed a contested transition layup. But Kelly Oubre Jr. was there to clean it up with a vicious putback slam:

Oubre had eight points and six rebounds, but shot 3-for-8 and had two turnovers in 19 minutes.

3. It was a bad overall night for the Wizards, but Bradley Beal did provide a great moment in the second half when he knocked down his fifth three of the game. That one passed Gilbert Arenas on the Wizards/Bullets all-time list for career threes:

Beal had 32 points in 35 minutes on 12-for-21 from the field and 6-for-11 from three. He also added six rebounds, a steal and a block.

4. Per usual, Wall made a lot of plays attacking the rim on Saturday night. On this one, he got the bucket and the foul:

Wall finished with 25 points, six assists and four steals.

5. Those were the good moments for the Wizards. But the play of the game was by Raptors guard Fred Van Vleet.

On a broken play with the shot clock ticking down, Van Vleet threw up a desperation shot that went in and sealed the victory:

It has only been two games, but the Wizards failing to execute late to secure victories has been an early season theme. 

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With another low shot total for Otto Porter, Coach Brooks says Porter needs to do more to help himself

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With another low shot total for Otto Porter, Coach Brooks says Porter needs to do more to help himself

After a night in which Otto Porter Jr. only took nine total shots, just two of them in the second half, many questions from Wizards reporters in the postgame locker room centered on how the team can get him more involved. This came on the heels of a seven-shot, zero-three outing for Porter against the Heat on Thursday and a preseason in which getting him more attempts was a persistent storyline.

It sounds like some are tired of talking about it. Point guard John Wall, who is part of the equation as the team's main distributor and highest usage player, put it in relatively strong terms.

"This will be the last time I talk about Otto Porter getting threes," Wall said. 

Wall went on to explain how it's a combination of defenses taking away the three-point line for Porter and the flow of the game creating better shots for others. It's a common explanation Wall has given on the matter in recent weeks, and it's understandable.

Head coach Scott Brooks has admitted his own role in Porter not getting enough shots, how more plays could be called for the small forward. But after the loss to Toronto, one in which Porter played just south of 25 minutes, he was a bit more blunt in his assessment.

Brooks believes Porter can be doing a lot more to help himself.

"Gotta get yourself open," Brooks said. 

When asked about Porter playing fewer minutes than usual, Brooks went on about the need for guys to play hard. That warranted a follow-up, as it seemed Brooks was questioning Porter's hustle.

Brooks explained what he meant by that in detail.

"You've got to move. You've got to set yourself up. You've got to run the floor. We got a fast point guard. I don’t know if you guys know that but he’s fast and if our wings aren’t running, what good is it when you’re going to have a one-man break? What makes teams play with pace is guys running." 

"I love Otto. You guys know that. But he has to play faster. He has to. Physically, he’s not going to jump over anybody and dunk over everybody, but he has to get himself into position. He’s a big-time player for us. He’s a glue guy. He makes winning basketball plays. He gets in plays but he has to do that consistently for us. He can’t do it for a half. He has to do it for the entire game. The guy can do it. I’ve seen it. He didn’t do it tonight but he’s going to bounce back. He didn’t do it the first two games but he’s going to bounce back and do it. And we need it.”

Porter, 25, was the Wizards' most efficient player last season, but averaged only 11.5 shots per game. With one of the best three-point shots in the NBA, the numbers suggest he should have a larger role.

The Wizards insist they are trying to get him more involved. In their eyes, it's time for Porter to do his part.