The More Things Change — The Wizards So Far
The Wizards are not very good, but you already know that.
Washington began the season with two things working in its favor: Aside from Ian Mahinmi’s absence, virtually no injuries to speak of([note]Although Scott Brooks likes to refer to minutes limits and back-to-back restrictions.[/note]), and a cupcake schedule. They started 2-8 anyway, which quickly became 3-9 after a loss to the Miami Heat, their fifth loss to a team that, entering this past Sunday, sits below .500. They have since picked up steam, in a manner of speaking, going 9-5 with a handful of wins against middling teams such as the Denver Nuggets, Milwaukee Bucks, Sacramento Kings, and Charlotte Hornets. A huge win last Sunday against the Los Angeles Clippers put the Wizards at a respectable 12-14.
But generally speaking, if you’ve dropped a dozen games before the first week of December is done, you’re not a good team, and if you’ve done so with a mostly clean bill of health, something is wrong. It was never going to be easy incorporating an entirely different bench, as well as a new head coach, into a less-than-stable core, but it shouldn’t take a month and change to work out the kinks when the starting five is the same as the one that ended the previous season.
The Wizards have historically struggled to keep their two best players healthy, with Bradley Beal having played more than 63 games in a season just once out of four full seasons. The hope is, and always has been, that Beal and John Wall can both be on the court for 75-80 games, but that should not be the expectation based on past experience—no team should assume health, especially not one with such a spotty injury history.
Per ESPN, the Wizards are tied for the 16th most difficult schedule in the NBA; per Basketball-Reference, they’ve had the 22nd hardest. Versus the league’s Big 5 teams (Warriors, Cavaliers, Spurs, Rockets, Clippers), the Wizards have gone 1-4—a pair of losses to the Spurs, one loss each to the Cavs and Rockets, a win against the Clippers, and they haven’t yet played the Warriors—and after that win over the Clippers on Sunday, their best win of the season was a 25-point rout of the 14-12 Celtics.
Washington is getting better, that much is apparent. But it’s past the halfway point of December and the Wizards just strung together their first three-game win streak, so let’s not lose perspective.
As far as team-building goes, few organizations are more frustrating than Washington. Despite the franchise’s best efforts to convince fans otherwise, there is no real plan in place, with the exception of wishing upon a star that the young core continues to improve and maybe, just maybe, a legitimate top-tier star will one day risk his career and play in the District.
It’s a bad plan, as Albert Burneko recently broke down over at Deadspin. When you melt the nuances away and stare at the remaining skeleton long enough, it’s kinda sorta the plan employed to perfection by the Golden State Warriors. Golden State built around its core over a several-year span, blending a mix of long, athletic sub-25 players and savvy veterans to dispel lessons in life and game.
Look at the 2014-15 title-winning roster. It’s made up of six players above the age of 28 who combine to cover every position on the court: Leandro Barbosa (PG, 32), Brandon Rush (SG, 29), Andre Iguodala (SF, 31)([note]The Warriors did give up a pair of first-round picks for Andre Iguodala, as well as two second-round picks, Richard Jefferson, Brandon Rush, and Andris Biedrins.[/note]), David Lee (PF, 31), Andrew Bogut (C, 30). The final vet was former Wizard Shaun Livingston, a 29-year-old combo guard who enjoyed a reemergence the season prior.
There are important characters in that cast of graybeards, but they were there to provide guidance and support to the three primary playmakers (Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green), not take on the lion’s share of the duties. Every player can look to an elder statesman at his respective position for advice. That’s kind of what the Wizards went for that same season, with the likes of Paul Pierce, Rasual Butler, Andre Miller, and Drew Gooden each playing significant roles throughout the season. Wall, Beal, and Porter didn’t develop as quickly as they needed to, which hindered the process—never forget you can always #BlameWittman—but the principle was more or less the same.
Then, instead of building around that core, upgrading the veterans, and focusing on constant progress, the Wizards switched gears and went for a home run; only it wasn’t a swing for an immediate home run, but a risky maneuver that threatened to, and eventually did, mail-in of the 2015-16 season in a bid for Kevin Durant. For the Wizards, it was as though they had the next eight players lay down sacrifice bunts so they could go for a home run the following season ([note]Editor’s Note: The Wizards were very damned if they do, damned if they don’t when it comes to chasing Kevin Durant. Fans would have been LIVID had Washington not even created the flexibility to go after Durant. Now, fans can, too easily, say, ‘Look at how you fucked up in trying to position for Durant!!’ (lividly), while ignoring context, and reality. Ted Leonsis can be criticized for not “thinking about the Wizards like a business” in terms of his continued retention of Grunfeld (how many publicly traded companies would prop up a failing CEO for so long?; yes, the Wizards are not a publicly traded company), but such positioning, and the outcome, is not formulaic, especially when the preferences of individuals (Durant) could change rapidly and unexplainably. What I’m trying to say: the Wizards had to gamble to try to get Durant, and they did they best they could—Jared Dudley and Alan Anderson were solid rentals (well, Anderson in theory)—but sometimes things just don’t work out. That said, the ills of the Wizards extend well past a failed attempt to even get a meeting with Durant.[/note]).
That, of course, whiffed spectacularly, leaving the Wizards to pick up the pieces. Their attempt at retooling was basically taking a whole bunch of pieces that looked like they could maybe be good if put in the right situation—Andrew Nicholson, Trey Burke, Jason Smith, Mahinmi—and signing them in hopes that Washington was “the right situation.”
Washington is rarely “the right situation.” The Wizards do not have the culture, organizational structure, or managerial competence to turn a handful of longshots into a well-oiled machine (and one could also wonder if Wall and Beal are truly ready to lead). What they have is a decent allocation of talent at the top of the roster, an abysmal bench, a ‘just OK’ coach, an inept front office, and an owner who has demonstrated a remarkable willingness to be average.
More than anything, Washington has one-dimensional players, at least on the bench.
Nicholson is a capable post scorer, as far as backup big men go, if all he is asked to do is be a post scorer. Burke is a capable ball-handler with a decent jumper, even if he likes to try to prove as much every possession. He is effectively a Ramon Sessions fill-in, albeit a more willing jump shooter, a less-willing passer, and less prone to drawing fouls. Mahinmi is a legitimate rim protector and a quality rebounder, when healthy. Marcus Thornton at least used to be one of the more effective microwave scorers off the bench.
Even Jason Smith is good for some quality unathletic white guy hustle.
The problem does not lie with any of those players, it lies with all of those players one on roster. There aren’t enough players like Garrett Temple, whose primary job was perimeter defense, but he could also handle the ball in a pinch, knock down the occasional 3, and provide priceless locker room wisdom and, well, levelheadedness. There aren’t enough players like Nene, who had a capable if not reliable midrange jumper, helped protect the rim, played solid defense away from the basket, disrupted passing lanes, passed the ball as well as any big man, and provided toughness and attitude that few other Wizards players offered ([note]Although, worth noting that Nene often gladly missed games to rest and some in the organization thought that the prior coaching staff did not always hold him accountable.[/note]).
What’s more, there is no glue holding all those pieces together. Iguodala, Green, Livingston—those are all guys who do myriad things for a team, from scoring to passing to ball-handling to rebounding to playing defense to providing encouragement or criticism when necessary.
Who are the glue guys for Washington? I’ve thought about this all season, and the list of candidates I’ve come up with is as follows: Otto Porter, Kelly Oubre, Markieff Morris.
Porter is the best option of the bunch, but his ball-handling is suspect, his passing is very OK, his 3-point shooting is adequate, and can you imagine him giving a postseason pep talk to the team? He is improving in each of those areas, but he’s still only occasionally capable of creating his own offense, and he is nowhere near a lock-down defender.
Oubre might get there one day, and he’s already got the confidence of a thousand Otto Porters, but the older players don’t exactly see him as a leader. TAI’s Kyle Weidie once cautiously compared Oubre to Javale McGee, and I also think his lack of assists show that he has some Nick Young in him. His arrow is pointing more vertically than either of those players’ ever did, but he’s still a ways away, even if his defense seems to be improving daily.
Morris is one of the team’s more capable one-on-one defenders when he wants to be, but that’s not nearly as frequent of an occurrence as it should be. He’s not a reliable enough shooter to be a consistent threat on the arc, he isn’t going to break any ankles, and he’s about the eighth most willing passer on the team. In other words, he does a bit of everything, and he sometimes puts it together in spectacular fashion, as evidenced by his excellent performance against the Clippers, but he’s lacking the motivation, ambition, and persona to do it all, all the time.
Aside from Smith and possibly Thornton, you can make a case for any player on the 2016-17 Wizards to have a role on a contending team, but only if they’re asked to perform the role they exist to perform. Andrew Nicholson, who has never been known as a good defender, passer, or playmaker, isn’t defending, passing, or making plays, and you’re disappointed by that? That’s not Nicholson’s fault, that’s Ernie Grunfeld’s fault for trying to turn him into something he’s not.
Andrew Nicholson is the snake (on a multi-year deal), Ernie Grunfeld is the woman.
Scott Brooks had two things going for him when he was hired to replace Randy Wittman as the Wizards coach: He liked to use his young players, and he has experience coaching teams that have won. Under Brooks, the following players either reached or exceeded, in some cases substantially so, their potential: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Serge Ibaka, and Reggie Jackson. You can also make the case for players such as Steven Adams, Thabo Sefolosha, and Andre Roberson.
It’s not necessarily fair to say those players wouldn’t have developed as they did if not for Brooks, and it’s equally unfair to separate him from their success. Perhaps they would have developed just as well under another coach, perhaps they would have become even better players than they did, or perhaps they would have underachieved. There is no way to know for sure, of course.
But what Brooks did better than many stubborn coaches, including his predecessor in Washington, is play his young guys.
In the 2013-14 season, Brooks consistently filtered a 20-year-old Adams and a 22-year-old Roberson, both rookies, into his rotations. Adams played all but one game, starting 20, and Roberson played in 40 games, including 16 starts. Between the pair, they averaged 24.8 minutes, 5.2 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 0.9 assists—hardly world-beater numbers, but the Thunder relied on the contributions of Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka, and Jackson enough that they could afford to give bump to the young guns.
That team won 59 games.
The following season, which Durant missed the majority of, Roberson started 65 games and Adams started 67, showing notable improvement from the season prior. Both players have gotten markedly better with each passing season, and they both played valuable roles for Oklahoma City in the 2016 postseason.
Funny how players get better when they play.
Brooks is doing the same thing in Washington, and it’s already paying significant dividends. The team chemistry is poor at best, abysmal at worst, but on an individual level, we’re seeing constant improvement by the young fellas.
For a final note about Brooks, it’s certainly a breath of fresh air having a coach in town who will tinker. Wittman loved to stick to his guns (as much as he hated analytics), and there’s something to be said for that, but Brooks started the season with an idea and has since altered it several times. He’s perhaps tinkered too much, and there is an inherent danger in that, but he’s now got data on which players work best with each other.
Oubre seems to set a new personal best in one statistical category or another each game. He has seven double-digit scoring games this season; he didn’t get his second double-digit scoring game until Dec. 16 last year. He has nine games with five or more rebounds this season; he got his second five-rebound game on Dec. 19 last year. He has four multi-steal games this season; his first last season came on Dec. 14, and his second came on Jan. 13.
Most importantly, Oubre has played 20 or more minutes in 12 of the team’s 26 games this season; he played 20 or more minutes in 12 of the team’s 82 games last season. He played five minutes or less in 24 games last season, compared to just three times this season.
Per 36 minutes, Oubre’s numbers are nearly identical to his first season in most categories, including points (12.7 last year, 12.1 this year), rebounds (7.1 last year, 6.8 this year), assists (0.7 last year, 1.1 this year), steals (1.2 last year, 1.4 this year), and blocks (0.4 last year, 0.1 this year). The difference in his game comes via an improvement in his focus, and a sense that he’s learning how to develop a rhythm. He’s committing fewer turnovers (1.8 last year, 1.0 this year) and fouls (5.4 last year, 3.9 this year), and he’s taking better shots—his Effective Field Goal Percentage is up from .486 to .504.
He’s learning, and, despite what old school coaches like Wittman say, the best way to learn is by doing, not by watching.
Wall and Beal didn’t have to sit on the bench much early on in their careers, but they’re both playing differently than they did under Wittman. Beal, perhaps buoyed by a newly-found wealth, is playing with more confidence than ever before, and repeated public comments by Brooks encouraging him to shoot more can’t be hurting that confidence.
Beal is scoring nearly five points per game more than the career mark he set last year, and he has more 30-point games already this season (5) than he had in his first four seasons combined (4). He also has his two best single-game outputs, with a 42-point night and a 41-point day coming within a month of each other, both in wins.
CP3: "Brad looked like a totally different person. A lot more aggressive. This is the Bradley Beal he should be all the time" #WizClippers
— J. Michael (@JMichaelCSN) December 19, 2016
Bradley Beal recorded 2nd 40-pt game this season.
Last 2 Wizards with multiple 40-pt games in a season? Gilbert Arenas & Michael Jordan. pic.twitter.com/ekzGIouDY3
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) December 18, 2016
Not only is he shooting more, his 16.9 shots per game easily topping his career average of 14.3, but he’s also shooting more effectively. His .456 clip from the field is a slight improvement on last year’s .449, and he’s shooting a hair over .400 from beyond the arc, despite launching two 3-pointers per game more than he ever had before. To complete the trio, Beal is getting to the free-throw line nearly five times per game, and he’s knocking the gimmes down at an .808 clip. His previous bests were 3.2 attempts per game and a .788 success rate.
In other words, he’s shooting more and he’s shooting better.
Only 14 players in history have put up the averages Brad Beal has today (former Bullet Chris Webber is one of them): https://t.co/jSg5LMbW1f
— @JohnCTownsend (@JohnCTownsend) December 20, 2016
Wall, meanwhile, is 13th in points per game, third in assists per game, and tied for first in steals per game. He also drives 11.8 times per game, the fourth most in the league behind just Goran Dragic, Isaiah Thomas, and Russell Westbrook, and he shoots .523 on drives, the fourth best among players who drive at least 10 times per game.
The entire list of players this season putting up per game numbers of at least 20 points, 8 assists, and 2 steals: John Wall. Even if you lower the qualifiers to 20-6-1.5, he’s still alone on the list.
Wall is on pace for career bests in almost every major shooting category, including 3-point shooting and free-throw shooting, in both quantity and quality. His assists are down slightly from his usual standard, from 10.2 per game last season to 9.6 this season, but he’s filled that minimal gap with an extra 4.3 points per game. His usage this season is a career-high 31.5 percent, well above his previous high of 28.9 percent, and it’s the eighth highest in the league, just above Kawhi Leonard and Damian Lillard.
Of course, he’s also turning it over at the astronomical rate of 4.4 whoopsies per game, mostly because he’s trying to do literally everything on offense. And in many cases, as has been the case throughout the years, he needs to do just that: everything.
Finally, Porter is playing like a new man. He’s on pace for career highs in points, rebounds, steals, blocks, field-goal percentage, 3-point percentage, and free-throw percentage, even though his usage is a career low 14.9 percent.
The only real knock against Brooks here is his recent decision to ignore Tomas Satoransky, who was a bright spot early in the season but hit a very real wall after the first few weeks. The rookie’s defensive effort and effectiveness are his biggest bugaboos at this point, but he has struggled at times in his decision-making with the ball, and his jumper is hardly a threat, having gone just 2-for-17 from distance this season.
Sato needs time to develop and adjust, and while it was reassuring seeing him get early bump, his up-and-down play—both in minutes and performance—in December has not been encouraging. It’s especially disheartening when he loses minutes to the likes of Thornton and Burke in the most Wittman-esque of ways.
Washington is trending up, and the win against the Clippers was a significant one. As Beal said after the game, winning a game like that shows the potential. When the Wizards lose games to bad teams, it’s not a talent problem, it’s an effort and execution problem.
Beal on #Wizards' expectations from here on out: "We showed our hand, so there's no excuses for us moving forward."
— Ava Wallace (@AvaRWallace) December 19, 2016
The bench has been terrible all season, but it’s gotten slightly better. Washington’s reserves still put up a league-worst NetRTG of minus-10.1, but it was minus-9.6 in November and is so far at just minus-7.4 in December.
If Mahinmi ever does return, he should significantly improve the second unit’s defensive potential, and simply having another big man to throw in the rotation—especially one not named Smith or Nicholson—will help. He won’t transform the Wizards into a contender, but he should provide some lift and ideally some rest for Marcin Gortat, who is playing a career high 35.4 minutes per game. Gortat hasn’t ever played a full season averaging even 33 minutes per game, so it’s difficult to see him holding up at this rate.
The Wizards’ defense is still not very good; their 106.2 DefRtg is 22nd in the league, and they’ve given up at least 105 points in nine of their past 10 games, a stretch in which their DefRtg was 108.5. They absolutely need to bring that number down, as their offense, while nothing to scoff at, isn’t capable of sticking with the scoring machines that are the Warriors, Cavaliers, Clippers, Rockets, and Raptors, each boasting an OffRtg above 110.
But the offense is getting better—a 103.0 OffRtg in November gave way to a 111.3 OffRtg so far in December—and it’s fair to say Wall, Beal, Porter, and Oubre are all playing better than they were expected to at this point.
Most importantly, the players seem to actually kind of give a shit now, which is a monumental (get it?) step in the right direction.
Now, the fact that it took them this long to decide playing hard is important? That’s a whole other issue, and one that can likely only be solved by trading a future first-round pick for a third- or fourth-tier star such as Monta Ellis or for even a younger player like Will Barton ([note]This wouldn’t actually solve that problem. Please, Mr. Grunfeld, do not trade away another first-round pick.[/note]).