The Wall-Beal-Porter Era couldn’t live up its own expectations

From the moment John WallBradley Beal, and Otto Porter were put together on the Wizards, there was an expectation the core could reach the Eastern Conference Finals. In 2017, they got within 15 minutes of reaching it. They were leading Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals with under 3 minutes left in the third quarter when everything fell apart. Washington’s bench crumbled, Kelly Olynyk caught fire, and the Wizards’ starters ran out of gas.

There were still reasons to be optimistic after that crushing loss. Wall and Beal had turned in their best seasons to date, and the front office made it clear that keeping the group together was a priority. The Wizards’ Big 3 was ready to carry the mantle as the most promising professional D.C. sports team and write their chapter in the D.C. sports history books. Little did we know the core would dissolve less than two years later having got no closer than they did on May 5, 2017.

Blame it on the injuries, a lack of leadership, missteps from the front office — the list goes on and on. But, rather than building on the momentum of Washington’s best season in 40 years, they took a major step back last season, followed by an even bigger step back this season. Things were so bad between the team’s underperformance and John Wall’s Achilles injury that the Wizards traded Otto Porter in a luxury-tax dodging move, just days after assuring him they’d keep him through the trade deadline.

With the Wall-Beal-Porter era now abruptly over, how will we look back at this five-year window once the dust settles? It’s tricky.

The Wizards burst onto the scene a year early. The upstart backcourt of Wall and Beal, together with proven veterans sprinkled in at key spots, slid into the 5-seed in 2014. After a surprising 4-1 series win over the heavily favored Chicago Bulls, they faced the top-seeded Indiana Pacers. Washington, a significant underdog was playing with house money. They already overachieved in winning a first-round series when many thought just making the playoffs would be a success. Their two victories against the Pacers were the cherry on top of a pleasantly surprising season.

The team’s bright future lured free agent Paul Pierce to D.C. on a one-year deal that summer. His arrival gave the team a legitimacy it had lacked. Their first-round sweep of the Raptors in 2015 followed with a back-and-forth series against the top-seeded Atlanta Hawks solidified the Wizards as a team that would be a factor in the Eastern Conference for years to come.

The NBA was on notice — Washington was a legitimate threat in the East. However, in the Wizards’ minds, they already viewed themselves as part of the club. They were confident things would have ended differently if John Wall didn’t break his wrist in that series, and the team spent the rest of the summer trying to tell everyone about it before they could prove it. It was the summer Wall and Beal talked about being the “best backcourt in the NBA.” The Wizards were no longer the overlooked underdogs, they were the team that had to go out and back up their boasting to the league.

With Paul Pierce gone, the Wizards brought in Jared Dudley to be a positive locker room presence even though Wall and Beal felt they were ready to lead. Inconsistencies, infighting, and injuries marred the 2015-16 season and provided a dose of reality for a team that thought it had arrived.

After changing their coaching staff, and overcoming a 2-8 start to the 2016-17 season, it looked like Washington was back on its way to reasserting itself as a legitimate Eastern Conference contender. They won 49 games, John Wall turned in an All-NBA season, and Bradley Beal had a legitimate case to make the All-Star game that year.

Even after the tough Game 7 loss to Boston, the Wizards looked like they were turning a corner. They let their play do the talking (for the most part) and played with an edge they lacked the season before. That is, until after Washington was bounced from the playoffs, when Bradley Beal said “Cleveland didn’t want to see us.”

Once again, the Wizards grew tired of being the underdog and went back to trying to prove they could be more than what they had shown — the underlying theme of the era.

The Wizards coasted through the 2017-18 season losing countless games to losing teams, only to come back with wins against some of the league’s best. It was a season filled with repetitive quotes like “We didn’t bring enough energy”, “We took this team for granted”, and “Guys were stat-hunting.” Washington ended up with the 8-seed and date with the Toronto Raptors. After losing the series 4-2, Markieff Morris said: “Sometimes the better teams don’t win.”

They still didn’t learn.

The 2018-19 campaign has been a season from hell. The exciting underdog team from 2014 is a distant memory, and the front office is in panic mode hoping that they can clean up past mistakes and salvage their future with Wall in a walking boot and Porter in a Bulls uniform. The team that once dreamed of going toe-to-toe with LeBron in the Eastern Conference Finals is now patting themselves on the back after two straight wins against lottery-bound teams to keep their flimsy playoff hopes alive.

This trio will go down as a core that collectively never fulfilled its potential. There are many reasons this big three never made it past the second round of the playoffs, including injuries. But ultimately, it was delusion from both the team and the front office that contributed most to Washington’s shortcomings. They convinced themselves they were close and didn‘t need to make major changes, when the reality is, they were much further away.

Back in 2013, things looked so bright for the future. But now, as the era ends, the only thing that seems clear is that there will be a murky path ahead for the next era of Wizards basketball.

Advertisements

Appreciating Bradley Beal’s underappreciated season

No one expected the Wizards’ season to go like this. Optimists thought this team was one puzzle piece away from catapulting themselves back into the top of the Eastern Conference. Pessimists thought even if things didn’t click, this team had too much talent and would be in playoff contention even if it was at a lower seed.

In a season that alternates between going off the rails and powering through the NBA’s best teams, the only consistent has been inconsistency. Even with all the turmoil in D.C. and uncertainty about if the Wizards will be sellers or buyers at the trade deadline, Bradley Beal is quietly turning in the best season of his career to date.

He got off to a slow start, like the rest of the team. He struggled on defense and only connected on 31.5 percent of this three-point attempts in November. It led to rumblings from the Wizards faithful about whether he had lost his shooting touch.

Things changed for Beal once the calendar flipped to December. As John Wall bounced in and out of the lineup, Beal‘s usage jumped from 23.9 percent to 28.6 percent. As his scoring increased, he also showed improvement as a facilitator, averaging nearly one full assist more in December than he did in November.

Beal has rounded out his game to where he’s a legitimate threat on all points of the court — and he’s showing it nightly. Beal has scored at least 20 points in all but two games since the start of December. He‘s had seven 30-point games and two 40-point games in that span. Defenses have zeroed in on Beal even more in the last eight games after Wall went down for good, but he has responded by averaging 27.8 points, 5.4 assists, and 4.6 rebounds per game while guiding Washington to a 5-3 record.

Brad is putting up the best numbers of his career and is logging a boatload of minutes, but his outstanding season is going unrecognized on a national level since the Wizards aren’t in the playoff hunt. As we know, the NBA All-Star Game is a popularity contest and that couldn’t be any more clear as guys like Dwyane WadeZach LaVineJeremy Lin, and Goran Dragic have more votes than Beal after the second round of the fan balloting.

As it stands, the Wizards are in the 11th spot in the Eastern Conference, two games behind the eighth seed. It’s anyone’s guess whether the front office will make another desperation trade for a playoff push, or if Washington will be sellers come the trade deadline. But through all the noise and chaos in a season that has felt more like four seasons, Bradley Beal is turning in the best year of his career and is making a case for why he’s the best shooting guard in the league.

It’s time to grasp how special this season has been for Beal as otherwise, it will probably go unnoticed amidst the rest of the chaos around surrounding the franchise.

Thomas Bryant is making the most of his opportunity

It’s not often that second round picks get an opportunity to play meaningful minutes. And after the Wizards signed Dwight Howard in free agency this past summer, it looked like Thomas Bryant, the 42nd overall pick in the 2017 draft was going to learn that lesson the hard way.

The Wizards acquired the 21-year-old prospect off waivers this summer after the Los Angeles Lakers decided that he wasn’t going to be part of their future plans. Bryant, who bounced back and forth from their G-League affiliate, the South Bay Lakers, posted very good numbers earning him All NBA G-League honors but he never saw any meaningful playing time with the varsity squad.

When the Wizards acquired Bryant this summer, the Wizards fanbase didn’t think, well, much of anything as Bryant was an unknown. This move became an even bigger question mark after the Wizards inked Howard as it was assumed he would be the starter and Ian Mahinmi would be the backup as he’d already received a vote of confidence from the front office. Not to mention, the Wizards don’t have the best track record when it comes to developing young prospects.

But when news came out in November that Dwight Howard would miss significant time due to injury and the Ian Mahinmi starting at center experiment was going about as one would have expected, the second year player got his opportunity to show that he belongs in the league — and boy as he seized the opportunity.

When watching Bryant play, it’s the intangibles, not the stats that immediately jump out at you. Bryant sprints the floor, moves his feet well defensively, and has a relentless motor.

It isn’t sexy nor does it fill up the stat sheet, but you’ll never have to ask Bryant to ramp up his energy on a given night — something that cant be said for most guys on this roster.

As Jake Whitacre pointed out, he’s done a nice job doing the dirty work that his predecessor, Marcin Gortat, did before him. He’s in the same ballpark as Gortat when it comes to screen assists, averaging 7.2 per 36 minutes and has shown that he’s more than capable of producing as the roll man in the pick-and-roll game.

Since being inserted into the starting lineup, Bryant has been averaging 13.8 points and 9.6 rebounds per 36 minutes — the only thing is, he’s averaging just 18.1 minutes of playing time per game. More often than not, Bryant’s time is limited to starting the game and starting the second half. On occasion, Brooks will insert Bryant to close out the first half but as of late, Brooks prefers to play small with Jeff Green and Markieff Morris as the frontline without a true center in the game.

Now, this isn’t to say that Bryant is the long-term solution at center for the Wizards. However, with Dwight Howard looking like he’s going to miss the most of the season and Ian Mahinmi being, well, Ian Mahinmi, why not give Bryant more and more minutes? Night after night, Scott Brooks gives the media an audio clip which some way or another, he begs for more energy from his guys saying that it’ll get rewarded with playing time. Meanwhile, it’s the guy in his starting lineup that he never has to plea to crank up the intensity who still hasn’t seen his minutes significantly increase yet.

Opportunity doesn’t come around often for most second-round picks. But due to injury, inefficiency, and a little bit of luck, Thomas Bryant got his and has shown that he should be in this team’s long-term plan regardless if it’s in a starting role or a rotation player coming off of the bench.

Scott Brooks’ lineup changes have provided a minor jolt for the Wizards

Change is hard. And oftentimes, most people are apprehensive to change unless things get really bad and reach the point where there’s no other option. Scott Brooks and the Washington Wizards are no different.

After Washington stumbled out of the gate to a 5-11 start to the season and on the heels of yet another embarrassing loss to Portland at home, there were no imminent signs that Scott Brooks planned on shaking up his starting lineup. That is, until the very next day when it was reported that just days prior, the Wizards had a very heated practice which included multiple verbal altercations with some of them directed at the coaching staff and front office.

Brooks was backed into a corner. There was no way he could trot out the same inefficient starting five once it became not-so-surprising public information that there was chaos swirling through the organization. So he did. Rather than plugging Ian Mahinmi in for a banged up Dwight Howard(because we know how that experiment went), starting on the November 20th contest against the Los Angeles Clippers, he opted to start second-year player Thomas Bryant in his place and also promoted Kelly Oubre Jr. to the starting lineup, sending Markieff Morris to the bench.

Save for a lifeless performance against the Pelicans, and their loss to the 76ers where they were missing Otto Porter, the lineup change injected a jolt into this team as they’ve gone 3-3 since the change and they’ve seen better production from the starters and the bench.

This change looks to have affected Markieff Morris. Night after night, time and time again, there have been too many instances this season where Morris looks like he doesn’t want to be out on the court. Whether it’s standing still as his man drives by him or being a spectator while his man either out-jumps or out-hustles him for a rebound – the fanbase and Brooks were sick of it.

Since being relegated to the bench, Morris has scored in double figures in five of the six games and has eclipsed the 15-point mark in four the of those six contests — something he did just three times over the first 16 games of the season. Not only is his shooting up over this stretch, but it’s also lit a fire under him on the glass. Morris has ripped down 7.7 rebounds per game over this five-game stretch, up from his season average of 5.2 per contest.

The irony in all of this is that Morris is getting essentially the same minutes that he was prior to the demotion, the only difference is, he’s coming off the pine. The bench can either be a major motivator or can break a guy, and in what has been somewhat of a pleasant surprise (save for Friday’s debacle against Philadelphia), it’s been the former for Morris.

Rather than going with the vanilla option and re-inserting Mahinmi back into the starting lineup, Brooks pulled somewhat of a surprising move in giving second-year player Thomas Bryant the nod. It looked like Bryant might not get much playing time this season but he has played well in his limited time with the starters and he’s likely going to get more minutes now that Dwight Howard is going to be sidelined for 2-3 months.

His 5.6 points and 4.1 rebounds per contest aren’t going to turn any heads but he does all of the intangibles that don’t show up in the box score. He has a relentless motor, is unafraid of banging down low and boxing out his guy, and most importantly; he runs the floor, hard.

The Wizards have talent on their roster, it’s just that everyone knows that the effort is going to be inconsistent at best from its main cast of players. That’s not the case for Bryant and is a much-welcomed sign. Bryant has just played between 12 and 19 minutes since being inserted into the starting lineup and if he continues keeps his energy up and engine revving, I’d be surprised if his minutes didn’t increase.

And what to make of Kelly Oubre? Rather than trying to lead the reserve unit, we’re instead getting the starting version of the Kelly Oubre experience. He’s still had the head-scratching performances but we’re also treated to his occasional one-game explosions like we saw in New Orleans the other night which continues to have fans thinking ‘what if?’ However, until proven otherwise, Oubre is a consistently inconsistent player. It’s just now, he’s getting more time with the starters.

Make no mistake about it, this lineup change and overall roster changes are long overdue. In the meantime, this seems to be an ok option to band-aid this problem before inevitable trades are made and new guys arrive. However, the bigger question still hovers over this team like a stormy cloud — will the franchise need to hit rock bottom again or have internal information become public knowledge before yet another change is made?

The solution to Scott Brooks’ bench lineups

Death, taxes, and all-bench lineups.

Ever since Scott Brooks took over at the helm as the Wizards’ head coach, it’s been clear that he prefers using a long bench, and playing them together to build cohesion. Whether it was sticking with 2016’s historically bad bench, the ‘not terrible but still not good’ reserve unit of 2017, or this year’s up-and-down reserves—he doesn’t deviate much from his pattern of subbing all of the starters to get a breather in the late first quarter and early second quarter.

We’re less than one-fifth of the way through the season, but many of the bench’s problematic issues have flared up, even though this was supposed to be Washington’s deepest team under Brooks’ watch. With streaky players like Jeff GreenAustin Rivers, and Kelly Oubre Jr. coming off the pine, there have been nights where one of them explodes and carries the team for a stretch, but there have been just as many nights where the bench squanders a lead before the starters can down a cup of water.

Brooks has made one tweak to the rotation that fans have been clamoring for years – bringing in Oubre as the first sub at the six-minute mark for Otto Porter and letting Porter start the second and fourth quarters with the reserves.

The Kelly Oubre experience is already in full effect. He has the tools to go off for a big game as he did against Blazers, Warriors, and Kings; but he still makes many of the same mistakes that haunted him during his rookie and sophomore seasons. A lot of that is on Oubre, but the coaching staff needs to take some of the blame here because they haven’t catered to his strengths by playing him alongside four other players with unclear roles.

Plugging him in with the starters off the bench does wonders for both parties. It allows Oubre to be the fourth or fifth option, where he gets less defensive attention and can take more advantage of his biggest strength, his athleticism. All he has to do alongside Wall is run the floor and bring energy. In return, Wall gets another person to run with in transition and someone who can lighten his load on the defensive end.

Otto Porter would also be a beneficiary should Brooks continue to go with this approach. Porter has been in and out of Brooks’ doghouse this season, but giving him the green light with the reserves could be a way for both sides to get what they want. Whether you’re in the ‘Otto isn’t aggressive enough’ group or on the ‘Wizards coaching staff doesn’t run enough plays for Porter’ side of the fence, here’s an opportunity to change both narratives as he’d be the focal point of that unit, not to mention, probably the best player on the floor at that time.

This has the makings of a win-win for both guys as Oubre would be put in a better position to succeed, and Porter could continue to be an outstanding third option while also having a shot to be an alpha for the bench unit.

We’ve seen Brooks coach up close and personal for two years full seasons and some change now and it’s clear that some habits die hard with him. There isn’t really a downside to utilizing this rotation more as this current iteration of the all-bench unit has had a rocky start to the year. And the upside? It might generate more confidence in two of the more up-and-down players on this roster, which would be a huge boost for the team.

Nothing will change for the Wizards until they kick their too-cool-for-school attitude

There was always that one kid in school. You know, the one who rarely completed any assignments, failed nearly every test, gave no input for group projects—but somehow managed to barely pass the class. Even though other students were getting A’s and B’s on their assignments, it was never this kid’s fault that he flunked the test. No. He had every excuse in the book: “I didn’t like the teacher’s teaching style”, “The teacher never provided me with enough information”, on and on. It never stopped. Same curriculum, same information, others were getting good grades, but this student was barely able to move onto the next grade because of course, none of the shortcomings were their fault.

This is what the Washington Wizards have become in a nutshell.

Back during the 2013-2014 season, the Wizards had a chip on their shoulder. They finished with the fifth-best record in the East and were expected to be easy fodder for the experienced Chicago Bulls in the playoffs. That chip on their shoulder morphed into a plank and they played through Chicago for a 4-1 series victory. But after getting knocked out by the Pacers in the second round, a funny thing happened. That chip on their shoulder shrunk down to a splinter as the players’ egos began to inflate.

The Wizards had a little swag to them for the first time in a long time. And who could blame them? But little did Bradley Beal know that during media day prior to the 2014-2015 season, he’d speak the words that would set the tone for this team’s mindset for the next four seasons when he said: “We’re definitely the best backcourt in the league.”

Steph Curry and Klay Thompson were catching their stride and Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan were laying the foundation for the tandem they’d ultimately turn into. But here were the Wizards, self-anointing themselves as the best backcourt in the NBA after winning just one playoff series.

Unfortunately for Washington, nothing has been able to hut that ego. If anything, it’s ballooned even more. Rather than let an otherwise meaningless quote get swept into a random corner of the internet, they doubled down. In 2015, Wall and Beal moved all their chips to the middle of the table and said they were ‘best backcourt because they play both ends.’ And if there was any doubt in anyone’s mind, they tripled down during the summer of 2017.

The faux confidence John Wall and Bradley Beal have exuded has spilled over to other members of the team. Look no further than Markieff Morris who stated: “Sometimes the better teams don’t win” after the Raptors knocked the Wizards out of the playoffs this spring in a series that wasn’t really in doubt.

Rather than riding the momentum of being just one game from the Eastern Conference Finals in 2017, the Wizards stalled out. They don’t own any hardware but unofficially lead the NBA in players-only meetings and the number of times they’ve referred to themselves as the best backcourt in the NBA. Unsurprisingly, that hasn’t translated to results and if the team’s mindset doesn’t change, it never will.

Organizationally, this isn’t Washington’s first rodeo either when it comes to dealing with irrationally confident players who shed the blame elsewhere. The Gilbert Arenas-led Wizards came out of nowhere to increase their win total by 20 and knock off the Chicago Bulls in 2005. But after winning that series, that iteration of the Wizards roster never won another playoff series. Off the court antics, injuries, and excuses started to pile up but the front office didn’t seem to mind as the team was relevant for the first time in a long time.

Since changes likely won’t come from up top to change the culture, it’s up to the team’s leader, John Wall, to set a new tone. Early in the season after a laundry list of losses to sub .500 teams like the SunsMavericksNets, and Lakers, John Wall said the Wizards players were stat-hunting. Unfortunately, his words did little to change what was happening.

There are mixed feelings about John Wall. Locally, fans love him, but he doesn’t seem to garner that attention on a national level. Throughout his career, he has been more of the lead by example type than the type who gets in a teammate’s face. But with the Wizards coming off of a very disappointing season, Washington has a chance to get that chip back on their shoulder—but it starts with Wall. The way he played through pain was inspiring, but it also allowed bad habits to spread as more players took plays off defensively, hunted for stats against bad teams, and got stagnant off the ball.

Things won’t be easier next year either as the Wizards will try to incorporate Dwight Howard into the locker room—a guy playing on his fourth team in four years. They’re also adding Austin Riverswho didn’t always have the best relationships with teammates in Los Angeles, as well as the consistently inconsistent Jeff Green.

The Wizards clearly thrive as hunters rather than being the hunted. So maybe an early exit from the playoffs last year will re-ignite a fire under this team. If not, we might find ourselves in a similar situation to last year listening to excuses that are well past their expiration date from a team falling short of expectations once again. You know, like the kid who flunked his test but at no fault of his own.

Jodie Meeks’ roller coaster season had more lows than highs

When Jodie Meeks signed with the Wizards last season, there was reason for cautious optimism. Here was a guy, plagued by injury over the past two seasons but capable of scoring in bunches – something the Wizards hadn’t had from a reserve in years. And even if he didn’t turn into a microwave scorer off the bench, many thought he’d still serve as a suitable backup to Bradley Beal.

He started the season hot, scoring in double figures in four of the Wizards first six games. Even though the sample size was minuscule at the time, it looked like the Wizards might have found their man. But even during that start, there were warning signs. He averaged 10 points per game, but it came on a nothing-to-get-excited-about 33 percent shooting while knocking down only 36 percent of his three-point attempts. He overcame his poor shooting early in the season by getting to the free throw line at an unusually high rate. He averaged 3.3 attempts per game even though he averaged less than 20 minutes per contest.

After his quick start in October, everything went downhill. His numbers dipped in nearly every statistical category and most didn’t recover for the rest of the season. He shot under 30 percent from 3-point range in December and January, not so great for someone the Wizards brought in to be a knockdown shooter. He averaged 4.9 and 3.7 points per game respectively over those two months and his shooting got so bad that he didn’t even get into several games, despite Washington’s lack of backcourt options.

With his role in Washington diminishing and the trade deadline around the corner, Meeks and his camp sought a trade. Unsurprisingly, there were no suitors.

A funny thing happened after it became clear he and the Wizards were stuck with each other for the rest of the season. His performance improved, and he put together his finest moment in a hotly contested game against the Celtics on national TV. He drilled a 3-pointer at the buzzer to force overtime, which helped the Wizards get a much-needed double-overtime win on the road.

Just when it looked like Meeks’ season was leveling out, things went south again on April 13. The NBA announced Meeks would be suspended 25 games for using a banned substance, just two days before the start of the playoffs. He missed the Wizards’ entire run and will still have to sit out the first 19 games of next season due to the suspension.

It’s hard to find much to be optimistic about when it comes to Meeks’ future. He’s coming off the worst season of his career and he turns 31 in August. On top of that, the Wizards drafted Troy Brown, a player who will likely cut into his playing time next season, even though he’s far less accomplished as a shooter.

As you’d expect, he’s already picked up his player option for next season, which means the Wizards will be on the hook for the prorated portion his $3.4 million salary after his suspension. There’s always a chance the Wizards find a way to unload him before next season, but whoever takes him back will surely be sending someone back with their own issues the Wizards will need to sort through.