Nothing will change until the Wizards get fed up with just being okay

The Washington Post’s Candace Buckner first broke the news early Thursday morning that the Washington Wizards extended Ernie Grunfeld’s contract for another year in what was a hush-hush deal kept quiet from everyone outside of the organization.

Ben Standig of The Sports Capitol confirmed this report and also added that: “The deal was done before the calendar flipped to 2018.” The timing of the extension is extremely suspicious considering that the Wizards spent most of December hovering around .500 before going on a mini-run to end the month. But are we surprised that Grunfeld was extended for yet another year? He’s the only executive in the league who’s been in his current position for over 15 years who hasn’t won a championship or even made a conference finals appearance during his tenure.

Ted Leonsis declined to comment on Grunfeld’s reported extension, but his decision to stick with the current front office sends a crystal clear message that he’s satisfied with the current direction of the team.

Ever since he bought a majority stake in the team back in 2010 from the Pollin family, he’s talked about the importance of consistency and stability. Now he’s doubling down on that strategy. Though the Wizards might not make the same knee-jerk reactions that plague some other teams, they often wait far too long to make changes. For instance, Randy Wittman could have been let go in 2014 when it became clear he wasn’t going to maximize the offensive potential of his roster, but instead, they chose to wait until they missed the postseason altogether in 2016 before making a change.

The Wizards seem to be stuck in another rut now. They’re set to be in the playoff hunt for the foreseeable future, but they have the fifth-largest payroll in the NBA and they will be paying millions of dollars in luxury tax payments for a team that finished just four games over .500 for the season. With their core locked in on max deals and with John Wall’s supermax deal set to kick in starting in next summer, the Wizards are well on their way to paying repeater tax penalties in the future for a core that has failed to finish better than fourth in the Eastern Conference.

This raises an eyebrow as one would think ownership would be more eager to make big changes to get more out of how much they’ve invested in the team. It’s even more confusing when you consider the Wizards reportedly lost money last season despite putting together their best season in recent memory.

Even if you want to dispute the accounting on the Wizards’ profitability last season, there’s no question the Wizards are in a good position to make money moving forward. Their new local television deal with NBC Washington is now in effect, they’re starting to get new money from the lucrative naming rights deal they signed with Capital One last summer, and they’re one of only ten teams that has yet to sign a jersey sponsorship deal. With all of this new money pouring in, they don’t need to put together a better team to make money. The only thing that will push the Wizards to be better is a desire to get off the treadmill of mediocrity.

While it’s clear the Wizards won’t make changes in the front office this summer, there are still ways they can make positive changes if winning a championship is truly their “first and only priority.” All they have to do is look at what the team that knocked them out of the playoffs did to get out of their rut. Yes, the Raptors are currently down 2-0 in the Eastern Conference Semifinals but they followed the right blueprint on how to change the culture and get the most out of what they have. That’s more than what the Wizards can say right now.

Raptors General Manager Masai Ujiri (along with the fans and the rest of the front office) were fed up with their team’s annual early exits from the playoffs. But rather than chop up their All-Star backcourt in hopes of receiving a return package of greater or equal value, they went a different route. They put together a clear vision on how to get the most of their roster, got their stars to buy in, and it paved the way for a franchise-record 59 win season.

They also got there because player development is something they take seriously, not just something they talk about. They’ve poured money into resources that don’t show up on the salary cap like coaching, scouting, and their successful G-League affiliate, which helped develop some of their key bench players like Fred VanVleetPascal Siakam, and Jakob Poeltl. They maintained their focus on the draft and built a team stockpiled with cheap, young talent. The Raptors only have five players on the roster that make at least $3 million dollars annually. Washington has nine.

The window of opportunity in the NBA doesn’t stay open for long and feels all but shut for Washington with this iteration of the team unless they can make some serious changes. Until the Wizards get sick of tired of just being ‘relevant’ while running on the treadmill of mediocrity and make the necessary changes to get off of it, we shouldn’t expect much to change on the court.

Advertisements

The Wizards’ series against the Raptors is an opportunity to restore hope for this season and the future

With just 17 seconds remaining and the Wizards up 72-69, Andre Miller went to the line with a chance to ice the ballgame. He missed both free throws but Nene was there to tap the loose ball out to Bradley Beal and draw another foul. The second-year player calmly knocked down both free throws – closing out the series against the Chicago Bulls who were nearly unanimously picked to beat the Wizards in the 2014 Eastern Conference opening round of the playoffs.

The baby Wizards, a team led by a 24-year-old John Wall and 21-year-old Bradley Beal bounced the Chicago Bulls, a veteran playoff team that had made the playoffs six years in a row. The series win brought joy to a franchise desperate to move on from the Gilbert Arenas era, but the hope about the team’s bright future far surpassed the satisfaction of the win itself.

Washington’s surprise win put everyone on notice that the Wizards were a team to be reckoned with in the Eastern Conference. The window of opportunity had opened and the rest of the conference was put on notice they’d be around for years to come. They even captured the attention of Paul Pierce, who opted to sign with the Wizards for a season to mentor the young backcourt and try to guide the franchise past the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

Yet, in the four years that have passed since the Wizards’ breakthrough win over the Bulls, they’ve done little to take advantage of their window of opportunity. The core of John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Otto Porter still haven’t advanced past the second round.

After putting together their best campaign since 1978 last season, Washington has fallen on tough times this time around. They’re entering the playoffs as the eighth seed, and need to go through the 59-win Raptors and most likely the Cavaliers to break through and advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Despite it all, they have a golden opportunity to right all of their wrongs from a disappointing regular season and make a run at that elusive, Eastern Conference Finals appearance. Their first round matchup against the Toronto Raptors will not be easy, however, the Wizards have shown that they can compete with the team up north. They split the season series with Toronto 2-2; playing all four games without John Wall. Facing the Cavaliers won’t be easy either, but with the way the Cavaliers have struggled defensively, and the drama that has surrounded the team this season, anything is possible. The Eastern Conference is as wide open as it’s been since LeBron James left Miami.

If the Wizards can’t get it done, they have a get out of jail free card for this season—John Wall missed 41 games this year and will likely be less than 100 percent for these playoffs—but that doesn’t change the reality that this might be their last chance to keep their window of opportunity open.

As the Wizards have struggled to improve, other contenders in the East continue to get better. Say what you want about the Raptors’ playoff shortcomings, they’ve found ways to improve around their talented backcourt. The Celtics lost Gordon Hayward minutes into the season and Kyrie Irving missed 22 games with injuries. Yet, they were still able to rattle off a 55-win season. The 76ers are currently riding a 16-game winning streak and already have a 50-plus win season to their credit. The Bucks have arguably the best player in the conference besides LeBron James and an attractive coaching position to fill this summer. The Pacers put together a 48-win season in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year.

Looking past this season, things don’t seem any brighter for the Wizards barring a complete overhaul. They’re already in the luxury tax, so they won’t have the means to make a splash in free agency this summer. Much like last summer, they’ll have to sign guys at minimum to mid-level deals and hope they can bolster a bench unit which has struggled to support Washington’s key players.

They’ll probably rate as the sixth or seventh best roster in the East on paper. The core of John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Otto Porter isn’t old, but it isn’t young either. Almost every other contender’s core is younger, save for the Raptors, Celtics, and the Cavaliers, who have already solidified themselves as more legitimate contenders than Washington in the present.

Things don’t get any better in 2019. Marcin Gortat and Markieff Morris’ contracts come off the books, but that’s also when John Wall’s supermax extension kicks in and Kelly Oubre will be eligible for restricted free agency.

Everything seemed so clear four years ago when the Wizards’ young core took down the Bulls. Their window to contend was open and it looked like it would stay that way for next 8-10 years. This year’s wide-open race in the East might be the Wizards’ last chance to prop that window back open before it’s too late.

Ramon Sessions and Tim Frazier are different versions of the same problem for the Wizards’ bench

Ramon Sessions recently supplanted Tim Frazier in the rotation as the team’s backup point guard in what we can only imagine is a move to bridge the backup point guard gap until John Wall returns from injury. The thing is, in his limited time during his second stint in Washington, Sessions hasn’t proved that he’s the better option over Frazier.

Sessions’ M-O, dating back to his first go-round with Washington, is that he’s an attack-first point guard. He’s not the best shooter (he’s only shooting 34.3 percent from the field in Washington) but has a knack for keeping the defense off-balance in transition and can slice his way to the hole. He averages 8.5 free-throw attempts per 100 possessions – the best rate on the team – but that’s where the buck stops.

The ten-year veteran is the furthest thing from a lockdown defender. The Wizards have been outscored in six of the seven games when Sessions has been on the floor. The lone exception came in Wednesday’s game against the Spurs when the Wizards went on a late run during garbage time. He also doesn’t do much to get other players on the floor involved as he’s averaging just 8.9 assists per 100 possessions and can be a bit of a ball-stopper at times.

Washington’s front office knows what Sessions brings to the table, as well as what his shortcomings are, yet still opted to sign him off the street when they have already had a player capable of producing similar results in Tim Frazier.

No, Frazier isn’t much of a scoring threat – but the ball doesn’t stick when he is in the ball game. He knows his role is to trigger offensive sets and set guys up when he’s running the second unit. He’s averaging nearly three more assists per 100 possessions than Sessions and does it while posting a significantly lower usage rate.

And defensively for these guys? Well, it’s probably better that we not dive into those numbers for everyone’s sake.

While Sessions and Frazier have different styles, their overall impact on the team is virtually the same, which again begs the question of why the Wizards signed Sessions in the first place. They filled an open roster spot with a player they already have – and who isn’t very effective.

Were the Wizards likely to find a playoff rotation guy on the street or buyout market? No. However, tying up a roster spot with a fourth point guard who isn’t going to see the court come playoff time isn’t ideal either unless their plan with Sessions was solely to just bridge the backup point guard gap while Wall is out.

Guys like Joe Johnson, Ersan Ilyasova, and Marco Belinelli were available on the buyout market, but you never even heard whispers that they might end up in Washington. Perhaps none of them were interested in a role in Washington and certainly, none of those guys would have been the saviors for this squad but they would have added depth at positions where Washington is razor thin. Just look at what happened when Jodie Meeks missed Wednesday’s game with the flu. The team had to play Sessions and Frazier together, despite their shooting flaws, to give Beal and Satoransky some rest.

From a production standpoint, this Sessions acquisition doesn’t make sense. From a personnel standpoint, this acquisition doesn’t make sense. But for the Washington faithful, we can only hope that the return of a healthy John Wall will make the Ramon Sessions vs. Tim Frazier debate a moot point.

The Wizards have no room for error as they face one of the NBA’s toughest remaining schedules

The Wizards entered the All-Star break with a 33-24 record, good enough for the fourth best record in the Eastern Conference. And if you said ahead of the season that John Wall would miss 20 games (and counting) to go along with some locker room drama, I think all fans would have been OK with this outcome 23 of the way through the season. But, now that All-Star Weekend has come and gone, the Wizards must regroup, and quickly, as they are about to enter one of the most daunting stretches of the season.

On January 30th, when the news broke that John Wall would have to undergo yet another knee procedure, many wondered how the Wizards were going to right the ship and stay afloat in the Eastern Conference race without him. Washington was able to go 7-2 over that nine-game stretch with impressive wins over the Oklahoma City Thunder and Toronto Raptors.

The unfortunate news for Washington is, all of the teams trailing them in the 5-9 seeds (aside from the Miami Heat), also played very well in the leadup to All-Star Weekend boasting at least a 6-4 record over the previous 10 games. And with only 3.5 games separating the 4-seed and 8-seeds, there’s not a lot of room for error for the Wizards as there is bound to be plenty of shuffling in the standings down the stretch.

The scheduling fairies did the Wizards no favors as they have one of the toughest remaining schedules in the NBA. The Wizards must pick up where they left off and quickly as they take on the new-look Cleveland Cavaliers in Cleveland this Thursday in their first game after the break. Washington will then embark on their version of a hell week as they take on Philadelphia, play at Milwaukee, Golden State, Toronto, and Indiana; all in just an eight-day span. And as if playing the Warriors wasn’t already hard enough, Washington will take on the defending champs in the second half of a back-to-back after playing in Milwaukee the night before.

And remember how the ‘Too Cool for School Wizards’ had trouble knocking off sub .500 teams early in the season? Well, that could come back to haunt them as only seven of their remaining 25 games are against teams with sub .500 records including the Charlotte Hornets twice, a team that Washington has struggled with this season. To make matters worse, the Wizards only have four games left (New York, at Chicago, Atlanta, at Orlando) against likely participants in the 2018-Tank-A-Palooza.

Washington better bring their A-game as only the Indiana Pacers have a tougher remaining schedule than the Wizards for teams seeded 4-9. The Milwaukee Bucks have a slightly easier remaining schedule than the Wizards, however, it’s the Miami Heat and Philadelphia 76ersthat have the easiest and second easiest schedules respectively in the league over the final third of the season. In fact, the 76ers, who’re currently just two games behind the Wizards, have such a favorable schedule that ESPN’s 538 predicts that they’ll catch Washington as both teams are projected to finish with 46 wins.

Yes, the Wizards’ recent 7-2 run without John Wall has been impressive. But outside of the Oklahoma City and Toronto wins, four of those wins came against lottery-bound teams (including overcoming a 27-point deficit against the lowly Knicks) as well as knocking off an Indiana Pacers team missing two of its top players.

With John Wall expected to be out until mid-March, everyone needs to continue to eat for the Wizards to play at a high level and finish the season strong. The path to the Eastern Conference Finals will get that much harder should Washington struggle down the stretch and slip into the sixth, seventh, or even the eighth seed.

Even with his recent success, Mike Scott is better suited coming off the Wizards bench

Mike Scott is rolling right now. He has a mind-boggling true shooting percentage of 72.2 percent through the month of December and is shooting 73.6 percent (on 53-72 shots) from the field since the Wizards played the Blazers on December 5th.

Scott’s hot streak, coupled with Markieff Morris struggling to catch his stride, begs the question; should Mike Scott be starting over Markieff Morris?

Morris looks like a shell of the guy who averaged 14 points and 6.5 rebounds and was key to Washington turning their season around last year. He’s averaging just 23.1 minutes per game, the fewest since his sophomore season. And you never know what you’re going to get from Morris on any given night as he can explode for 23 points and seven rebounds like he did against Detroit earlier this month, or put up a clunker of a game and get benched for the entire fourth quarter like he did against the Clippers and Nets last week.

Even though the 20+ point outbursts from Morris seem more like an anomaly than the norm this season, Washington is better suited keeping him as the starter.

Scott is providing a jolt of caffeine for the Wizards off the bench, but this buzz won’t last forever. It would be nearly impossible for him to keep his shooting percentages this high all season. In fact, no one has ever been able to shoot over 40 percent from deep (on at least two threes per game) and shoot over 66 percent on twos over the course of a season. He’s bound to fall off at some point.

Plus, if he were promoted to the starting lineup, he would go from being the first or second scoring option, where he looks most comfortable, to the fourth scoring option with the starters. He’d find the ball in his hands less and it would be that much harder for him to put up these gaudy numbers against better opposition and with fewer touches to find his rhythm.

If we assume for a second that Morris’ shooting will gradually increase over the course of the season as he finds his form while Scott’s will gradually decrease, it gets harder to find areas where Scott is an upgrade. Other than a marginal uptick in rebounding which would likely go down playing more against starters, Scott posts worse numbers than Morris in every other area. Morris gets more steals, more blocks, and can guard more positions defensively, plus he averages more assists.

Numbers aside, let’s not forget about the locker room tension this could potentially produce too. For the most part, Morris has kept his cool this season. But, how would he react to a demotion to the bench? Would that light a fire under him to play better, or would that potentially cause friction for a team barely keeping its head over .500?

The important thing to keep in mind here is Scott is receiving more minutes than Morris so far this month, and is on the floor when it counts, in the fourth quarter. As long as the Wizards are riding Scott’s hot hand in crunch time, I don’t think it matters all that much who starts the first and second halves.

There’s no need to tweak anything right now. The reserves are clicking, led by Scott’s stellar play. So for now, let’s just enjoy how he’s been one of the main reasons why a reserve unit with a dull preseason outlook has exceeded everyone’s expectations so far this year.

Ranking who needs to step up the most in John Wall’s absence

News surfaced this weekend that after receiving injections to reduce swelling in his knee, John Wall would be sidelined for two weeks. Unfortunately for Washington, these small nicks and bruises often tend to linger longer than the initial diagnosis. The Wizards have already had a bumpy start to the season and with a tough schedule looming, there couldn’t have been a more inopportune time for the injury bug to rear its ugly head.

Here’s a ranking of the Wizards who need to step up if Washington is going to come out of this stretch with minimal wounds.

1. Scott Brooks

As mentioned by Ben Mehic, the honeymoon is over for Brooks. And if he wants to recreate an optimistic buzz around this team and its fanbase, here’s his chance.

Many thought Brooks was a not-so-creative inside the box hiring during the Summer of 2016. We’re only at the quarter pole of the season but his rotations still make you scratch your head, sometimes doesn’t make in-game adjustments fast enough, the team easily loses focus, and it looks like it may have spread to the rest of the coaching staff.

If Wall truly only misses two weeks of play, that means he’ll miss games against Portland (Loss), at Minnesota (Win), at Philadelphia, Detroit, and another early season west coast road trip at Utah, Portland, Phoenix, and the Los Angeles Clippers. On paper, that looks like a 3-5 or a 2-6 stretch.

Hopefully, Brooks will be able to push the right buttons like he did in Tuesday’s win, going with some unusual lineups down the stretch that got the job done.

2. Bradley Beal

Bradley Beal has been the best player for the Wizards so far this season and if Washington is going right the ship while Wall is out, they are going to need Beal to continue playing like an All-Star. Bradley Beal is averaging 24.7 points in games where Wall has been sidelined this year while knocking down 46.4 percent of his shots in those contests.

The sharp-shooter, who adds a little more to his offensive arsenal every year, is currently posting a usage of 28.7 percent, putting him in the 96th percentile of the league, per cleaningtheglass.com. With John Wall out, and Beal finding the ball more in his hands more often, there’s no reason to think that that number will drop.

Scott Brooks has toyed with Beal being the primary ball handler on the court. Although it’s a very small sample size, it doesn’t feel (nor look) natural when Beal is bringing the ball up the floor to trigger the offense. However, he’s excelled as the secondary handler, specifically, when running the pick-and-roll with Gortat or the rapport they’ve built in the two-man game.

With Wall out, Beal will not be lacking scoring opportunities and will be able to showcase his ability to be ‘the guy’ for this team. It’s not so much that he needs to step up, but rather, continue playing at an All-Star level for the Wizards to stay afloat during this stretch.

3. Otto Porter

Like Beal, Porter is putting up the best numbers of his career and has a huge opportunity to showcase to the national media that he was worthy of that big deal this offseason and maybe, just maybe, work his way into All-Star talks.

Even though Porter is posting career-highs in points, rebounds, steals, two-point shooting percentage, and three-point shooting percentage (let me catch my breath), his usage rate is just 16.1 percent; putting him in just the 53rd percentile in the league. That’s unacceptable for a player as efficient as Porter.

Scott Brooks is often criticized for running next to no plays for Porter but if the Wizards don’t want to fall behind in the surprisingly improved Eastern Conference, that has to change. Specifically, Porter has to be more assertive and aggressive when his number is called. The only criticism of Porter so far this year is that he still sometimes disappears during games. That can’t happen for one of the Wizards’ most efficient players.

As one of the best and most efficient players on this team, it’s time for Porter to start being a bit more selfish and take matters into his own hands, as we saw late in Tuesday’s win over the Timberwolves.

4. Tim Frazier

Frazier has been fairly underwhelming through the first quarter of the season. However, with the increased playing time about to come his way, he can change all that.

So far, Frazier seems content in trying to get others involved but is very reluctant to shoot the ball. Frazier is averaging just 7.5 points per 36 minutes on a putrid 38.2 percent shooting.

Should Frazier start jacking up shots to make the defense respect him more? Not at all. However, he does need to look for his shot just a little bit more as teams are lagging off, begging him to shoot. On a positive, Frazier is shooting a career-high 92.3 percent from the foul line. The only issue is, he doesn’t get there that often evidenced by his 0.7 attempts per game or 1.4 attempts per 36 minutes.

If Frazier could watch the tape on Ramon Sessions while he was here in Washington, and mimic his aggressiveness, that would pay dividends for the backup point guard. He’s very solid at setting his teammates up, he now just has to take advantage of these extended minutes to make himself more of a threat and open up things for his teammates.

It’s not going to be easy to replace the All-Star production of John Wall, however, if the Wizards are going to stay competitive during this tough upcoming stretch, it all comes back to these guys stepping up.

Now healthy, Ian Mahinmi still struggling to provide value for Wizards

Washington announced Tuesday afternoon that they will not pick up the fourth year option on Chris McCullough’s rookie deal. The move means only two of the ten players Washington acquired during the summer of 2016 or during the following season are guaranteed to be under contract in Washington for 2018-19. Yet, for all the misses Washington made on players last year, the biggest whiff may still be on the roster: Ian Mahinmi.

After an injury-plagued first season with Washington, this was supposed to be the year he would get his feet back under him and maybe, just maybe, challenge an aging Marcin Gortat for the starting center position. Unfortunately, he’s struggled out of the gate to start the 2017-2018 campaign.

Mahinmi was supposed to be the defensive anchor for the second unit, but he’s been anything but so far. The seven-footer has only turned away just three shots so far in 94 minutes of action this season. What’s also troubling is that he’s become a foul machine, averaging 7.3 personal fouls per 36 minutes. And although the sample size is minuscule, the Wizards’ defensive rating jumps from 100.5 to 109.8 when he’s on the floor, even though he’s mostly playing against reserves.

Not only has he failed to become the defensive anchor Washington hoped he would be, but his offensive game isn’t helping either. Since he gets next to no offensive plays run for him, it’s almost as if he feels that he has to shoot every time he touches the ball because there is no guarantee that he’ll see the ball again. Often this ends with Mahinmi trying to score out of the post; which hasn’t gone well this season.

On the season, he’s just 11-23 from the field (47.8 percent), he’s only attempted 6 free throws, and has more turnovers (7) than assists (5).

With Markieff Morris set to return soon, things could get more challenging for Mahinmi. Scott Brooks recently said that Morris will get some run at the center position when he returns, which will likely cut into Mahinmi’s minutes. That, coupled with Jason Smith being freer to play more at the 5 with Morris back, could put a serious squeeze on Mahinmi’s playing time.

On paper, his numbers don’t look terrible, however, you have to squint really hard to find a defensive stat that bodes in the big man’s favor. That’s not good for a guy who was brought specifically for his defensive prowess. As traditional centers like Mahinmi disappear from the NBA with each passing day, the Wizards’ front office could be facing a difficult decision with what to do about their fourth-highest paid player sooner rather than later.