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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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Kelly Oubre Jr. is heating up and might be solving his issues at home

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USA TODAY SPORTS

Kelly Oubre Jr. is heating up and might be solving his issues at home

Over the past week-plus, the Wizards have overall been trending in the wrong direction, now with three straight losses and injuries to John Wall and Otto Porter Jr. But over the past five games, Kelly Oubre Jr. has quietly been playing some of the best basketball of his career.

In his last five outings, Oubre has scored at least 19 points in four of them. He has amassed 96 total points, his most ever in a five-game stretch.

That breaks out to an average of 19.2 per contest and he got that number while shooting 53.2 percent from the field and 44 percent from three. He also grabbed 4.2 rebounds and posted 1.6 steals and a block per game.

With Porter out for the better part of the past two games, Oubre has capitalized on the extra minutes. He scored 23 against the Pacers in 37 minutes and then 20 vs. the Celtics in 38 minutes.

The latter came at home where Oubre has for some reason been much worse this season. He is shooting just 38.3 percent from the field and 23.1 percent from three at home compared to 46.8 percent and 37.2 percent on the road.

Against the Celtics, Oubre went 7-of-15 overall and 3-for-8 from three.

"Kelly's been on a nice little rhythm shooting the ball," head coach Scott Brooks said. "It's good to see him make some threes at home because he hasn't made them this year and hopefully this game can catapult him to making some threes because we need him to make those shots."

Oubre, in fact, has been turning it around at home in the past few weeks. In his last seven home games going back to Nov. 16, he's shooting 46.7 percent from the field, about his season average on the road.

During this five-game surge, Oubre has moved into third place on the Wizards in scoring this season. His 13 points per game average is slightly ahead of Dwight Howard (12.8) and outpacing Porter and Markieff Morris, who play more minutes.

Oubre had one of the best quotes of the night after Wednesday's loss when asked about whether making threes at home could boost his confidence. He said he doesn't need anything to boost his confidence.

"I'm always confident. Just look at my jacket," Oubre said while wearing a black coat with the word 'wave' stitched on the front.

Oubre's belief in himself never wavers and that confidence may be growing even more than usual with the way he's played lately. 

That, in theory, is a good thing. Though with Oubre, like many young players, it's important he doesn't take that as a sign he can play outside of himself and outside of the Wizards' system.

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Kyrie Irving raises his leadership game while dropping daggers on Wizards

Kyrie Irving raises his leadership game while dropping daggers on Wizards

CAPITAL ONE ARENA -- Chants of “M.V.P” reverberated inside the Wizards’ home venue. The All-Star point guard dazzled the crowd with stylish plays and gutsy choices. He stumped the opposition by sinking shots with defenders offering no ground. 

Such proclamations from the masses made sense, except they weren’t for hometown hero John Wall.

Kyrie Irving stole the show. The Celtics star and burgeoning team leader dropped the Wizards with 12 of his 38 points coming in overtime. He left Scott Brooks dumbfounded after hitting two crushing 3-pointers in the final 39 seconds as Washington fell 130-125 Wednesday night.

“Great players make great shots, amazing shots (in big moments),” said Brooks with a tone of a head coach yet to fully process how Irving downed his side.

Other players shredded Washington’s defense this season. Often that occurred because the Wizards lacked energy and defensive connectivity. Despite a few lapses at times, that wasn’t the case in the first meeting of the season between the two Eastern Conference rivals. Against Irving, even the tiniest of cracks were exploited.

Irving didn’t just score 12 in the extra period, but Boston’s final dozen points in the Celtics’ seventh consecutive win. Half came on a pair of bombs.

“He makes one, maybe it’s a different game. He made both, it’s tough to overcome,” Brooks said after Washington’s losing streak reached three games. “It was a great game. We fought. It could have gone either way. Unfortunately, it didn’t go our way.”

With the Wizards leading 123-122, Irving nearly fumbled the ball away on the left wing with Wall nearly nose-to-nose. The NBA’s best ball-handler corraled the attempted runaway, rose and drained the heavily contested 3-pointer.

After Wall tied the game with one of his numerous faster-than-fast driving layups, Irving put the Celtics up for good with a 31-footer that found the bottom of the net with 17.3 seconds left.

“Just trying to win the game, honestly, trying to get enough separation,” said Irving, who sat out Boston's previous game with a shoulder injury. “Three points are pretty much a dagger, so I just tried to get my feet set and get my elbow pointed to the rim. It was a little deep out, but a very makeable shot." 

Despite the tension-filled scenario, nobody could be stunned Irving delivered.

“He’s always had a knack for that,” Brooks said of the player that sank the series-winning shot for the Cavaliers in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals.

Leadership wasn’t always a breeze for Irving, the No. 1 overall pick the year after Washington selected Wall first in 2010. He bolted Cleveland in the summer of 2017 after three seasons of highs and frustrations with LeBron James. Wall held the face-of-the-franchise status with the Wizards. Irving would get his turn with the storied Celtics.

The scoring and playmaking comes naturally. Playing the role of team tone-setter takes work. The evolution isn’t complete.

"It’s an everyday job. It’s part of kind of the next step of evolution for me in my career, of just learning what that means for me and what type of leader I want to be,” Irving said at Boston’s morning shootaround on the campus of Georgetown University.

“He’s always been good about [leadership],” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said or Irving. "When he first came in, I thought he did a great job of just kinda fitting in and making sure that everybody, 1 through 15, knows that he’s invested in them. And that’s all you can do from a leadership standpoint. It starts with being authentic, it starts with investing in people. Then you have a chance to go from there and he’s done all that stuff.”

Irving sought guidance, but wouldn’t reveal identities.

 "I will never tell you guys. Never tell you guys,” he said. "I like having a mystical wisdom feel, older board of people I like to go to.”

He did disclose their teachings.

"Patience. Patience. Patience,” Irving said. "Even for myself, I think at this point in my career it’s not necessarily about my skills or my talent, it’s more about how do I echo greatness to our group every single day and figure out what that looks like for us. That’s been the biggest challenge for me.”

Stars are often thrust into leadership roles regardless of their acumen for the gig.

"You see it all the time,” Irving said. “I think it’s a little unfair to have that responsibility but the ones that are meant for it are willing to accept it and figure out how they learn best leading a group and just being the best player,” said Irving. "It’s easy to go out and score 27 points, go get it and nothing else really matters and you’re just caring about yourself. 

"When you have to care about a whole entire group, really depend on just learning who you’re playing with every single day, who is coaching you, that relationship, that’s far more important to me now that it is just being able to be the young guy fourth year in the league trying to get a bunch of points and assists and be in the top standings. As long as we’re winning and we’re up in the top of the teams and my teammates are feeling good, I’m happy.”

Even with work remaining, Irving’s growth stood out to one of his biggest rivals.

“Kyrie has always been a great scorer, a great player,” said Wall, who had 34 points and 13 assists. “A lot of people didn’t know if he had leadership ability to lead by himself. He’s doing a heck of a job with other great players over there and a great coach.”

The Wizards did a credible job against Irving and the Celtics. Just not enough to avoid the other team’s point guard from carrying the day.

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