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NBA AM: What’s Wrong With the Wizards?

The Wizards have been a big disappointment. Can they salvage their season and still contend in the East?

Alex Kennedy

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New York Knicks rookie Kristaps Porzingis talks about the team’s recent play, what he’s learned in his first month in the NBA, how he’s handling the ups and downs of the season, head coach Derek Fisher’s trust in him and more.

What’s Wrong With the Wizards?

One of the biggest surprises early in the 2015-16 NBA season has been the poor play of the Washington Wizards. Entering the campaign, Washington was expected to be one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference and a legitimate threat to the star-studded Cleveland Cavaliers. The Wizards have the talent and nearly advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals last year before John Wall sustained five non-displaced fractures in his left hand and wrist. Even with Wall banged up, the Wizards put up an impressive fight against the Atlanta Hawks, but ultimately lost the Conference Semifinals series in six games.JohnWallInside_2

Instead of picking up where they left off, Washington has gotten off to a very slow start this season and is struggling on on offense and defense. Last year, the Wizards had the NBA’s fifth-ranked defense and 19th-ranked offense. This season, they’ve regressed significantly on both ends of the court, ranking 18th in defense (allowing 102 points per 100 possessions) and 25th in offense (scoring 97.9 points per 100 possessions).

The team seems to be lacking an identity, as they’re no longer a top defensive unit and the offense isn’t producing. Entering this season, head coach Randy Wittman tried to instill a new offense that would increase the team’s pace and emphasize spacing. However, the changes haven’t resulted in wins and the numbers show that Washington now has one of the league’s worst offenses. The team is struggling to score the ball and this, coupled with their surprisingly poor defense, has led to plenty of losses.

The Wizards are now 7-9 on the season, which puts them in 12th place in the Eastern Conference. They have dropped five of their last six games, including an embarrassing loss to the woeful Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday night.

Washington clearly isn’t living up to expectations, as this was supposed to be the season that they emerged as one of the East’s elite teams. Rather than looking like a legitimate contender, they currently find themselves outside of the East’s playoff picture, sitting below teams like the New York Knicks, Detroit Pistons, Charlotte Hornets and Orlando Magic – all of whom missed the postseason last year.

Two months ago, I asked Wall what the Wizards needed to do this season in order for this campaign to be considered a success. His response indicated that it was time for Washington to contend for a title.

“A good year is 50-plus wins, getting home-court advantage in the playoffs and definitely making the Eastern Conference Finals to give ourselves a shot at the Finals,” Wall told Basketball Insiders in October. “Anything goes from there – it’s just a matter of whoever can win four games first.”

During that same interview, Wall said that the Wizards’ “main focus is still on being a defensive-minded team and rebounding the ball because that’s what we pride ourselves on; that’s our team’s identity.” Given that Washington is ranked 18th in the NBA in defense and 26th in the NBA in rebounding (averaging 42 boards per game), it’s clear that this season hasn’t gone as Wall and company planned.

Now, it’s obviously still early. No team should be written off after one month of play, especially one as talented as Washington. Remember, they’ve only played 16 games. The NBA season is a grind and teams often turn things around and climb up the standings. With that said, it’s clear that Washington needs to make some big changes and start playing to their full potential if they want to meet their lofty goals.

One change that Wittman recently made was simplifying the team’s defense. After the Wizards were blown out three games in a row by the Boston Celtics, Atlanta Hawks and Oklahoma City Thunder in mid-November, Wittman made the defensive adjustment. Washington responded by winning three straight games. While it obviously hasn’t solved all of the team’s problems, the players seem to prefer the simplified defense.

“I think we just simplified what we wanted to do with our defense and kind of made it easy,” Wall said. “It makes it easy for the bigs, it makes it easy for the guards.

“I think just because we changed our defense, it simplified everything for everybody. We don’t have to worry about if we are going to ice, black, switch. We just simplified everything and if you miss the call, you know whether it was either the big’s fault or the guard’s fault. I think it’s easier for our team and gets us back to defending the right way.”

Washington still has a lot of problems that need to be solved. Wittman isn’t satisfied with how his team has played at the start of games, calling his team’s early play “lackadaisical.”

“It doesn’t matter who you are playing in this league, if you get down 20 [points], it is very seldom that you come back and win,” Wittman said. “The percentage of that happening is not very high.”

Starting strong and playing with a sense of urgency in the first quarter is important for the Wizards going forward.

Also, Wittman wants to see Bradley Beal be more aggressive and stop thinking so much on the court. Beal has been Washington’s leading scorer this season, averaging 19.5 points on 45.1 percent shooting from the field, but Wittman wants to see Beal shooting the ball more.

“I just think – I don’t know – maybe he’s thinking too much; he’s got to pull the trigger, be more aggressive,” Wittman said of Beal. “I think there are opportunities there. I tell the guys, a lot of our turnovers [come when] we turn down opportunities to shoot. We’ve worked it around and then turn [a shot] down and force a drive or something and turn the ball over. You know, I’ve been in the league 32, 33, 34 years – it’s been so long, I don’t know. But usually, you’ve got to tell a guy to stop shooting rather than shoot [more]. He’s got to just not think. He’s thinking probably a little too much right now.”

Wall and Beal have shown that they can be one of the toughest backcourts to match up against when they’re being aggressive and playing well on both ends. The Wizards will only go as far as their star guards take them, so both players need to carry the team.

Wittman thinks that Washington’s offensive numbers will improve once the team starts shooting the ball better. He believes the team is in a slump that will eventually com to an end, and he’s encouraging his players to just keep shooting with confidence. He’s repeatedly telling his team not to turn down shots, and he feels it’s only a matter of time until the squad’s shots start falling. On the season, the Wizards are shooting 43.2 percent from the field (21st in the NBA) and 34.2 percent from three (17th in the NBA).

“We have to keep fighting and working until we get through this [and start] making shots,” Wittman said. “I mean, you guys hear me say it all the time, it’s a make-miss league. Right now, we’re struggling to put the ball in the basket. … We just have to keep fighting and we have to believe in ourselves. We have to shoot the ball, and believe you’re going to make it.”

After Wednesday’s loss to the Lakers, who entered the game 2-15 and on a seven-game losing streak, the Wizards’ players were understandably frustrated.

“There is no way that we should be down 18, 20 points to a team that has 15 losses,” Garrett Temple said after the loss.

“We have to be more focused,” Marcin Gortat added. “We have to continue to play hard and learn from our mistakes. We need 48 minutes of effort.”

Unfortunately for the Wizards, they have a tough schedule ahead of them. In December, they’ll face the Phoenix Suns, Dallas Mavericks, Miami HEAT (away), Houston Rockets, New Orleans Pelicans (away), Dallas Mavericks (away), Memphis Grizzlies (away), San Antonio Spurs (away), Charlotte Hornets, Memphis Grizzlies, Los Angeles Clippers and Toronto Raptors (away).

It’ll be tough to right the ship with so many contests against playoff teams coming up. But Washington is a very talented team, so it’s possible they can fix some of their issues and get back to playing at a high level. We’ve seen that this team can compete with just about any team in the NBA when they’re playing to their full potential, they just need to get out of this rut.

However, they need to turn things around relatively quickly because they don’t want to dig themselves a hole that they can’t climb out of, especially in the much improved Eastern Conference. There are currently 10 teams with a winning record in the East, so the conference isn’t nearly as wide open as it had been in recent years.

It remains to be seen if the Wizards can right the ship (or if Wittman will keep his job if the group continues to struggle), but this is certainly a team to keep an eye on as they try to salvage their season.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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Results-Based Mental Performance: Plan B

Jake Rauchbach breaks down how players can improve their on-court games with off-court tools during this hiatus

Jake Rauchbach

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For players looking to remain sharp, getting in on-court work right now can prove to be a challenge. Considering the social distancing and lockdown currently in effect, players and teams alike may be forced to look outside the box to employ other sorts of ways to maintain an edge.

Integrated player development tools that touch upon the deeper level of the mind could provide the answer.

With limited skill development time, mental tools that aim to maintain and refine player’s instincts, habits and routines could hold the key to producing improvement during this on-court hiatus.

In this column, we are going to highlight four different ways to train the mind (And Game) to remain sharp.

Visualization

Science has shown that there is a direct connection between thoughts, emotions and the body. This means when players are relegated to primarily off-court activities, there could be no better way to train, than visualization.

Players that I have worked with in the past who have employed visualization, have often produced mirror-like on-court results.

For instance, during my time at Temple University, there was a player who pictured himself stealing the ball in the full court and then going down to dunk the ball. Before visualizing this, he had not completed this play during the game. After doing so, he began to repeatedly complete this play during the games. This is just one example, of how powerful visualization can be, and there are many more. This type of phenomenon has become the new normal for the community of MindRight Pro community players. What we are finding, is there is a direct connection between internal picturing and external outcomes.

This is one of the reasons why, visualization is such a beneficial tool to use, especially when players are not able to get-in adequate court-time. At this point, making this apart of the player’s daily routine should be a no brainer.

Affirmations

Affirmations have long been used as a way to affirm mindset. For players, whose seasons have abruptly come to an end, and where on-court time has been limited, training mindset to stay sharp is VITAL.

Consistent use of affirmations helps players hone their very own personal mission statement. If players can stay on a mission now, they can perceivably do so through any future experience.

Regular check-ins help to keep players on a mission, and headed in the right direction.

Breath Work

Leveraging breath as a way to increase awareness and performance is a pillar of virtually every type of self-help and high-performance modality.

Being aware of one’s breath is very powerful. Breathwork has also long been used as a vehicle to bring people into the present moment. The present moment is where high-performance lives. For players, there may be nothing more important for their game than this.

This is a big-time opportunity for athletes to train on-court performance via present moment awareness. We are talking about training breath as a proxy for improvement.

Ultimately, on-court performance all boils down to present moment awareness. Without a strong handle on this aspect of consciousness, players will hold themselves back from the best version of themselves. For players, training this aspect now could reap big-time rewards when basketball resumes.

Meditation

Of course, we can provide this list without talking about meditation. Meditation is like the anchor for all other mind-based methods. With the increasing number of options for meditation, players should have no problem finding resources in this regard.

This being said, there are a ton of different types of meditation. It does not matter which one a player chooses, the most important thing is that he/she is consistent.

Consistency moves the dial, and that is super important right now. Players who consistently train the mind during their time off the court; Give themselves an edge once they’re cleared to be back on the court in the full.

Check out Jake Rauchbach’s High-Performance Mindfulness podcast here.

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NBA Daily: The Hot Seat – Western Conference

Matt John takes a look at head coaches and general managers in the Western Conference whose jobs might be on the line.

Matt John

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Back on Monday, Basketball Insiders took a look at which personnel from the Eastern Conference could be in danger of losing their jobs. In case you missed it, check it out here.

Previously, we discussed the notion that there’s always one guy you’d never suspect to lose his job to get hit by the Hot Seat – Kenny Atkinson’s mutual parting a few weeks back was just that.

Before we dive into the jobs on the line in the Western Conference, there’s something else that must be pointed out about the Hot Seat. It’s true that when it comes to job performance in the NBA, most of what determines your fate stems from the question: “What have you done for me lately?”

Joe Dumars’ time as the general manager of the Detroit Pistons is a good example of this. Outside of infamously drafting Darko Milicic over Carmelo Anthony in 2003, Dumars had a near-perfect track record after taking over from 2000 to 2006. Following the departure of franchise icon Grant Hill, Dumars did the following:

– Acquire Ben Wallace in a sign-and-trade with Orlando for Hill. Wallace then went on to become one of the best rim protectors of his era and all-time
– Brought in Chauncey Billups on a cheap deal just before Billups became Mr. Big Shot
– Traded Jerry Stackhouse for Richard Hamilton, who became a perfect complement next to Billups in the frontcourt
– Drafted Mehmet Okur, Tayshaun Prince, Amir Johnson and Jason Maxiell, all productive players that were taken after the lottery
– Replaced Rick Carlisle with Larry Brown
– Basically stole Rasheed Wallace mid-season

Naturally, this created a great era of basketball for Detroit. They won a championship, went to two consecutive finals, and went to six consecutive conference finals from 2003-08. Not many can say they were able to win a championship after losing a superstar and failing to draft one when they had the chance, but Dumars can.

But then came the fall of 2008: That bred the awful Billups-for-Iverson deal. Paying top dollar for the ill-fated Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva contracts. Putting together a frontcourt of Josh Smith, Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe. If Dumars didn’t have an incredible run earlier as general manager, how long would he have lasted after putting the team in mediocrity?

Given the massive amount of franchise success to his name, he kept his job long after things nosedived for Detroit. It’s that same sort of success that guarantees leaders like Gregg Popovich and Rick Carlisle will keep their job for as long as they want, even if they are sitting at home when the playoffs start.

The following people are on the hot seat not because they haven’t necessarily experienced success with their team — but because they haven’t had enough to keep their job should they fail in the situation they find themselves in now.

“Figure It Out… And Quickly Now”

Mike D’Antoni — Houston Rockets

D’Antoni has a lot of success both with the Rockets and as an NBA head coach in general. So much so that if he retired right here and now, he’d make a case for the best coach to never win a championship. Even so, the pressure on him to get Houston over the hump is stronger than it’s ever been.

Obviously, going to the small-ball lineup is something D’Antoni has no issue deploying. In fact, he embraces that gameplan. But even this may be too tall of a task for him. In the past, he used perimeter guys to soak up minutes at the power forward and center spots, but he usually had at least one pure big in his rotation. Now he doesn’t.

With Robert Covington and Clint Capela out, the Rockets don’t have any rotation players taller than 6-foot-8. In fact, the only one who’s actually measured at that height is Jeff Green, who was not only cut from Utah mid-season but spent most of the year riding the pine before Houston inquired about his services. Can you really call it small-ball if you have no bigs to begin with?

D’Antoni wouldn’t be here if this experiment was definitively working — they’re in the mix, but certainly not full-on contenders at this moment. For a while there, it looked like it was. Houston won seven of its first eight games, coming with notable wins coming against the Lakers, Boston (twice) and Utah. They then followed it up with a four-game losing streak with losses at the hands of New York, Charlotte and Orlando.

A record of 8-5 honestly isn’t too bad with such a drastic mid-season change, in retrospect. Russell Westbrook was playing some of the best basketball of his career, while James Harden was a little more off than usual. Still, the mixed results were scary given what the Rockets have ahead of them if the playoffs eventually come.

If Houston doesn’t get to the championship round or, at the very least, go further than they did last season, D’Antoni might get the lion’s share of the blame. Either way, D’Antoni’s contract extension talks with owner Tilman Fertitta didn’t go… smoothly either. As bad as that all may sound, with his reputation, he wouldn’t have much trouble finding another job.

“We Cannot Lose Another Franchise Player… We Just Can’t”

Ryan Saunders/Scott Layden – Minnesota Timberwolves

First, some props are due for both Saunders and Layden. In Layden’s case, he should get the credit for stealing Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez away from the Denver Nuggets. Then as a follow-up, he acquired D’Angelo Russell to appease Karl-Anthony Towns and give him the best scoring guard he’s ever had.

For Saunders, he’s integrated them pretty well mid-season. Beasley and Hernangomez are both playing excellent basketball right now for the Timberwolves. Russell is doing his usual thing. Appearances, finally, are on the rise for the talented squad.

Has that changed Minnesota’s fortunes one bit? Nope! Since the Timberwolves made their mid-season roster shakeup, they’ve gone 3-10, which puts them at 19-45, good for second-worst and only ahead of the injury-decimated Golden State Warriors.

It’s numbers like those that make the Wolves’ promising start back in October feel like an eternity ago. It wouldn’t matter if the season resumed or not, the Timberwolves weren’t making the playoffs. Worse, Towns was not happy with the team’s lack of success for most of the season. What Minnesota has to ask themselves is how long will he be willing to put up with such a lack of progress.

Bringing Russell aboard was the smart, obvious, and let’s face it, inevitable move. Pairing your franchise player with his friend has brought his spirits up, but the continued losing might not indefinitely postpone these feelings forever.

The real pressure on Layden and Saunders doesn’t come from only how the Timberwolves do, but how they fare against their competition next year. Excluding the conference’s top seven, their younger competitors — New Orleans, Memphis, Sacramento, Phoenix — are further along in developing their team than Minnesota. Worse, Golden State and Portland are also going to be much healthier next season. Making the playoffs in the Western Conference is going to be quite the mountain to climb, especially for Minnesota.

If they can’t get over that hump, Minnesota will have to do something to keep Towns happy. That might start with getting rid of Layden and Saunders.

This list may be short, but that’s because it’s hard to see other coaches and general managers being put on the hot seat right now. Ether because their seasons have gone well, their seasons have gone badly for reasons that were out of control, or there’s too much loyalty there for anyone to get fired.

The one coach who might eventually be on the hot seat is Quin Snyder. He’s done an excellent job for Utah over these past several years, so his one hiccup shouldn’t be enough to put his job in jeopardy. That’s more of a wait-and-see situation. Even if it doesn’t get better, it took several years for Toronto to dismiss Dwane Casey because he did so much for that organization.

Oklahoma City’s season has gone so surprisingly and enjoyably well that Billy Donovan’s job should be just fine. Some will blame Neil Olshey for what happened to Portland this season, but with all that happened with Jusuf Nurkic and their other injuries, what were his options?

Alvin Gentry would have made this list, but it wasn’t his fault that Zion Williamson missed most of the season. Now that the generational prospect is back, New Orleans has most definitely turned a corner and went 11-8 since his debut. It might be too late both due to the injury bug and COVID-19, but their improvement over the last few months should make Gentry’s job safe for now.

Luke Walton or Vlade Divac would also be prime candidates for this list, but who knows what’s going on in Sacramento’s collective head?

Right now, it looks like a lot more jobs in the Western Conference are safe than not at the moment. That can all change in a short amount of time, but we don’t know anything, really. Here’s to hoping that no one will lose their job in this league – especially at a time like this.

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NBA Daily: Under The Radar – Western Conference

David Yapkowitz takes a look at players from the Western Conference that deserve their due for stepping up this season despite receiving less attention.

David Yapkowitz

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NBA basketball is on an indefinite hiatus for the foreseeable future, but here at Basketball Insiders, we’ve still got some content to keep you entertained.

We kicked off last week with a look at some of the top upcoming free agents around the league, started this week with coaches and executives who could be on the hot seat, and we’re transitioning into looking at players who may have been flying under the radar this season.

There are various reasons why a player could be flying under the radar. Playing in a small market, not being on a playoff team, etc. Whatever the reason may be, here’s a look at some of the players in the Western Conference who have been under the radar this season.

Chris Paul – Oklahoma City Thunder

With all the attention Chris Paul has gotten throughout his career, it’s funny to think of him being on an under the radar list. But he really hasn’t gotten his proper due for this season he’s putting together. At the start of the season, the Thunder looked like a fringe playoff team at the absolute best. Thanks to Paul’s leadership, they were in contention for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs and surely would have given anyone a tough opening series.

In his 15th season, Paul’s numbers are right around his career averages. He was putting up 17.7 points per game, 4.9 rebounds, 6.8 assists and 1.6 steals. His 48.9 percent shooting from the field is the third-highest mark in his career. As of publishing, the Thunder were actually ahead of the Houston Rockets in the standings; the team that traded Paul last summer.

Torrey Craig – Denver Nuggets

Craig is in third NBA season, all with the Nuggets. He went to a small NCAA Division 1 school (University of South Carolina Upstate) and spent the early portion of his career overseas in Australia and New Zealand. He originally began his NBA career on a two-way contract, earning a standard contract after his first year and now becoming a mainstay in the Nuggets rotation.

His numbers have gone up every year he’s been in the NBA. This season he was shooting career-bests 46.2 percent from the field and 33 percent from the three-point line. What has really stood out about him, however, is his defensive ability. He’s quietly become one of the better perimeter defenders in the league. On a team full of offensive firepower like the Nuggets, his skill-set is a much-needed asset.

Ben McLemore – Houston Rockets

There was a time when McLemore was a lottery pick and supposed to be one of the future building blocks for the Sacramento Kings. That didn’t end up panning out and when he joined the Rockets on a non-guaranteed contract this past offseason, it was widely seen as his last shot to prove himself as an NBA rotation player.

He has certainly answered the call this season. He emerged as an invaluable member of the Rockets rotation. He established himself as a legitimate 3&D player. Early in the season when his shot wasn’t falling, he was still contributing on the defensive end. As of now, he’s shooting 44.5 percent from the field and 39.5 percent from three-point range. He’s been a starter for Houston and he’s come off the bench. He’s certainly done enough to earn himself another contract in the offseason.

De’Anthony Melton – Memphis Grizzlies

Melton played in a total of 50 games last season as a rookie for the Phoenix Suns. This season, he was on pace to surpass that. In his second year in the league, he’s become a key piece for a Grizzlies team that was hanging on to the eighth spot in the West. He has a versatile skill set and he can play multiple positions.

Melton was putting up 8.1 points per game, 3.7 rebounds, and 3.0 assists. He’s a legit combo guard. He’s comfortable with the ball in his hands and running the offense. He is also a strong defensive player. There is a lot of young talent on the Grizzlies and Melton is perhaps the most underrated one.

Landry Shamet – Los Angeles Clippers

Shamet had an immediate impact as a rookie last season, especially in the Clippers entertaining first-round playoff series against the Golden State Warriors. Last season, he started 23 of the 25 games with the Clippers after the trade with the Philadelphia 76ers. He began this season as a starter, but has since transitioned into a bench role.

His numbers and minutes have dropped off since the arrival of Marcus Morris and Reggie Jackson, but he still is a valuable part of the team. He’s averaging 9.7 points per game and shooting 39.2 percent from the three-point line. He can play both on and off-ball. He is especially adept at moving without the ball to get open.

Georges Niang – Utah Jazz

Niang started his time with the Utah Jazz on a two-way contract and has gradually worked his way into the Jazz rotation. When Utah waived Jeff Green back in December, Niang was the beneficiary of increased playing time. He has fit in well as a small-ball four-man who can space the floor.

He’s shooting a career-best 41.6 percent from the three-point line and earlier this year was among the top three-point shooters percentage-wise in the league. He comes into the game, plays his role and doesn’t try to do too much. A key utility guy who does what is asked of him and can contribute to winning.

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