By Adam Spinella
Look out for the Washington Wizards. Everybody’s favorite dark horse in the Eastern Conference is off to a hot start, led by superstar point guard John Wall, backcourt mate Bradley Beal and a green-lit Otto Porter. The trio leave the first two weeks of the season averaging a combined 60 points per game, forming their own Big Three of sorts in the Nation’s capital.
Cleveland and Boston certainly are the two favorites in the East, despite Cleveland’s early defensive woes and the Gordon Hayward injury. Yet, here are the Wizards, shooting the leather out of the ball from deep and winning without their starting 4-man, Markieff Morris. The young ball of energy that is Kelly Oubre Jr. has looked every bit of an NBA starter plugging the hole Morris leaves in the rotation. And, more than anything, these Wizards are fun.
On the court, their style is one that combines flash with grit. Washington has jumped down opponents throats with a torrid shooting pace that’s surely unsustainable, as John Wall slices through the lane and gets everyone on the floor easy looks. Marcin Gortat is still the best screener in the league, bulldozing space for Wall to destroy opposing defenses. A solid, league-average defense keeps the team away from any embarrassment and capable of hanging tough against any type of offensive system they face.
Off the court, these Wizards have a chip on their shoulders; one they probably put there themselves. Whether it was the black funeral game and chippy postseason series with the Celtics, the audacious statement that the Cavaliers are avoiding them in the East, or the recent tussle over the weekend with the league’s resident loose cannon in Draymond Green, Washington always seems to stir things up when playing the elite teams in the league – for better or worse.
The talk out of D.C. has even increased over the past week, with the team rushing to defend their head coach Scott Brooks after he was bumped by Nuggets center Nikola Jokic and falling into the gum-flapping trap set by LaVar Ball. They’re all weird moments, far outside the action between the painted lines with the ball in play. Each incident, coincidentally, increases the size of the target on their backs.
Good guys or bad guys, it doesn’t matter… the Wizards are extremely relevant guys. Fortunately, they can back up their talk on most nights. But until they find postseason success, most of their talk will seem cheap.
Before the optimism of what this team will look like once Chief ‘kieff returns to the lineup leads you to declare the Wizards the preeminent threat to Cleveland’s dynasty out East, we have to figure out if the Wizards have solved their biggest issue heading into the year: their bench. With such strong play from this group from the outset (thanks to Oubre in particular), we can’t even be certain Morris will find himself a starter once he gets back.
No group played more minutes together last season than the Wizards core starting five of Wall, Beal, Porter, Morris and Gortat. Together, they posted a positive Net Rating of 8.1 last season, the fourth-highest of any five-man lineup to play at least 300 minutes together. A lineup with that high of a volume together (467 more minutes together than any other five-man unit in the league) and that high of a rating is bound to be the nucleus behind a successful team. Five months ago, the thought of breaking up that group willingly was almost unfathomable.
But Oubre has been incredibly sturdy as a sophomore, turning things around from his wildly inconsistent rookie season. Averaging 12.7 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.4 steals, the length the former Kansas Jayhawk provides on the perimeter has frustrated some of the better players in the league. He thrived against the Warriors in a tense contest, unloading 19 points on 11 shots (including four threes) to go with eight rebounds, two steals and two blocks. He looked like he belonged on the court against the defending champs, and if that shooting is sustained into the winter months he’ll find himself there more frequently.
Scott Brooks, lauded for his player development acumen from his Oklahoma City days, helped maximize a team bloated with long-term deals and lacking quality youth in year one on the job. Coach’s acumen paid immediate dividends, as Otto Porter became a 43 percent three-point shooter and an elite-level 3-and-D wing the organization maxed out this July. Now it’s rubbing off on Oubre.
Offensively, the catalyst is John Wall. Still somehow one of the most underrated superstars in the league, Wall averaged nearly 24 and 11 last season while shooting a career-high 45 percent from the field. Those numbers would vault most into MVP discussion while anchoring a nearly 50-win team, but the NBA’s star-studded landscape makes the former top overall draft pick a forgotten man.
Ignore him no more. Wall is carrying the Wizards on both ends of the court with a well-rounded game and continues to be one of the best transition players in the NBA. The guy is utterly ridiculous in the open court, fast as a blur and taking on multiple defenders while making it look effortless. He doesn’t need a head-start either, he’ll just casually dribble up the court and then decide to turn on the jets to blast through defenders near the rim.
Watching NBA games on television doesn’t necessarily do justice to just how athletic these guys are, as it almost becomes the norm to see dudes make highlight-level plays on a nightly basis. Wall stands out amongst the rest due to his speed and the ferocity of his explosions. He’s one of the few guys who doesn’t need a ball screen to help him get to the rim – he just goes right by his defender and then contorts his body mid-air as to avoid contact. Watch him in person once and you’ll be sold.
Brooks has been willing to let Wall loose as a scorer in what may best be termed as the Russell Westbrook arsenal: isolations both face-up and back-to-the-basket with smaller point guards on them. He’s turning into just as much of a bully as the reigning MVP in those situations, physically bulldozing those unfortunate souls simply too stubborn to remove themselves from standing between Wall and the basket. When he’s not banging with those guys on the wings, he’s bating them into standing their ground on those physical back-downs. Any defender gearing up for a physical backdown plants their feet to keep a sturdy base. Since Wall is so adept at going from standstill to full-speed, those defenders who brace for the contact have virtually no chance to keep him in front.
Poor T.J. McConnell tried to take a charge and probably learned his lesson. Wall is simply a freak of nature that nobody can stay in front of and has a sturdy lock on being the best point guard in the East. The comparisons between Westbrook and Wall may not end with their freakish athleticism and usage under Brooks. Wall can go through stretches where he’s literally unguardable, has some ball-hawking instincts on the defensive end and has become unafraid of pulling from deep when he feels the green light.
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In all honesty, the Wizards probably need a player of that confidence if they are going to talk the way they have been. But what they need from Wall is for him to be himself, not trying to be Russell Westbrook. The two have similar profiles and athleticism, but the Wizards point god has the ability to create offense for others in ways Westbrook simply isn’t as crisp at. Washington needs him to take over games, but not look to score on every possession. The danger in Westbrook comparisons leads him too close to the latter.
While the head of the snake draws tons of attention from opponents, the rest of the starting unit benefits. Otto Porter gets wide-open corner threes. Gortat is gifted layups and dunks that have helped him shoot over 70 percent at the rim every season since joining the Wizards. Bradley Beal put up a career-high 23 points per game last season while ranking in the top 10 percent in the league in both transition efficiency (1.34 points per possession) and spot-up efficiency (1.188 points per possession), per Synergy Sports data. When defenders committed to Wall in the lane, Beal was a sniper – he shot 41.2 percent from three and 69.1 percent from two when wide open, according to his NBA.com stats page.
Beal is no slouch of a creator himself though, which is why he and Wall are equal scorers within a Washington offense likely to be a top 10 unit once again this year. The greatest share of Beal’s offense last season came out of the pick-and-roll, accounting for roughly a fifth of his attempts. Again, he was super efficient in these scenarios, finishing within the top 15 percent of the league in points per possession. The chemistry between he and Wall sharing these types of possessions flows together beautifully within the structure of Brooks’ offense. We’re now a far cry from the days of a lack of cohesion between the backcourt duo that many worried would plague this team only a year ago.
Any coach in the league would love to have Marcin Gortat on their team. The guy does all of the little things to help his teammates get an advantage. The Polish Hammer is one of best screeners in the league, leading the way early in the NBA’s screen assists metric after topping the league in the category last season.
Some of the best trickery he owns is fake-raising to set a ball screen, which gets Wall’s defender slowing and feeling for the contact. When it never arrives, Wall bursts full-steam ahead at the rim while Gortat again steamrolls anyone that might stand in his way. Watch how Lonzo Ball opens up when he senses screen in his peripheries: he’s constantly “unintentionally” entangling himself with defenders and clearing the lane for his guards to create. There’s an art to this type of tomfoolery that makes it look more like a cut than a screen:
Here he does that after getting Stephen Curry to bite and anticipate his assignment on the side ball screen:
Opposing guards loathe facing the Wizards, not just because of their star ball handler, but the bruiser that works so hard to get him open. He’s a legitimate fear-inspiring player.
Pick-and-roll offense has been an effective strategy for Washington, even though everyone knows it’s coming. It’s hard to believe, but Gortat is probably part of their best crunch-time option, playing the screen-and-roll with Wall. The two have amazing chemistry and always manage to get a paint touch whenever they interact in these picks. The Wizards can overuse it on occasion, especially down the stretch. Scott Brooks has never been lauded as wonderful X’s and O’s tactician, and you wonder if at some point relying on a two-man game late in close contests will catch up with them.
With Otto Porter coming out of the gates gunning this season, there’s plenty of firepower within this group to find innovative ways to score. The Wiz have slid Kelly Oubre (who leads the team in minutes played!) into their starting lineup with Morris out, and the switchy forward duo of Kelly and Otto has sped up games to help the Wizards play in the hundreds. Defensively, Oubre has shown great strides already in this early season, looking much more solid in the half-court instead of being a change-of-pace wing that uses his length to pressure opposing guards in the full-court. With those extra offensive possessions, Washington can do what they do best more frequently: get out and run.
Morris’ return will only help a team already humming early in the season. No team has struggled more with depth and a drop-off from their core group than the Wizards have over the past few seasons. They simply need Morris back if they intend on cashing the checks their mouths are writing.
Despite their starting group’s superb 8.1 net rating last season the team only registered a total overall rating of 1.6. This year hasn’t proven any better, with only one of their non-starters (Jason Smith) to have a positive plus-minus through six games despite Washington’s overall level of success. Whatever leads or strong play that core group can get are difficult to sustain and illustrate the organizational shortcomings for why the Wiz haven’t been able to capitalize to date on what is a weakened Eastern Conference.
Morris is a superb defender that can stretch the floor from three and score a little bit on the blocks. Despite all his veteran experience and strong play, there is something special with this Oubre-Porter-Gortat frontcourt that Washington has trotted out this October. Their switchy tendencies on defense help unleash Oubre, who loves to blitz ball handlers with mega-aggressive switches, and allows Porter to spend some time at the 4. Offensively, they run tons of sets around the elbows with an athletic shooter at the 4, flaring off Gortat after setting a ball screen and being able to punish the defense at the rim or from three:
Brooks at least has to think about how well the Wizards are playing with this lineup. Both of their four losses were games on the road played into the final possession or overtime. His team looks really, really good. At the risk of not overreacting to a small sample size it’s too brash to say Brooks absolutely has to keep this group of five together for the spacing they provide and anarchy they produce. If the evidence keeps piling up (and it was present even last season), Brooks may have his hands tied.
General manager Ernie Grunfeld has made a couple of small moves to improve the second unit, regardless of which member of the core six Brooks bumps to the bench. They restarted their backcourt reserves with sharpshooter Jodie Meeks (off to a hot start and gunning unabashedly from deep) and former Nittany Lion Tim Frazier. Somewhere, they continue to look for health and stability between two of their three backup bigs, and the carousel will likely continue to circle between the overpaid Ian Mahinmi, the decidedly mundane Jason Smith and the offensive-minded Mike Scott. Morris on the bench would certainly stabilize their frontcourt woes.
None of those backup guys on their own kill a team, but the accumulation of them all sharing the court for stretches doesn’t exactly scream excitement. Brooks is faced with a dilemma within coaching circles on teams that lack depth: Does he break up that stellar unit to spread out the team’s playmakers, or does he keep that proven group together and hope the reserves simply don’t bleed too profusely?
The emergence of Oubre and continued health for their first unit would help alleviate those grave concerns. Having an anchor on either offense or defense is absolutely vital for their bench though, and that might be a greater ask of Oubre than to feast off the creation of John Wall within the starting group.
With such an embattled second-unit for what seems like John Wall’s whole career, Grunfeld frequently comes under fire for the construction of the roster. Their hands were somewhat tied this summer though after Otto Porter far surpassed expectations and proved himself worthy of a max contract. The team had no choice but to match his demands, as letting him walk is far more costly than coughing up the dough. Still, the Wizards haven’t found a lot of young talent to ease their bench issues via the draft or otherwise, and at some point that catches up with an organization.
Extrapolating that over the next few seasons, it becomes hard to trust the front office will find a way to plug the existing holes on the bench. Selling first-round picks for short-term contracts to win-now is a dangerous business, and one that simply fuels the difficulties the Wizards have of finding a cure to their depth issues. They shipped a first to Brooklyn for a few-months rental of Bojan Bogdanovic. His replacement ends up being Jodie Meeks, while the Wizards lost out on a first-rounder in what can already be heralded as a draft filled with hidden gems. Being up against the tax will almost certainly take the Wiz out of the running for deals like this moving forward.
Panic over the Wizards long-term cap situation is overblown, though. Washington will almost certainly finish the year above the luxury tax line, but that’s an avoidable threshold next season, which would keep them away from the repeater tax. The 11 guys under contract for next season bring the Wizards to about $2.5 million above the luxury tax line but a crisp $3.5 million below the tax apron. Should the great Ian Mahinmi Comeback Project fall short this year, he’ll be a prime candidate to be waived via the stretch provision, taking the remaining guaranteed money on his contract and spreading it evenly across the next five seasons.
Stretching a contract as large as Mahinmi’s can hurt the club long-term, especially knowing that Wall will have close to $50 million in annual salary before they stop paying Mahinmi. But the immediate ramifications of dodging that luxury tax bill might be worthwhile: the cap hit for next season on Mahinmi changes from $16.3 million to $6.3 million, a dramatic reduction thanks to the front-loaded nature of his contract. Then Washington goes from $2.5 million above the tax to $7.5 below with a ten-man roster, provided Jodie Meeks and Jason Smith opt into their deals. There’s more financial flexibility for this team than a simple scan of the numbers might provide.
Grunfeld certainly won’t be able to address every single piece on their bench that needs upgrading. Most of their attention will go towards finding a backup point guard (Tim Frazier will be an unrestricted free agent) and, if they indeed part from Mahinmi, getting a backup center. Getting both on the cheap while moving the needle forward is a tall task.
But the core is still in tact, and some money will be available to work with in the future. Morris is close to getting back from surgery and could spark this Wizards team, no matter what his role is, to make an early push to lead the pack in the Eastern Conference.
There’s so much to like here in Washington – Porter and Oubre still have significant upside, Gortat is elite at setting illegal screens and doing the dirty work, and Wall and Beal deservedly bask in the glory they create. Any team needs more than five or six players to advance deep into the postseason though. Staring at the roster shows an incredibly top-heavy group, known for the brash and one or two injuries away from blending into the depressed Eastern Conference.
Yet, the Wizards will keep talking and clawing their way into respect on a national level. Let’s just hope they can keep their heads screwed on straight and away from the injury report so we can see just what this group’s apex really is.
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