John Wall scored 52 points against the mediocre Orlando Magic on Tuesday. The Wizards still lost.
Bradley Beal has played in 85 percent of the Wizards’ games, is averaging 21 points, and shooting hot percentages. Otto Porter has a real case for Most Improved Player, averaging 14-8 with almost two steals, while shooting absurdly hot percentages.
The Wizards are 7-13. They are nearly as close to the 76ers in the standings as they are to the No. 8 seed.
We’ve come to understand that a team’s fate rests largely on its three best players. You need stars to win in this league, and the quality of your top three “stars” dictates an outsized share of your overall quality.
Wall is a perennial All-Star and, in a world where there weren’t an inordinate number of legendary guards playing at the same time, he would also be an All-NBA contender. Beal has been crippled by odd injuries throughout his career, but that’s not been an issue this season. He’s played in 17 of the Wizards’ 20 games and done exactly what you expect: shoot the hell out of the ball. And Porter has finally put it all together. He cuts crisply on offense to get easy buckets (explaining the 54 percent shooting from the field), and he defends.
This trio might not be the core of a 55-win team. But 45? 41, even? The core is easily that good. Yet, the Wizards are on pace for a 29-win season.
What’s the problem here? It’s everything else about this team.
More specifically, it’s the offense outside those three guys that’s atrocious. The team defense is also bad, period. Porter has availed himself on defense, but Wall and Beal — traditionally excellent and good, respectively, on that end of the floor — have disappointed.
Markieff Morris is No. 3 on the Wizards in field goal attempts per game. He has an effective field goal percentage of .438. Per NBA.com, there are 101 players taking at least 10 FGAs per game this season. Only 10 have a lower eFG than Morris. This would be tenable if Morris were defending well, or playmaking. He’s not. His defense has been suspect, and he’s averaging more turnovers than assists.
Marcin Gortat has been completely Marcin Gortatesque — he’s not the problem. The defense is about five points per 100 possessions better when he’s on the court; he continues to take primarily open, close looks and rebound hard.
It’s what happens up front when Gortat sits that’s a problem. Ian Mahinmi, Washington’s biggest offseason splash (other than rookie Tomas Satoransky, who we will get to), has played one game. That’s left Andrew Nicholson and Jason Smith playing larger roles than you’d like. Were Mahinmi healthy, we might not see the total defensive drop off we do when Gortat, Porter, and Wall sit. But there would still be problems.
No Wizard other than Wall, Beal, and Porter can score effectively right now. Marcus Thornton is the leading scorer off the bench. He’s shooting 37 percent from the floor and offers absolutely nothing in terms of playmaking, defense, or leadership. Trey Burke, the nominal back-up point guard, is averaging as many assists as Thornton (1.3), which tells you all you need to know. Young Satoransky and Kelly Oubre aren’t ready to be consistent positive forces. And that’s it. That’s the roster.
The drop-off from Wall, Beal, Porter, and Gortat to the rest of the Wizards is as immense as any split in the league. Even adding in the middling Morris, the Wizards’ regular starting five has outscored opponents — usually other starters — by 65 points over 322 minutes. In the other 653 minutes in which at least one bench player is in the mix, the Wizards have been outscored by 120 points.
In other words, the Wizards’ starting five is +9.6 per 48 minutes, and when you mix in the bench, the Wizards are -8.8 per 48 minutes.
Here’s the rub: in the modern NBA, you’re keeping your best players to about 35 minutes per game. How do you showcase your starting five long enough to build leads while ensuring you can match your best players with those awful bench crews?
New coach Scott Brooks is almost forced to give Smith or Nicholson some run with Wall, Beal, and Porter just to ensure he doesn’t have too many minutes where Smith or Nicholson are out there with Burke, Thornton, or Oubre. He has to play Thornton and Satoransky with Wall and Gortat to reduce their minutes with Burke and Smith. Brooks can’t afford bench-heavy lineups, so he has to break up his good starting lineup. It’s quite a pickle.
The solution is obvious: Get a better bench. If Morris weren’t playing so poorly, Brooks might be able to bring him in as a reserve. At this point, that wouldn’t help because Morris is just as unproductive as Oubre. A healthy Mahinmi could help with the bench’s atrocious defensive performance, but the backcourt has no solution in sight. Who could have guessed the D.C. faithful would be wistful for Shelvin Mack and Garrett Temple?
The Wizards are bad because most of the roster is bad. Not even a healthy Bradley Beal and an awesome Otto Porter can patch that hole. Unless Satoransky, Burke and/or Oubre figures it out quick, it will take a trade to fix this. In the meantime, Washington slips further away from the playoffs.
The Grizzlies are 4-1 since losing Mike Conley to a back injury that should keep him out through at least MLK Day. Everyone cried that losing Conley would ruin the Grizzlies. And it might yet. But we’ve seen this production before whenever Memphis suffers an untimely injury. The sky threatens to fall and ... the Grizzlies survive.
It happened last year when Memphis made the playoffs despite injuries to Conley, Marc Gasol, and basically everyone else of note. The Grizzlies survived a late Conley injury the year prior, and have trucked on without Zach Randolph and Tony Allen at other points. This goes all the way back to the Rudy Gay era! It spans beyond head coaches, beyond dominant playing styles.
Memphis never gives up. Memphis finds a way.
You’re asking me if the Memphis Grizzlies will fall apart over the next 20 or 25 games? The Memphis Grizzlies have had 11 games that ended in overtime or with a margin of five or fewer points this season. The Memphis Grizzlies have won all of them. Hell no I’m not telling you the Memphis Grizzlies will fall apart. This is a brand of voodoo I’m staying the hell away from. I recommend you do the same.
Conduct Detrimental to Basketball
The Boston Celtics thought that Rajon Rondo was done two years ago. We probably should have listened. The Dallas Mavericks insisted that Rajon Rondo was done 18 months ago. We probably should have listened. Rajon Rondo proved he was done with the Sacramento Kings last year. The Chicago Bulls probably should have paid attention.
At this point, what numbers Rondo is putting up are completely propped up by the excellence of other Bulls. To wit, per NBA.com, lineups featuring Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade are +8.4 per 48 minutes when Rondo is out there with them. Lineups featuring Butler and Wade are +24 minutes per 48 minutes when Rondo is on the bench.
Locker rooms are delicate, and the Bulls’ might be especially so given Wade’s outsized role as a leader. But if Wade and Butler are cool with it, the Bulls might be better off just cutting Rondo loose and letting him dribble dribble dribble into retirement. Hell, he’ll probably have more fun exploring his interests in community work, philanthropy, and academia anyways.