The Wizards, The Playoffs, And The Issue Of Resting
The regular season has come and gone, and what a wacky one it was. You know the story, from 2-8 to the best record in decades and home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. But there came an awkward few days toward the end of the season in which the team—or, more specifically, head coach Scott Brooks—was forced to choose between playing out the season full strength and resting the key players ahead of the playoffs.
It’s a common debate these days, and for good reason. The NBA season is a grind, and any break you can afford your players you probably want to take. However, the antiquated thinking of old-school coaches and players often prevails: You have a job, you play every day unless you’re actually injured—maintain the integrity of the game! Blah blah blah.
That’s all bullshit.
Giving players the occasional game off isn’t the primary reason the Golden State Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers, and San Antonio Spurs have won the past three championships(1), but it’s played a role. Please rest your players. Four games in five days is terrible for player longevity, and fresh players make for a much more exciting game than fatigued players.
The idea that you carry momentum into the postseason if you play out the season is nonsense. You don’t carry artificial momentum generated from a meaningless regular season win into the playoffs, which don’t start for several days after the season ends. That’s just not a thing that happens. If you have a really good day of work on Friday, then go enjoy a three-day weekend, are you coming back to work on Tuesday still riding Friday’s momentum? No, you’re a combination of angry that you’re back at work and pleased that it’s a short week.
That’s essentially what the Wizards faced. Their season ended Wednesday, and they don’t play again until Sunday. If they played at full strength and beat up on the Heat, who were struggling (but fighting hard) to make the playoffs at all, do you really think they’d carry that into a game against a much better Atlanta Hawks team four days later? No.
The other argument is that Washington was struggling at the end of the season and needed to “figure it out” before the playoffs. This, again, is bullshit. If the team had 80 games that mattered to “figure it out,” and couldn’t, why would they suddenly do so in the final two meaningless games? The defense was especially bad in the final month or so of the season; perhaps the defensive intensity dropped off because they had virtually clinched a playoff spot shortly after the All-Star Break and had officially clinched one in late March.
If you have something to play for, that’s a different story. And when you’re a team like the Warriors, Cavs, or Spurs, you can afford to take a game off here or there as the season drags along, a privilege afforded to only the elite teams and not the Chicago Bulls and Portland Trail Blazers of the world who are fighting to make the postseason at all.
But what about the Wizards, a middling team that ran the gamut of awful to excellent throughout the season, and who, in mid-January, endured a stretch of five games in seven days with travel required between each game(2)? That was a tough stretch to navigate, as the final three teams were all potentially relevant in the Eastern Conference playoff picture—a loss to them would have hurt. But the first two teams were mostly irrelevant to the Wizards’ playoff standing.
Wouldn’t it have been beneficial to take either the Grizzlies game or the Knicks game as a virtual day off? Brooks could have given John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Marcin Gortat the Knicks game off, and allowed Otto Porter, Markieff Morris, Kelly Oubre, and the rest of the bench a chance to play substantial minutes. That would have eased the burden into just four games in seven days with only one back-to-back for the three main guys. Plus, it would have only deprived an away crowd of Washington’s star players, while giving younger players a chance to get minutes at Madison Square Garden, if that’s still worth anything.
The Wizards, of course, didn’t opt to rest anybody until the end of the season, whether due to pride, or momentum, or whatever. That’s fine. It’s a slow process, and eventually the rest of the league will (hopefully) catch up with the teams at the top.
But what about that final week or so of the regular season? Should they have rested the top guys earlier? Or later? Or not at all? Or should they have rested different players? There are a lot of questions, and a lot of scenarios that could have played out, some of which did and many more of which did not.
Here’s what ultimately happened: Wall sat out the final two games, Beal and Markieff Morris sat out the final game, Porter sat out the penultimate game and played just 15 minutes in the finale, and Gortat played in all 82 games. With two games remaining, the Wizards had nothing to play for except reaching the ever-elusive 50-win mark, as their playoff destiny was sealed as the No. 4 seed.
Entering the final Saturday of the season, the Wizards needed to win each of their final three games of the season while some combination of things needed to happen with the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors, and if one of those combinations came to fruition, Washington would move up to the third seed. That’s when the Wizards, who had two games against the Miami Heat and one against the Detroit Pistons left on the schedule, should have considered resting.
I’m not saying they straight-up tank and sit the starters for the final three games, but maybe they should have limited Wall and Beal to 30 minutes in the third-to-last game, instead of letting them go the 36 and 38 minutes they played, respectively. Once that game is lost, and 50 wins is all that’s left on the table, just remove all pretenses and focus on health.
Hindsight is 20-20 and all, but Ian Mahinmi is going to miss (at least) the start of the playoffs due to an injury suffered in a completely meaningless game. It was in the Pistons game, when Wall and Porter were sitting and the rest of the team was honorably chasing an arbitrary win total (50). Washington had already been cemented as the No. 4 seed and had nothing else to gain or lose.
Bradley Beal played 33 minutes in that game. Marcin Gortat played 21 minutes. Why did they play?
This Wizards team has already won more games than any in the past 38 years of the franchise. That team 38 years ago won 54 games. This team had only 50 wins to play for at the time of the Pistons game. I’ve been alive for more than 25 years, and until this season, I’d never seen a Wizards team really even threaten 50 wins. Only twice before had I witnessed a Washington team reach the 45-win mark, and those seasons were separated by a full decade.
There is absolutely something to be said about winning 50 games. On the other hand, is there really anything to be said about winning 50 games?
Ignore the fact that 50 wins isn’t that big of an accomplishment in the grand scheme of things—a reminder that the last time the San Antonio Spurs won fewer than 50 games in a full season was the 1996-97 season—and that eight teams reached 50 wins this season. Other teams’ standards are different than Washington’s because Washington has been somewhere between really bad and kind of OK for nearly four decades.
Moral victories aren’t real victories and all that, but it would have been a tremendous moral victory for the team and the fanbase if the Wizards had reached 50 wins. It’s just such a nice, solid number, one that unofficially signifies a Good Team. It would have been a significant accomplishment, to be sure.
But on the other hand, no it fucking isn’t. It’s 50 wins. It’s not that impressive. If the Wizards had won 50 games, they still would have had the ninth-best record in the NBA this season. I hear the arguments of “It’s one milestone to check off” and “They need to get that monkey off their backs.” Sure. Whatever. Get 50 wins. How much is that worth?
Bradley Beal and Otto Porter already played career highs in minutes this season. John Wall was fifth in the league in total minutes (seventh in minutes per game) despite having missed four games, and he’s coming off double knee surgery.
Washington has four players (Wall, Beal, Porter, Gortat) of the 37 league-wide who have played at least 2,500 minutes this season. No other team did that this season, and only three other teams had even three players to do so. Cleveland has two players with 2,500-plus minutes (LeBron James, Kyrie Irving), Boston has one (Isaiah Thomas), and Toronto has one (DeMar DeRozan).
Fourteen teams don’t have a single player to reach the 2,600-minute mark yet this season, including Boston. Washington has three players (Wall, Beal, Porter) to play 1,600-plus minutes this season. One of those players is young and historically fairly healthy. One had surgery on both knees this offseason. One has missed considerable time due to leg injuries in every season prior to this one.
Fifty wins is great. A healthy roster for the playoffs is much, much more important.