By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — With LeBron James now in Los Angeles, the Eastern Conference is up for grabs.
It’s hard not to view the Boston Celtics as the favorites. The sky is the limit for young stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, and Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward will rejoin a team that came just one win away from the NBA Finals without their services. The Philadelephia 76ers are in the mix with a roster chock full of rising stars, and the Toronto Raptors may actually do something come the playoffs after trading for Kawhi Leonard in the offseason.
Chances are it will be those three teams battling for the rights to lose to the Golden State Warriors in the finals, but Washington guard John Wall has made it clear that the Wizards should be in the conversation as well.
“I feel like we’re all equal,” Wall told Yahoo Sports’ Michael Lee. “None of them won a championship. This is no knock on no other team. Don’t get me wrong. Boston is a hell of a team. Philly has great young talent with those guys [Joel] Embiid, [Ben] Simmons. And Toronto, losing DeMar [DeRozan], they still get Kawhi [Leonard]. Y’all might have been to the Eastern Conference finals, where we haven’t been to, but none of y’all were going to the Finals. It was one guy going to the Finals. Ain’t nobody separated from nothing. I know one guy that separated himself from the Eastern Conference every year and that was LeBron James and the Cavs. Other than that … if you lose in the second round, or the conference finals, you still didn’t get to your ultimate goal.
“On paper, everybody looks great,” Wall continued. “We look great. Boston looks great on paper. But how are all those young guys going to mesh with Kyrie [Irving] being back? Or Gordon Hayward being back? Nobody knows how that’s going to work. Now, they’ve got a hell of a coach in Brad Stevens, and [with GM and president] Danny Ainge, they’re going to figure it out. But you still got to put it all together. You’ve still got to make it work on the court. We don’t know how Kawhi is going to work. We know what Simmons and Embiid are going to give you, but it’s a new year.”
Maybe all those jokes about Wall enjoying a little too much sticky icky this offseason are actually true.
While players should be confident (heck, Celtics fans were applauding Brown earlier this week for essentially guaranteeing the Celtics would make the Finals), Wall is talking about the Wizards, a team that took a big step back last season. After finishing as the Eastern Conference’s four-seed two years ago, losing to Kelly Olynyk (!) and the Celtics in seven games in the second round, Washington went 43-39 last season and made the playoffs as the eight-seed. They earned the distinction of being the one team to actually lose to the Raptors in the playoffs in the first round.
What did they do to prevent a repeat of that slippage in 2018-19? Washington went out and signed Dwight Howard, a plague in just about any locker room he joins. They traded center Marcin Gortat for… Austin Rivers. Maybe what is really inspiring Wall’s confidence is the addition of Jeff Green.
Back in reality, Washington will likely find themselves in the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff picture again, with Boston, Philadelphia, Toronto, Milwaukee and Indiana projecting ahead of them. Maybe the Wizards can sneak into the bottom of the top four and host a playoff round, but odds are slim they’ll finish ahead of the Celtics, 76ers or Raptors.
But until it’s all decided next April, we’ll enjoy some more laughs courtesy of the Wizards point guard. After all, talking is what the Wizards have done best the last few years.