About a year and a half ago, the Washington Wizards were a team to be feared. With a young, exciting, athletic, evolving roster, they took the 60-win Atlanta Hawks to six games in the second round of the 2015 NBA Playoffs, before they were cruelly eliminated on their own floor. Wizards fans will know it as the series that John Wall sprained his wrist and missed three games, costing them a Conference Finals berth.
If John Wall never barreled into the floor of the Phillips Arena, who knows what could've happened? The Wizards would have had a date with LeBron's Cavs in the third round, which doesn't sound particularly appetizing, but remember, Kyrie Irving missed part of the original matchup against the Hawks with a knee injury. So there's a chance -- albeit, a small one -- that had John Wall never sprained his wrist on the play above, the Wizards would've been looking at an NBA Finals appearance.
With a core that was young and ready to develop, they were supposed to improve upon their postseason success. They looked as if the potential was present to eventually push for a title. Not to mention that with their constant improvement, they became a legitimate destination for Kevin Durant. After their 2014-15 campaign, the Wizards were truly on top of the world.
However, since their elimination from the 2015 Playoffs, the Wizards have been downright awful. Last season the Wiz missed out on the playoffs with a 41-41 record and played a lot worse than a quick glance at that number would suggest, as their 11-6 final stretch inflated their win-loss numbers. This season, a lot of NBA analysts (including myself...thanks a lot for making me look Dumb, Wiz) believed that with a new head coach that is slightly more competent than Randy Wittman -- which by the way could be literally any other human being -- at the helm in Scott Brooks, improved depth and internal improvement, the Wizards would be back to winning ways.
Although it's still incredibly early, the Wizards are proving that this train of thought was incorrect. Scott Brooks' squad is 5-9 and have looked lost on both sides of the basketball. They rank a sub-par 17th in offensive efficiency and a horrific 25th on defense, marks good enough for them to be outscored by 3.2 points per 100 possessions. The Wizards have improved as of late, winning three of their last four, but wins at home versus the Knicks and Suns, to go along with a victory on the road against the appalling Magic, aren't particularly impressive.
Much of their disappointing opening can be attributed to the lack of progression from their young guns. We are in the third year of hoping Bradley Beal will make the leap...and he still hasn't made the leap. Otto Porter has stepped up his game, but is still no more than a solid starter, when he really should be one of the league's budding stars, seeing as the Wizards drafted him third overall back in 2013. Kelly Oubre is fun, but hasn't inspired any confidence two seasons into his career. Hell, even John Wall, their bona fide star, still hasn't added a remotely consistent jump shot to tack on to his athletic drive-and-kick mastery, and is arguably the same player he was at the end of the 2015 season. Without internal development, it's going to be difficult for the Wizards to improve on their mediocre selves.
The rest of the blame can be shifted on to the questionable coaching of Brooks. Firing Randy Wittman was supposed to introduce more creativity and give the Wizards someone that actually knows how to coach a basketball team. To this point, the hiring of Scott Brooks has just brought more of the same to D.C., something the Wizards' front office should have seen coming after his time in OKC.
The offense is slightly more intricate and involves a tad more movement than in previous years, but in essence, it simplifies down to the same ol' boring, predictable John Wall pick-and-rolls, which for years have been the Wizards' entire source of offense. Many felt that by removing Wittman, John Wall's load would decrease and the offense would start to loosen up, but exactly the opposite effect has taken place. Wall's usage rate has jumped by 4.9% from last season, to 33.5% (the sixth highest in the league), a number that is 6.4% higher than that promising 2014-15 season. In addition, Wall is averaging the second most seconds per touch this season in the association, at 5.49, trailing only James Harden in this category. And on top of this, only Harden and Russell Westbrook have a higher percentage of their team's points created through assists. Wall creates 20.4 points through assists per game, while the Wizards as a team only generate 47, absolutely staggering numbers considering Wall only plays 33 minutes per night.
While building an offense around Wall seems logical, it has a terribly negative effect on the team's overall performance. Wall does quite literally everything for this team, nobody else creates offense for themselves and nothing effective can be conjured up without him, so much so that the Wiz are an absurd 7.1 points per 100 possessions better with Wall on the court.
Of course, as previously mentioned, both James Harden and Russell Westbrook are also heavily relied upon by their respective teams and the Rockets and Thunder both are above .500. The problem for D.C. is that a team based around Wall is far less dangerous than one with Harden or Russ. Teams around the league duck under ball-screens for Wall, daring him to lay bricks from the outside, walling (slow clap) off lanes to the basket, which can stop middle penetration and an offense based around a drive-and-dish star like Wall. Houston and OKC's stars don't have this problem, as their outside jumpers are dangerous enough that lanes to the rim open up on command. Simply put, an offense based around Wall in the same fashion that Billy Donovan and Mike D'Antoni have their teams set up will not work.
The easy fix to this is obvious: get the ball out of Wall's hands a tad more. While his jump shot-less game make him a strange off-ball candidate, by using him in more off-ball actions, specifically as a screener, he would become a fantastic decoy, using his gravity to create better quality looks for others.
Just juicing up their attack with some more motion in general, as well as introducing some more detailed, difficult-to-defend offensive sets surrounding Wall is also important for the Wizards going forward. Teams like the Hawks and Spurs make a living getting shooters open through creative offensive actions, something Bradley Beal will benefit from immensely. Just check out this play, to see what Beal should be doing on a regular basis:
This set starts off with Beal running a UCLA cut, before giving Markieff Morris a back-screen, which leaves Beal's defender (Brandon Knight) trailing him. This then develops into beautiful flex action (or screening the screener), which gets Beal attacking in rhythm as the pick-and-roll ball-handler, with Knight absolutely knackered due to the sheer amount of obstacles he's had to fight through. Beal misses the shot, but it's still a quality shot that has been generated. Unfortunately, Brooks has barely implemented this type of stuff into his dull offense.
Not only is the offense lacking in creativity, but it also is running at a lethargic pace. A team that has John Wall as their primary ball-handler should not be operating at the sixteenth fastest pace in the league. Wall needs to be flying up and down the court with speed, turning defenders inside out with his lightning quick moves and blowing by slower dudes before he assaults the rim.
Currently, the Wiz are probably just a tad too big in terms of sheer size in order to pull off a high speed system. But D.C. still have the tools to go small and wreak havoc on teams league-wide. As long as the Wizards start to give more minutes to Kelly Oubre, this will be possible, as Oubre and Porter could lineup up as the two forwards in a small-ball look. This wouldn't only up the ante on offense either, Scott Brooks' 25th ranked defense theoretically would improve too. By going small, the Wizards could switch more frequently, adding a new-found aggressive look to Brooks' conservative defensive system that has leaked points this season.
All that I have just mentioned will turn the Wizards into a better team. But, these changes, along with ones that aren't suggested by a random sports blogger from New Zealand won't make up for the fact that this Wizards team is kinda broken from a team-building standpoint. As of right now, they have more than $120 million invested into Bradley Beal, someone who is unproven and a guy who has only played more than 63 games in a season once. They've got $28 million per year wrapped up in centers who don't fit the changing landscape of the NBA. Scott Brooks has seemed pretty useless so far and he's locked up for the next 5 years on a $35 million contract, which makes it difficult to fire him. We don't even know if their two best players like each other (hint: they definitely don't). To put it bluntly, Ernie Grunfeld has done a horrible job managing this team.
It's all about to get worse this offseason too, when their third best player, Otto Porter, is a restricted free agent. In a league that is desperate for long, switchy wings, the other 29 teams will go gaga for Porter's current ability and potential. Wing-needy teams with max cap space like the Kings, Pelicans, Nets and Magic will dive deep into their wallets for Porter's services in the offseason, potentially all ready to give him a near-max deal in the current cap climate. Think I'm wrong? Just remember that Allen Crabbe got a 4 year, $75 million offer-sheet from the Nets last season. Otto is better than Crabbe and with another cap spike expected, Porter's yearly figure could match what Beal is earning.
Should this happen, the Wizards would have to match any offer-sheet, regardless of size. Losing one of their best assets for nothing is beyond stupid (so, probably right in Ernie Grunfeld's wheelhouse actually). But this would shoot the Wizards way over the cap (even accounting for another spike) and doesn't leave them any room for further improvement.
I've seen Wizards fans on Twitter and on forums claiming that they have cap flexibility, but the truth is they just don't. Beal, Ian Mahinmi, Marcin Gortat, Wall and Markieff Morris will earn a combined $77 million next season. Add on Porter's $20+ million and the Wizards are almost capped out with just six players. Of those players, only Beal, Wall and Morris's contracts are tradeable, but all of them are key pieces of the Wiz's core. Gortat and Mahinmi aren't vital going forward, but earn $12 and $16 million respectively next season, play a position that is not in any sort of demand, with extra years tacked on to both deals, making them unattractive to any other team -- like, approaching levels of unattractiveness that only Gortat's old mohawk knows of.
Extending Porter means that the Wiz will have their long-term roster locked in, with no real path to improvement outside of internal leaps from Beal and Porter. At most, this means the Wiz are a 5th-7th seed for the foreseeable future, if everything breaks right. Perfectly mediocre, with no way up. Is that really where the Wiz want to be? It's where the Dallas Mavericks have been for the past four years, and look how well that's worked out for them.
The only way the Wizards can avoid this is by dealing one of their two stars, ditching salary, acquiring a boatload of assets and setting their win-now timeline back a few years, where it should be when they have such a young core. Brooks is great at developing prospects, so it could be an ideal route.
In a potential trade, Beal wouldn't give the Wizards the massive return they need from a franchise shaking move like this. Wall, on the other hand, would. A dynamic point guard in the meat of his prime would be appealing for a number of teams. As Kevin O'Connor pointed out earlier this month, dealing Wall to a team like the Denver Nuggets would give the Wizards the assets they require. Denver have a number of excellent young pieces -- such as, Jamal Murray, Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic -- to go along with two first rounders (one from Memphis and their own) in the stacked 2017 draft class (the Wizards would already have a high draft pick due to them tanking in this scenario too) and a developing point guard who can take over from Wall in Emmanuel Mudiay. Plus, the Nuggets have enough cap room to absorb one of the Wizards' bad contracts that is eating at their cap room. A trade like this might be too hard to turn down.
In my opinion, the Magic, Celtics, Suns, Heat and Timberwolves are also teams that could use John Wall, that could compensate with enough assets in a trade.
This isn't a route that Wizards fans will like, but it is the path I would take if I were Ernie Grunfeld. Their young core needs to grow and shouldn't be stuck on the treadmill of mediocrity, without the necessary room to improve. They need to set their win-now timeline back a few years and get ready to build around Beal, Porter and the gazillion assets they could recover from losing Wall.
So are the Washington Wizards doomed? No.
Could they be doomed in the near future? Absolutely.
All stats are from NBA.com, ESPN, NBAwowy.com and Basketball-Reference. All stats are up to date, as of Thanksgiving.
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