Why the Wizards Shouldn't be "Tanking" the Rest of the Season | Wizards Blog Truth About It.net

Why the Wizards Shouldn’t be “Tanking” the Rest of the Season

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Updated: January 8, 2019

In the world of sports, the word tanking is used to describe the act of giving up, losing intentionally, or not competing.

Specifically in terms of team building, “tanking,” as we are to understand it, is a team’s intent to do less than everything it can to win. It is a concerted effort over several months (and perhaps several seasons) by a team to not be as good as it could be. It is considered cheap, disingenuous and dishonest, the byproduct of a flawed system where a team can be—and often is—rewarded for being bad and where deliberately losing is thereby a strategic decision in an attempt to get the best prospect possible.

By no means has the Wizards’ 2018-19 season gone as any of the players, coaches, or fans expected before the year began, but that does not mean that this team should pivot to tanking.

There are three key reasons as to why this Wizards team, now 16-24, should be putting their best foot forward for the rest of the season.

The first reason is that they’ve already lost a lot of ball games this year when they were technically trying as hard as they could. According to one prognosticator’s predictive measures, they have a good chance at losing a lot more of their games:

Washington will not be favored in many games for the rest of the season, nor should they be considering how the team has fared this season. The Wiz already have the sixth-worst record in the entire NBA, and that position (were the season to end today) would give them a nine percent chance of landing the number one overall pick in the draft. There is almost no conceivable way that the team can do any worse than sixth-worst, considering the teams that are behind them in the standings.

Even if the Wizards make the playoffs, they will be so low of a seed that it almost guarantees them a selection in the top half of what some experts consider to be one of the most talented draft pools in recent memory. That first-round pick has immense value. It can be used to improve the team’s future with a young player, or maybe even used as a trade chip and aggregated into another deal to get Washington the third star player they have been chasing for the last few years. (Of course, one could argue that this whole process of tanking or not is a circular argument considering the fact that Ernie Grunfeld is still calling the shots.)

Another good reason why the team should not tank this season is because this current crop of players is significantly different from the expected rotation coming into this season. They deserve a shot at trying to reach their full potential as a group.

After beating the 25-14 Oklahoma City Thunder, 116-98, the Wizards have pulled to within three games of the Charlotte Hornets for the 8th and final playoff spot in the East. Making the playoffs (something more than half of NBA teams do) was not the publicly stated goal when the season started, but it basically is now. Expectations for the team have obviously shifted after their five-time All-Star, John Wall, was diagnosed with a bone-spur in his left heel and advised to have surgery, effectively ending his season. Even if the goalposts have once again moved mid-season due to circumstances beyond their control, the Wizards should totally strive for a playoff appearance . . . even if they are to get knocked out in the first round. This team needs to push the limits of what they can do without John Wall.

Wall’s absence opens the door for Bradley Beal to further establish himself as one of the dynamic guards in the NBA, allowing him to not only grow as a ball-handler and distributor but to also assert himself as a leader within the organization. Last season Beal showed what he can do while Wall missed 41 games due to a knee injury—and the “Everybody Eats” Wizards showed the NBA that they could win without Wall. But as the season progressed, that edition of the team began to struggle and drastically faded going into the playoffs, barely winning the 8-seed even with Wall’s return. The rest of this season is essentially a case study in evaluating whether Beal can be a number one option on a winning team.

Beal is not the only player that the Wizards need to be evaluating for their long-term prospectus. Otto Porter has missed 12 games this season—the Wizards were just 4-8 in that span, so clearly his presence puts them in a better position to win. Otto being able to rotate at the forward spots with “3-and-D” specialist Trevor Ariza affords the Wizards versatility in the front court, and the positive results are already beginning to show.

Beyond the regulars, Washington’s roster is filled with mercenaries, such as Thomas Bryant, Jeff Green, Sam Dekker, Chasson Randle, Ron Baker, and Dwight Howard—they are all playing their first season in Washington and are not currently under contract for next season.

Bryant is steadily proving himself as a versatile NBA big man who can play in the paint and also stretch the floor. The former second-round pick is proving to be a god-send as a flyer the team took when they claimed him off of waivers from the Los Angeles Lakers. In the big win against the Thunder, Bryant showed he has the resiliency to come back after being dominated by the physically imposing Steven Adams. It is safe to say that the Wizards will have Bryant in their future plans as he hits restricted free agency this summer—the question is just how large of check Ted Leonsis will have to cut to keep him.

Jeff Green is what he is as an NBA player at this point, so the Wizards essentially know what they have with him. The rest of those players who are going to be free agents this summer are essentially auditioning for an opportunity to be one of the many low-value contracts that the Wizards will be forced to sign this summer because of the majority of their salary cap dollars being tied up into just four players. With nearly half of the season left, Washington has a chance to see how these rotational players can fit playing next to Beal and Porter.

The Wizards will actually have to make decisions on Chasson Randle going forward for the rest of this season on Janurary 10, when players with non-guaranteed contracts can become guaranteed if they are still on the roster. Randle became just the second player this season to have a plus/minus of plus-30 in less than 18 minutes of game action.

Smart money says that Randle will be here to stay for the rest of the season, as he has carved out a role as backup point guard behind Tomas Satoransky. The Wizards already made the decision on Ron Baker’s roster spot when they waived him, well ahead of Thursday’s deadline. Baker played 43 minutes as a Wizard and failed to record a single point, making his presence a little bit of a mystery for the team, especially when he was playing in front of rookie Troy Brown. Baker has never been a good basketball player in the NBA and for Brooks to afford him immediate playing time is definitely a cause for concern in terms of his ability to evaluate players.

Brown has been the topic of much discussion surrounding the Wizards in recent weeks as the fan base has been clamoring for the 15th overall pick in the draft to get playing time, but it has been clear that Scott Brooks does not think that Brown is ready to positively contribute to winning ball games at this juncture in his career. (Team officials said as much before the season, when he was drafted, which didn’t do Grunfeld’s selection any favors with fans.) Brown showed flashes during Summer League and more recently in limited game action, but with Otto Porter’s return to the lineup, Brown’s opportunities will be hard to come by. In this particular instance, Brooks may not be wrong to further develop his rookie: Porter’s return to the lineup takes the Wizards rotation up to nine players on most nights and leaves Brown standing when the music stops in this game of musical chairs.

Finally, evaluating Scott Brooks as a coach over the second half of the season may be as important a reason as any to not tank.

Washington has put themselves in a position where they cannot fire Brooks because they do not have an assistant coach on the bench who is even qualified to take over on an interim basis. Barring a full blown mutiny from his players, Brooks will get to see out his season, and contract. Brooks has worked diligently to bring this team into the new age of basketball by having his players play a more analytical style, which includes taking more 3s and shots in the paint. This season, the Wizards are taking 33.0 3s per game on 89 shot attempts, meaning 37 percent of their shots are 3s. Last season the team took 85.6 shots per game and 26.5 of those attempts were 3s for a rate of 30 percent.

That is a very macro view of how Brooks is running this team, but where he needs to show marked improvement over the rest of the season is how he manages the team in-game. There is much that needs to improve from Brooks in terms of managing rotations and play calling, and he has already begun his experimentation process. For the third straight game since Porter returned from injury, Brooks elected to bring the forward off of the bench—and he insinuated that Porter may continue to come off the bench for the foreseeable future.

Brooks has found a five-man unit that he likes in Satoransky, Beal, Ariza, Green, and Bryant—that unit leads the Wizards in minutes played together at 153, despite Ariza only being with the team for less than a month. The ability to have a starting unit that is productive without Porter allows for Brooks to solve two of his major issues coming into this season: finding ways to get Porter more shots and increasing the bench productivity. Porter coming off the bench allows him to be the focal point of the second unit offensively, thus drastically increasing the bench’s ability to score the basketball.

NBC Sports analytics expert Tom Haberstroh has a theory that, in Wall’s absence, the Wizards may have accidentally found the third star they were looking for all along:

“We also might see a different Otto Porter now that Wall is sidelined. In the 121 minutes that Porter has played without Wall this season, he has played like the star they envisioned, averaging 19.6 points, 8.3 rebounds per 36 minutes while shooting 52 percent from the floor and 38.9 percent from deep, per NBA.com tracking. Those numbers shrink to 13.2 points, 6.6 rebounds and 47 percent shooting with Wall on the floor.”

The Wizards have an opportunity to feature Otto Porter more and Bradley Beal is welcoming of Porter getting up more shots on the court. “Who else is gonna shoot the ball? S***, that’s the way I’m looking at it. You’ve gotta shoot the ball, ” Beal said to reporters after the Wizards win against the Thunder.

Of course, teams will adapt to Washington’s newfound lineup choices and the onus will once again be on Brooks to adjust accordingly.

Ted Leonsis proclaimed before the season that there would be “no more excuses” for the Wizards this season, and while Wall’s absence may have tempered expectations, there is still enough talent here for the Wizards to make a playoff push. Anything less should be an indictment on Brooks, the players, and of course the team’s president for life. Such an indictment should force Leonsis to re-evaluate whether Brooks is the coach of the future, whether the roster needs a shakeup, and whether Ernie deserves to be the puppeteer pulling the strings for the 284th year.

Or maybe, just maybe, this team is already tanking—they just don’t know it yet.

Troy Haliburton on Twitter
Troy Haliburton
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Troy Haliburton is a native Washingtonian, and graduate of Gonzaga College High School and Morehouse College. Bylines on bylines on bylines.

Will write for food.