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.

Mike Scott bet on himself this season and is about to reap the rewards

Just one year ago, Mike Scott was contemplating his place in the NBA. He only played in 18 games during the 2016-17 season as he spent most of that year trying to recover from knee and ankle injuries. Couple that with an off the court incident, many thought the end of Scott’s NBA career would be arriving sooner rather than later.

Most shrugged their collective shoulders after the Wizards signed Scott to a one-year deal for the veteran’s minimum. The bar was set so low that any production he could provide would have been an added bonus for one of the league’s worst benches.

Boy were we in for a surprise. Not only did Scott exceed expectations, he turned in arguably the best season of his career while also proving to be the most consistent player off the Wizards’ bench. He averaged 8.8 points on a career-best 52.7 percent shooting while knocking down 40.5 percent of his three-point attempts, also a career-best.

With Markieff Morris injured to start the season and Jason Smith, who was filling in for Morris also getting dinged up, Scott would get his opportunity earlier than he probably expected. Even as Washington stumbled out of the gate to start the season, Scott surprised most by scoring in double figures in four straight games off the bench against the WarriorsKingsSuns, and Cavaliers.

With Smith out, Scott solidified his role at the backup power forward position and turned in an incredible December. He averaged 11.7 points per game on an unthinkable, 61.5 percent shooting. Scott quickly became the first player off the Wizards’ bench and created an instant spark as he rarely missed his first shot of the game.

His absurd production that month was unsustainable though. His numbers didn’t nosedive, but while everyone was eating in February, Scott’s numbers took a hit. He shot a pedestrian 43.2 percent from the field and 29.2 percent from three-point range. Scott’s minutes dipped as well during that time as Scott Brooks went small more often with Otto Porter at the four.

Scott was able to pick up his play once again as he caught his stride towards the end of the season. His improved play carried over into the playoffs as he was the team’s second-best player through the first two games of the postseason. He made 14 of his 20 shots from the field through the first two games including four of his five 3-point attempts. He was a big part of why Washington was able to stay within striking distance to steal one of the first two games on the road against the Toronto Raptors.

Scott bet on himself and now he’s going to cash out. Last year, Patrick Patterson and Ersan Ilyasova fetched over $5 million per year after putting up similar numbers at a similar age, so Scott should be in line for a nice raise this summer. The bad news for the Wizards is, it would take some serious salary cap gymnastics to keep Scott around at that price. Even if Scott gets a little bit less than that in this year’s tight market, the Wizards would need to use a big chunk of their taxpayer mid-level exception to keep him, which would limit them to offering minimum contracts to everyone else to fill out the roster.

A crystal ball would be much more valuable than last year’s game film in determining whether or not it’s worth keeping Scott at the expense of pursuing other free agents worth more than the minimum. If they pay him based on a fluke year, they’ll be making the same mistake they made with Martell Webster. But if they let him walk, they’ll be in the same position they were last season, betting on their ability to find a productive player willing to bet on themselves for a year.

Bradley Beal took another step forward in spite of new challenges

In February 2017, Kevin Love was sidelined with a knee injury which forced him to miss the All-Star game that season. Bradley Beal, on the heels of signing a five-year $127 million dollar deal and turning in his best season to date, seemed like the obvious choice to replace Love. However, Commissioner Adam Silver went with established veteran Carmelo Anthony as Love’s replacement, forcing Beal to wait yet another year for his first All-Star game appearance.

The extra year was worth the wait as Beal undoubtedly earned his spot this season. He averaged 22.6 points per game on 46 percent shooting while playing in all 82 games for the first time in his career.

It was clear from the start of the season that Beal was on a mission to take his game to the next level. In the first week of November, Beal averaged 38 points per game over a three-game stretch against the SunsCavaliers, and Raptors. A little over a month later and with John Wall sidelined, Beal exploded for a career-high 51 points against the Portland Trail Blazers.

On January 25th, Beal and the Wizards hit a fork in the road. News broke that Wall would miss 6-8 weeks for minor knee surgery after a 121-112 loss in Oklahoma City. It looked like the season could spiral out of control and quickly but after back-to-back home wins against the Thunder and Raptors at home, Washington stabilized and Bradley Beal delivered the ‘Everybody Eats’ soundbite that encapsulated their approach to surviving Wall’s absence.

Even though the ball was spread around, Beal was spearheading the Wizards’ attack, as Washington went 8-4 in February to stay among the top five teams in the East. He became the team’s de facto backup point guard behind Tomas Satoransky and showed off how much work he had put into diversifying his game as he averaged 6.7 assists during the month of February.

Beal’s improved ability to drive and finish in traffic forced defenders to send extra help and create easy opportunities for his teammates.

He also got significantly better at making quick decisions off the curl. His ability to read the floor opened up easier scoring opportunities for everyone. In the clip below against the Celtics, he reads the Celtics’ defense before they can make the switch and delivers the ball to Ian Mahinmi rolling to the hole for the easy dunk.

His passing wasn’t the only part of his game that took a big step forward – his ability to create his own shot did too. 52 percent of his made field goals were unassisted, up from 40 percent last season. He became much more adept at driving and finishing through traffic and improved his step-back jumper, something he’ll need to continue to refine if he wants to be in the discussion with elite scorers like James Harden and Stephen Curry.

But just like the Wizards, his production dipped once the ‘Everyone Eats’ honeymoon ended. He averaged 20 points and 5 assists per game over the last two months of the season, however, he exerted a ton of energy to do so. He was often forced to play upwards of 40 minutes per night and against sub .500 teams like the Hawks, Knicks, and a very shorthanded Celtics team.

The heavy mileage he racked up took a toll on him after the All-Star Break. His numbers slipped across the board and as he slid, so did the team. Washington stumbled into the playoffs losing 11 of their final 16 games, even as Beal maintained a heavy workload. The tumble culminated with a 13-point performance in the Wizards’ loss to the Magic in the regular season finale.

It looked like that the fatigue carried over into the playoffs. Beal was nearly invisible in the first two games of the playoffs before he caught a second wind. Over the final four games, he averaged 27.8 points per game while shooting 47.5 percent from the field and going 18-of-34 from deep.

When you’re the third overall pick, the pressure and expectation to perform right away is enormous. Beal did not ascend to this All-Star level right away but rather, made improvements to his game every year for six straight years. He’s proven that he can shoulder the load of the team and his nagging injury problems appear to be in the rearview mirror.

In the summer of 2016, it looked like a very risky deal giving an injury-plagued player a max deal. But over the past two years, Beal has been more than deserving of that contract and is one of the few free agents in the 2016 class whose production mirrors their paycheck.

The arrow is still ascending up for the sixth-year shooting guard who will turn just 25 this summer. And with all the chatter surrounding the Wizards and if they should make a trade or chop up their core; it’s really hard to imagine a scenario where Beal isn’t in Washington for the foreseeable future.

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.

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.