Opening Statements 37: Wizards vs Bulls — Washington's Muddy Identity No Clearer After Bucks Win | Wizards Blog Truth About

Opening Statements 37: Wizards vs Bulls — Washington’s Muddy Identity No Clearer After Bucks Win

Updated: January 10, 2017


Teams: Wizards vs. Bulls
Time: 7:00 p.m. ET
Venue: Verizon Center, Washington, D.C.
Television: CSN
Radio: 1500 AM, WLS-AM 890
Spread: Wizards fav’d by 10.5 points

With the Wizards back to .500 (18-18) for the second time this season, it is tempting to declare the worst over and invite the magnetic future of your dreams to the present. To that end, Wizards majority owner Ted Leonsis, ever quick to celebrate and slow to mourn, requested the Wizards (along with his hockey Wizards) be a renewed focus of local interest on Twitter, likely judging that the end of Washington’s football season provided an opportunity for increased market share.

On Sunday, Washington moved back into the presumptive playoff picture as well, knocking off the 8th-seeded Bucks (playing without star Giannis Antetokounmpo) to steal their spot in the octet. But the dual assumption (that the worst is over and that the best is yet to come) will be soft-tested swiftly, with the Bulls careening wildly on the Jacob’s Ladder of the Eastern Conference playoffs, losing its grip on the 7th rung among a plague of maladies. Jimmy Butler is sick. Dwyane Wade is resting. Rajon Rondo is excommunicated. It holds, then, that Washington has another chance to beat a middling Eastern Conference team playing without its star(s). And another chance for temporary aggrandizement in the shifting eyes of the public. With a win, the Wizards would move up to 7th and their first winning record of the season (19-18) and the Bulls would drop to 8th or 9th depending on the outcome of the Milwaukee-San Antonio game.   

Beating the Bucks, and owning the season series against Milwaukee (3-1), does prove something. Washington’s six or seven best players can compete long and hard enough to scrap their way into a win against a team that makes an average amount of mistakes. Beating Milwaukee or Chicago is what a good team would do. But beating Milwaukee or Chicago, even when those teams are full strength, is not the measure of a good team. A win against the Clippers and a loss against the Sixers may both be anomalies by season’s end, or one or the other could end up looking more like the truth. Don’t fault the Wizards for beating teams like Milwaukee, or Chicago, but don’t cherish it much either.

This is a team that has tinkered away a chance to be special after not fucking up three top 3 picks (Wall, Beal, and Porter), all of whom will soon be max-level players, and close to deservingly so.(1) And that battle was lost on the fringes, the complicated shit, the players that round out a roster and provide value in short, high-voltage doses. It’s perhaps too easy to blame it all on the bench, especially when we see John Wall turn the ball over four times in the first quarter against the Bucks, hastening a hefty lead for Milwaukee that he himself would later conquer in heroic fashion.

But Washington’s best bench player is Kelly Oubre, a second-year player, a talented baby who was seen as a long-term project when he was drafted. Washington’s offseason additions, through bad luck or poor scouting, have been awful. For context, Oubre is Washington’s 11th-most compensated player. After Beal (#1) and Wall (#2), the Wizards pay Ian Mahinmi, Marcin Gortat, Markieff Morris, Andrew Nicholson, Otto Porter, Jason Smith, Trey Burke, and Tomas Satoransky are all paid more than Oubre (in that order). The only veteran player paid less than Oubre is Marcus Thornton, with Washington’s roster rounded out by three undrafted rookies (Ochefu, McLellan, House) paid $543,471 each. The only one of those three to see any time has been Sheldon McLellan, a fill-in for Bradley Beal when times are tight.

Mahinmi, the team’s third-highest paid player, has played in only one game, and is currently receiving an alien blood transfusion. Morris has been disappointingly inconsistent. Nicholson may as well not be on the team, while Smith and Burke are trying their damndest, and have improved slightly after a truly ugly start. Satoransky, for his part, started strong and faded fast, now completely out of the rotation.

With Washington’s best players playing extra minutes to shield the team from its own reserves (still perhaps the worst bunch in the NBA), and Scott Brooks constantly experimenting—valiantly so, in this writer’s opinion—with lineup combinations, nothing is yet settled. Brooks could crack the code, or a hairline fracture could reappear in Beal’s leg, or Wall’s knee could swell up and never go down.

And yet, real improvements have emerged. Under Scott Brooks’ tutelage, Bradley Beal’s 3-point attempts per game have gone from 4.9 to 7.3, a number that more resembles the role he always should have been playing for the Wizards. But that hasn’t dampened Beal’s ability to handle the ball and get to the line, long a reason proffered by the Randy Wittman regime as to why Beal wasn’t Washington’s Klay Thompson. Beal’s free throw attempts have risen from 3.2 per game to 5.0 per game. As a result, Beal is having his best season, far improved from last year’s campaign, scoring 22.2 points per game compared to last season’s 17.4. Brooks may not be behind each tweak in Beal’s game, but a series of small improvements in Beal’s line of attack has given Washington a true second threat.

Porter, too, has improved, even if his defense on Andrew Wiggins last week against Minnesota left much to be desired (Wiggins hung 41 on him). What’s noticeable about both Beal and Porter’s improvements have been how they’ve been wrung out of what they already did well. It’s the mark, dare I say, of competent and assured coaching.

All of which is to say that Washington has the talent at the top to beat a decent team on an off-night, even without help. Against the Bucks, the only Wizards bench players to score were Oubre (17 points) and McLellan (8 points). Perhaps more tellingly, Milwaukee’s bench played around 84 minutes while Washington’s played only 54.

The Wizards will have the opportunity, eventually, to rack up a few quality wins, to prove that the pieces can be put together this year rather than in another summer remake. Wednesday’s game against Boston will be the right kind of test. Until then, beating teams like Milwaukee and (hopefully) Chicago will have to do.

  1. There is, for me, a very obvious talent gap between Giannis and D.C.’s own son Otto Porter, even if No. 22 has learned to shoot 3s—there’s also the painful truth that the former recently accepted a contract that’s worth less than the max. —J.C. Townsend
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Conor Dirks
Reporter / Writer / Co-Editor at TAI
Conor has been with TAI since 2012, and aids in the seamless editorial process that brings you the kind of high-octane blogging you have come to expect from this rad website. The Wizards have been an assiduous companion throughout his years on the cosmic waiver wire. He lives in D.C. and is day-to-day.