Washington Wizards guard John Wall (2) pauses on the court in the first half of a preseason NBA basketball game against Paschoalotto Bauru, Sunday, Oct. 11, 2015, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Washington Wizards guard John Wall (2) pauses on the court in the first half of a preseason NBA basketball game against Paschoalotto Bauru, Sunday, Oct. 11, 2015, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Last season culminated in a bittersweet ending for the Wizards when Paul Pierce’s game tying three-pointer in Game 6 against the Atlanta Hawks was overturned by instant replay—fans were simultaneously saddened but nevertheless encouraged by the state of the Washington Wizards franchise. 

Yes, losing in the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs didn’t feel good, but anyone who watched Washington during that postseason run saw a different team from years past.  Both fans and pundits observed a Wizards team that seemed to finally play to their obvious strengths and shock everyone with a somewhat new system that head coach Randy Wittman unveiled for the playoffs. You rarely see such a drastic change of philosophy during the regular season, let alone at the start of the playoffs, but that’s exactly what Wittman did—and it worked.

After a first-round sweep of the Toronto Raptors, a team that owned the Wizards during the previous two seasons, and then beating the highly-favored Hawks in Game 1 of the second round, things looked bright for Washington. That lasted until after the game, when news broke that franchise point guard John Wall would be sidelined for the next few games with a broken hand. While he would eventually return later in the series, it would not be enough to unseat the Hawks.

During the preseason training camp, Wittman promised to institute his new free-flowing offensive style and, as a result, scoring soared for the Wizards. Unfortunately, one thing the fans will have to get used to is a slip in defense because of the new style of offense.

Defensive effort had not historically been a hallmark of the Wizards. That changed under the direction of Wittman, a coach the players like, as evidenced by the effort they give on the defensive end.  Now the players will have to get used to the new “pace and space” offensive philosophy, which will use up more effort and energy on offense.

There are plenty of reasons to be encouraged by the direction of the team, and they all start with the All-Star point guard, Wall.  After an initial three seasons marred with injuries and inconsistencies, his last two seasons have coincided with the team’s ascension from laughingstock to a perennial playoff contender. Wall has improved his overall game every season, and last year he played well enough to earn a starting nod in the All Star game. Although Wall was snubbed for an All-NBA spot, he was finally acknowledged for his great perimeter defense and was voted Second Team All-Defense.

Along with Wall, the continued improvement from his backcourt mate Bradley Beal will be key for the franchise going forward.  After an up-and-down season, Beal shined brightly in the playoffs, scoring more than 24 points per game. He was the focal point of the offense, showing an aggression that fans have clamored for since his arrival. If he can continue that aggressiveness, and third-year forward Otto Porter continues to improve, the Wizards’ perimeter play should be pretty solid this season. Holdovers Marcin Gortat, Kris Humphries, Nene (albeit in a decreased role), along with newcomers Jared Dudley, former Towson University star Gary Neal and rookie Kelly Oubre give the team some much-needed athleticism and perimeter shooting to boost the team’s overall scoring output.

By all means, this 2015-16 edition of the Washington Wizards will only be deemed a success by their performance in one area: the courting of eventual free agent Kevin Durant. If Washington is a playoff contender again this year, Durant could be more inclined to leave the green pastures of Oklahoma City to sign with his hometown franchise in D.C. In the national view of the team, this is the ongoing saga, just as the last year of LeBron James’ first stint in Cleveland was more a topic of conversation than what the team accomplished on the court.

The Wizards have finally put themselves in a position to become more than just a punchline and truly become a free-agent destination, even if the team doesn’t end up with Durant. True Wizards fans can expect the team to compete for a top-three seed in the Eastern Conference, if the team can stay healthy during the long haul of the regular season.