Wizards

Slow-Start Wizards Starting to Figure Things Out?

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It is hard to characterize the Wizards’ 2-5 start to the season as anything other than a tremendous disappointment.

People were excited! Yes, of course they were heartbroken about parting ways with John Wall and rightfully so. He was the best player the organization has had since the late ‘70s Bullets. But Wall hadn’t logged an NBA minute in nearly two calendar years, and his laundry list of injuries presented too great a risk as the Wizards entered this critical mass of a season. With Bradley Beal’s future with the team still in doubt, anything short of a postseason berth this season will be considered a failure and likely push Beal out the door.

Enter Russell Westbrook.

A palpable energy shift takes place when someone with Westbrook’s magnetism walks into a locker room. He is a flawed star and criticized by many – you’ll hear people say he pads his stats, he shoots too poorly & too often or that his late game decision-making is suspect. But you will rarely hear anyone say he didn’t play hard, and you will struggle to find a teammate do anything but rave about playing alongside him.

The value of having a guy like Westbrook to lead this group alongside Beal, and set an example of how to carry yourself in practice, prepare, play hard, etc. cannot be understated. At the beginning of Wizards’ training camp, 13 of the players in attendance had three years playing experience or less. With the exception of Beal and Davis Bertans (and now Westbrook), much of the Wizards’ core rotation is still very young:

  • Deni Avdija (20)
  • Isaac Bonga, Troy Brown Jr. (21)
  • Rui Hachimura (22)
  • Thomas Bryant, Jerome Robinson Moe Wagner (23)

Work ethic and accountability have lacked in Washington for nearly two decades now. It’s a residual stain of the Ernie Grunfeld regime that current GM Tommy Sheppard has worked hard to remove. When Westbrook showed up on day one of Wizards practice two hours early so he could set the tone, it was a welcome change of pace and sign of leadership for the culture that Sheppard aims to build.

Putting the Slow Start In Context

Fast forward to today where the Wizards are 2-5 after crawling to 0-5 out of the gate.

It is easy to look at their record and conclude that they are too similar to last year’s group. They still remain one of the league’s worst defensive units. They still struggle to close out games. And through the first three games of the season, they gave up a combined 122 points in the fourth quarter. No team is going to find success if they are routinely allowing opponents to put up 40 points in the final 12 minutes of the game.

Opening night against Philadelphia, they lost by just six points to an Eastern Conference contender while Hachimura sat, Bertans was under a minutes-restriction, and they integrated four new rotation pieces (Westbrook, Avdija, Raul Neto & Robin Lopez). Sixers center Joel Embiid was dominant in the fourth quarter, but he’s a top 10 player in the league. That is going to happen more often than not, especially against the Wizards who still do not have a bona fide rim protector on the roster. It was a sign of progress for the Wizards to even be in that game.

What ensued over the next four games however, was nothing short of embarrassing. While the Wizards do hope and expect to make the playoffs, conservative predictions have them finishing anywhere from 6th to 10th in the East. Losing twice each to Orlando and Chicago —  teams that will be hovering around the Wizards in the standings come April — will come back to haunt them. Especially when you consider how winnable those games were; all four losses were by 10 points or less and decided by a failure to get timely stops in the fourth quarter.

There are plenty of places to point the finger for those first five games. Lack of rim protection (Bryant & Lopez), turnovers (Westbrook), poor shooting (Beal & Bertans both struggled), but no issue has been more glaring than Scott Brooks’ rotations. Brooks has had this issue throughout his coaching career, dating back to his inability to stagger Westbrook and Kevin Durant in OKC.

In the first Orlando game, Neto scored 11 points in the second quarter on 4/4 from the field, including 3/3 from deep. But Brooks didn’t play him at all in the second half, on a night that the team’s best shooter in Bertans was still on limited minutes.

When they played the Magic again the next night, Isaac Bonga was +20 through three quarters, but didn’t see the court in the fourth quarter. Instead, fans watched Magic guard Markelle Fultz bully Neto over and over again as the Wizards blew a 17-point lead. Not playing your best perimeter defender in those final minutes, especially with Westbrook out for rest, Avdija in foul trouble and Rui yet to return, is indefensible.

Against Chicago, Brooks continued to deploy the three-point-guard lineup, supplemented by Brown Jr. and Lopez. This lineup may as well have been scientifically engineered to impede everything fans love about Westbrook’s game. He thrives in the open court, at getting to the basket and foul line, and when surrounded by shooters.

But that lineup has maybe one shooter in Neto, two other ballhandlers in Smith & Brown Jr., and a big in Lopez that rarely leaves the paint. When fans look at the box score and wonder why Westbrook isn’t attacking the rim as much as usual, this lineup is the main reason why. It is also asking for foul trouble by having Neto, Westbrook and Brown Jr. defend up a position.

You do not need an apprenticeship from James Naismith to recognize that these rotation decisions are flawed.

But things are looking up in 2021. They have truly embraced the “new year, new me” adage. They dominated the KAT-less Timberwolves in a must-win game Friday night. On Sunday, they pulled off a major upset against Brooklyn thanks to a dominant overall performance and game winning basket by Thomas Bryant (21 points, 14 rebounds, 9/12 FG). A win against the sliding Nets (lost four of last five games) is a huge momentum boost for a team clawing its way back to .500.

The Wizards will have a chance to even the season series with the Sixers on Wednesday when they travel to Philly. We’ll see if they can keep the win streak alive against a now 6-1 Sixers team looking pretty comfortable at the top of the Eastern Conference.

Cheat Sheet: What Jumps Off Screen So Far

  • Avdija checks all the boxes for a rookie. He has shown an easy feel for the game, always seeming to make the right play. One pleasant surprise is that has also quickly emerged as the team’s most complete defender getting meaningful minutes. Defense was the biggest knock against him on draft night. Would like to see him get more time with the bench unit so he can facilitate more – good things happen when he does.

  • Brown Jr. appears to be the player in the lineup suffering most from Westbrook & Avdija joining the team. He thrives with the ball in his hands and saw minutes at point guard in the Orlando bubble, but has since been reduced to a 3&D wing and that isn’t his game. His path resembles what Tomas Satoransky went through before getting traded. That is not a good sign, and it makes matters worse if his DNP vs. Brooklyn is a sign of things to come.
  • Neto was a bargain-bin find by Sheppard. After being benched in the first game against Orlando — despite putting up 11 points early — he started the following night while Westbrook rested. He put up 22 points, five rebounds, four assists and three steals while shooting 48% from deep on the year.
  • Hachimura looks even more polished despite missing the first four games, and he clearly put on weight. He was nearly unstoppable in the post against Minnesota and Brooklyn. He and Avdija are great building blocks if Beal does demand a trade.
  • If Neto, Smith & Westbrook never share the court again, Brooks might get fans to put down their pitchforks. Nothing good has happened so far when these three share the court. This lineup was successful in a brief spurt during the preseason against Detroit. It has failed miserably in every regular season game since.
  • Robinson started the year poorly and struggled to find his footing in the rotation. He bounced back with a strong showing against Minnesota (13 points, three rebounds, three assists in 22 minutes). That effort was rewarded with 12 minutes against Brooklyn on a night when the rotation thinned; neither Bonga nor Brown Jr. saw the floor. He played strong defense and found ways to impact the game even though his shot wasn’t falling. Will be interesting to see how this plays out, since the Wizards declined his fourth-year option last week.

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About Danny Fanaroff

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