OPP: After finishing fifth in the East last season, the Wizards were able to get to the second round of the playoffs for the second straight year. Do you think they can make it further this season? Could they be looking at a division championship?
Sykes: I think a division championship and maybe a conference finals berth is in play for the Wizards this year. Making it to the second round two years in a row and being bumped out gives them a check in the "playoff experience" column. something I think some pundits overvalue, but it matters that they know how it feels to play basketball in late April and May.
This team is going to be better this year. Their main weakness last season was their offense, which consisted of midrange jumpshots, post touches from Marcin Gortat and Nene, as well as not playing with enough pace. Last season's run in the playoffs showed Randy Wittman how productive the team can be in space and prompted an offensive switch that has the Wizards as the league's best offensive team in the preseason in both efficiency and points per game.
The preseason doesn't mean much, but there's a stark contrast between the Wizards' 22nd ranked offense last season and what they've run with so far this year.
OPP: With Paul Pierce's departure to the Los Angeles Clippers, who do you think is going to step into that starting small forward role? How much of an impact will Pierce not being there have on the team as a whole?
Sykes: I'm not sure there is really one player that can capture what Paul Pierce gave to the Wizards last season. Pierce was a leader, a producer on the court and one of the toughest players the team has seen. Otto Porter should be able to produce at the same level, if not better, than Pierce did last season, but he won't play that leadership role Pierce did. The Wizards will also have Alan Anderson and Jared Dudley backing him up on the wings to compliment Wall and Sessions with more shooters for the first and second units.
There's no set player who's ready to step into Pierce's role as a leader, but Wall, Beal and Porter have all shown signs that they're ready to take the reigns of this team and have everyone follow their lead on and off the court. Dudley is another guy who will hold other players accountable if there are any problems. The locker room is pretty tightly-knit with the Wizards having this same core intact for three years now. They know each other well and that helps when replacing a guy like Pierce.
OPP: The Magic are, somewhat, in the same position the Wizards were a few years ago with a promising young backcourt, and some hope of making that big jump. How do these two teams match up in your opinion?
Sykes: The Magic are in a really good place, I believe, with Victor Oladipo and Elfrid Payton in the backcourt. They're both studs defensively and Oladipo brings a lot of versatility to the offensive end of the floor. Payton is very well-rounded as a passer, although I don't think he's quite there as a scorer. But he does so many other things when it comes to setting the table for everyone, rebounding, defending and the like.
I really like where the Magic are right now. Even outside of the backcourt, I think Nikola Vucevic is one of the best big men in the NBA. I have him making an All-Star run this year. I think the Magic match up pretty well with the Wizards and have given them some problems over the last couple of years. The Magic will likely play more sound defense this year under Scott Skiles, who's been able to work miracles in the past with terrible defenders.
I'm not sure exactly how the matchup will go this season because I haven't seen the Wizards' new offense in regular season action with regular season rotations, but I know the Magic won't be an easy out for them. Especially not with the way I expect their defense to improve.
OPP: Make a prediction for the game.
Sykes: The Wizards have started out pretty slow the last five years in season openers. The last time they won a season opening game, Gilbert Arenas was on the team, Flip Saunders (Rest in peace) was the coach and Andray Blatche scored 20 points off of the bench. But the Wizards have also only been good over the last two seasons. I expect them to break that streak this season with the Magic, but it won't be easy. I think their offense will click pretty well early on, but I'm worried about how they'll defend--especially in transition.
I think the Magic will give them a pretty good run, but ultimately I think they'll struggle to keep up with the pace the Wizards are going to employ and I don't know if they'll be able to cover all of the shooting the Wizards have with an emphasis on stretching the floor from the power forward spot. Kris Humphries has been sneaky good from outside in the preseason. This might not keep up, but if it does he's going to be a threat. The Magic do have versatility at the power forward position, but I just don't think they'll be expecting Kris Humprhies to play from the outside.
ED Note: Thanks once again to Mr Sykes for taking the time to talk with us and give us some info on the Wizards heading into the season opener. Once again, you can find him on Twitter @MikeDSykes.