The cloud around the Washington Wizards has been dark for a long time now. It’s finally starting to lift, it seems. The Wizards sit in first place in the NBA’s southeast division and have been moving up the eastern standings after starting the season 4-9. Washington’s backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal have taken another step in their development and forwards Otto Porter Jr. and Markieff Morris have played at high levels since the start of December. A 140-135 overtime loss on Feb. 6 only poured more fuel into Washington’s hype train as a nationally-televised game highlighted the Wizards’ speed, athleticism and depth.

Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal, left, center Marcin Gortat, from Poland, guard John Wall, and forward Otto Porter Jr. walk on the court after a timeout during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Atlanta Hawks, Friday, Nov. 4, 2016, in Washington. The Wizards won 95-92. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal, left, center Marcin Gortat, from Poland, guard John Wall, and forward Otto Porter Jr. walk on the court after a timeout during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Atlanta Hawks, Friday, Nov. 4, 2016, in Washington. The Wizards won 95-92. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Washington’s bench has developed and just welcomed summer free agent big man Ian Mahinmi back to the rotation. Cleveland and Boston appear to be locked in as the top two seeds in the eastern conference, but Washington upstaged Boston a few weeks ago at the Verizon Center and was a miracle three-pointer from LeBron James away from toppling the defending champions. Perry Green and Stephen D. Riley of the AFRO Sports Desk debate: Are the Wizards real contenders? 

Riley: The Wizards have been a trending topic in the NBA recently and it’s definitely for a slew of good reasons. They’re young, fast and exciting and the team’s talent and development have finally evened out under new coach Scott Brooks. Cleveland still stands as the clear favorite to come out of the eastern conference but it could be a toss-up between Boston and Washington where home court could settle who challenges Cleveland in the East Finals. Wall’s name could be added to the best point guard in the league debate, and Beal is one of the top shooting guards in the eastern conference. Porter and Morris don’t get league-wide recognition, but their play has been even more detrimental than that of the backcourt. Marcin Gortat and Mahinmi provide tough play in the paint and Kelly Oubre gives the team fresh legs and defensive capability off the bench. This is a well-rounded roster and should be looked at as a true contender. 

Green: Washington has been playing well, lately but Boston, Cleveland and Toronto have been more consistent. The Celtics are perhaps a bigger threat to Washington than any other team in the conference simply because they get overlooked in favor of the Cavaliers. Behind Al Horford’s solid defense and emerging superstar Isaiah Thomas, Boston is a dark horse pick. When you add in perhaps the best home court advantage in the NBA, I like their chances if the Wizards had to face them in a seven-game series. Washington has a good team but it won’t be enough to get them out front in a strengthening conference. If they can’t beat Cleveland, can we really call them a contender? 

Riley: A contending team is one that you’ll see in the last few rounds of the playoffs whether it’s the conference finals or the semifinals. Washington swept Toronto in the playoffs a few seasons ago with a weaker roster. And, while Boston does pose a strong challenge, the Wizards just showed they can not only handle the Celtics but handle them with relative ease. Playoffs always crank things up a notch and the Wizards showed in the 2013 and 2014 playoffs that they know how to flip the switch. Washington is a more complete team than Boston and could be a midseason acquisition away from being in position to push Cleveland. This team is for real and emerging as a beast in the NBA. 

Green: The Wizards have been down for so long that the slightest bit of success has fans probably overly excited. I like what the Wizards are doing this season but I just can’t see them seriously challenging to come out the conference. A true contender is a title saved for San Antonio, Golden State and Cleveland. The championship will go through one of those three cities, and any other team shouldn’t be considered a contender if they can’t take down one of those franchises. It’s great for the city that Washington is back on the map, and ticket sales are rising again and the District is getting behind the bandwagon. They could have a deeper run at success next season depending on how they tweak their roster in the summer, but it won’t happen this season. The roster is still developing but it’s not enough to be considered a contender this year.

Perry Green and Stephen D. Riley

AFRO Sports Desk