Key Legislature: Wizards 80 at Nets 117 — Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained | Wizards Blog Truth About It.net

Key Legislature: Wizards 80 at Nets 117 — Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained

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Updated: April 11, 2015

Truth About It.net’s Key Legislature: a quick run-down and the game’s defining moment(s)
for Washington Wizards contest No. 79 versus the Nets in Brooklyn 
via Chris Thompson (@MadBastardsAll), from Virginia.

DC Council Key Legislature

by Chris Thompson.

They key moment of this game, and the only moment that mattered even a little bit, occurred sometime hours before tip-off, when the decision was made to rest John Wall. NBA basketball isn’t so formulaic that a given team cannot win without any one particular player, but, generally speaking, it’s difficult and requires more than a little luck for an average team, minus their very best player, to beat another average team playing at full strength. The Wizards didn’t have the kind of luck needed to steal a win—they also evidently did not have the kind of luck needed to throw a chest-pass to another person in a Wizards jersey, or make a point blank layup, or not part like the Red Sea every time a Nets guard decided to drive to the basket. Still, when you rest your franchise cornerstone on the road against a surging opponent, you are likely to lose.

The contest was more-or-less decided in the first quarter, when the Nets raced out to a 31-14 lead behind a perfectly horrendous two-way showing by a Wizards team that looked for all the world like they’d been drinking heavily until (and perhaps through) the opening tip. The defense was impossibly bad—Deron Williams had free reign to walk his way to whatever spot on the floor struck his fancy—and granted the Nets 17 shots in the paint in the first quarter alone. This isn’t the first time the Wizards have been sleepy and disoriented defensively in a first quarter, but with the talent downgrade from Wall to Ramon Sessions, general sloppiness can be deadly.

Let’s not make this all about defense, though. Washington’s first quarter shot chart is a masterpiece of #SoWizards silliness:

Shotchart_1428764418112

It never did get much better. Washington took just four 3-point attempts in the first half, and none from the corners. They finished the half 2-of-14 from mid-range, having made just four free throws, and having turned the ball over eight times.

Bradley Beal started to ramp up his aggression on offense in the second quarter, and this could be a source of encouragement from what was otherwise just another ugly throwaway late season contest in which much more was at stake for one team than the other, and things broke on those lines. The Wizards have to figure out not just how to coax similar aggression out of Beal all the time, but how to incorporate that sort of aggression into an offense that is observably and undeniably at its best when Wall, and not Beal, is doing the vast bulk of the ball-handling. For all of Beal’s personal heroics on either immediate side of halftime, it’s important to note that the Wizards turned the ball over ten times in the second and third quarter and virtually failed to incorporate anyone into their offense not named Bradley Beal or Marcin Gortat. For the time being, Beal is at a stage in his career when he can turn it up and dominate possessions and pile up points, but not as a feature of a very good NBA offense.

All of this is a long way of saying that this is who the Wizards are without John Wall. It’s been more than 200 games since any of us had to confront that particular ugly truth, but it might be a useful time to hearken back to the dark days of the 2012/2013 NBA season, the last time Wall missed a game, and remember how starkly terrible the Wizards were before he returned to action. The names and faces around him have changed enormously, and (for the most part) for the better, but what happened Friday night in Brooklyn might help to realign our understanding of the actual strides this organization has taken in the years since then.

It works out fairly simply, when you get down to it. John Wall is an enormously talented player, one of the very small handful of players in the NBA capable of dominating a game at both ends for long stretches. The Wizards are a middling playoff squad in the abysmal Eastern Conference. If both of those things are true at the same time, we have to confront some hard truths about the team around him. It’s not doom and gloom, it’s being clear-eyed and realistic about what shapes the gulf between what the Wizards are and what they could be.

If you subscribe to the notion that an ideal NBA team is made up mainly of players at or near their prime, with roster upside in the form of young role players with their primes ahead of them, playing in a system they understand and that utilizes their strengths, with tactical and organizational continuity balanced by tactical and organizational flexibility, then your model of NBA excellence will happily and conveniently align with the standard win/loss model of NBA excellence: the San Antonio Spurs.

The Spurs lucked their way into a foundational player in Tim Duncan, the mere existence of whom almost guaranteed annual playoff appearances for the foreseeable future. This sort of clarified their organizational mandate: surround him with complimentary players who could grow with him into a juggernaut, and maintain enough roster flexibility to never require a tear down during their franchise cornerstone’s prime years. The benefits are multifold, but among them is the time and space the simple existence of a franchise cornerstone grants his teammates to work through the rough stages of their development without carrying a heavy burden of responsibility.

Tim Duncan is the sort of player that makes this kind of thing possible, and he’s made that organizational focus work for the benefit of whole generations of Spurs players and coaches. That focus, in turn, suffuses even the dreary early, mid, or late-season stretches when Duncan is rested with long-term value, in the form of developing and solidifying the young and developing players in the system around him, such that the team will be that much stronger upon his return. It has become common to talk about this pattern as the Spurs “flipping the switch” late in the season, but the switch is never off. The Spurs aren’t loafing when they’re losing. They’re not loafing even when they’re loafing. Their system makes wasted games and wasted stretches of games impossible. Those periods of struggle are an essential part of what makes them a late-season and playoff monster. When previously unfeatured players like Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green and Corey Joseph and Aron Baynes are playing well for meaningful stretches of the coming playoffs, remind yourself of that.

Which brings us back around to Washington, resting John Wall on a late-season Friday night in Brooklyn. Bradley Beal did some encouraging things, and that’s something that can only serve them going forward. But Nene was terrible, Paul Pierce was terrible, Ramon Sessions was terrible. Will Bynum regressed to just some guy with a bum hammy picked up off the free-agent scrap heap. Because of their age and their contracts and the self-preserving handwaving that has defined Washington’s roster moves in this stage of Ernie Grunfeld’s tenure, more is lost by the wasted mileage put on those players’ odometers than is gained via the experience of competing without their cornerstone. Even the idea of this loss being a development opportunity for someone like Pierce or Nene is hysterical.

I suppose the big important question is whether the Wizards understand what they have in John Wall, and the question rises higher than merely his coach or even his GM [stares awkwardly at Ted Leonsis]. In John Wall they have a punched ticket to the playoffs for the foreseeable future, especially in the lousy East. Do they see that as breathing room to take a long view of organizational success, or do they see that as a closing window on a chance to grasp at immediate glory?

Friday night they rested John Wall against a surging playoff contender, on the road. What was supposed to happen happened: they lost. The sense, this morning, is that notwithstanding Bradley Beal, the Wizards took a troubling step backward. Inasmuch as that’s a failure by the players to show up and compete, it’s a failure by the organization to allow for the mere possibility of a step in any other direction.

If rest for one single player is the best takeaway from this game, which became a schedule loss the moment resting him was decided, the opportunity cost—in the form of a realistic shot at the third seed and homecourt advantage in the opening round of the playoffs—seems like a lot to sacrifice for such a meager return. After all, winning now, during the post-prime years of a too-large chunk of Washington’s roster, is all they can hope to achieve before a teardown will be necessary. They did not win now, and they did not position themselves to win now. The Wizards embarrassed themselves, a winning streak was snapped, and Nene twisted his ankle. Maybe they should have rested everyone. What else were they hoping to achieve?

Chris Thompson