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NBA Daily: Fixing The Washington Wizards

Basketball Insiders continues it’s “Fixing” series by taking a look at the Washington Wizards, a team whose recent downfall puts them in a tough bind.

Matt John

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Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series has been going on for a few weeks. We’ve started with the teams that hovered around the bottom of the league this season and are now transitioning to teams that stayed in the playoff hunt through the duration of the season. Today’s team: the Washington Wizards.

Much has been made about the well-documented frenzy surrounding both the Celtics and the Lakers, but if there was one team who had the season from hell, it was the professional basketball team located at the nation’s capital.

Where to begin with what went wrong for the Wizards? Hardly any of their offseason additions worked out. They traded away cheap young talent for overpaid roster filler. Their star player’s season ended prematurely and will now miss next season entirely. It only took two years for the Wizards look like a complete shell of the team that was inches away from the conference finals.

Basically, you know things have gone horribly wrong when adding Dwight Howard had nothing to do with why you have become a disaster.

What Is Working

The Wizards still managing to get 30+ wins in the absence of John Wall is all pretty much thanks to Bradley Beal’s evolution. After DeMar DeRozan headed west and Victor Oladipo went down, Beal was hands-down the best shooting guard in the eastern conference and arguably the entire league.

With John Wall down for the count, Beal had to step up his game, and he did just that. After Wall opted for season-ending heel surgery, Beal played the best basketball of his career, averaging 27.4 points on 47.5 percent shooting from the field and 35 percent shooting from three. Beal also showed evolved playmaking, as he dished out 6.1 assists per game while only coughing up 1.8 turnovers per game.

After seeing his name in trade rumors, and having to deal with tension in the locker room, Beal managed to work through it all to put up his best season as a pro at 25. His play is what kept the Wizards from going into a complete tailspin. He should get the majority of the credit, but not all of it.

As odd as it sounds, the Wizards’ players who were on economical contracts gave the team a boost by exceeding expectation.

Jeff Green was actually quite a brilliant addition having had his best season since 2015. He averaged 12.3 points on 47.7/35.6/89.4 splits. Green, who has usually shown himself to be a net negative on the court throughout his career, and his efforts actually proved to help Washington, as the Wizards were plus-1.5 with him on the court.

Thomas Bryant was too. Filling in for Dwight, Bryant did an exceptional job as the starting center. Putting up 10.5 points and 6.3 rebounds per game, while shooting 61.2 percent from the field, put Bryant’s name on the map, and is another example of the Lakers letting young talent slip through the cracks although to a lesser extent.

Tomas Satoransky continued to be a serviceable jack of all trades wing, and even Sam Dekker did okay for a guy that was acquired for deadweight. Going off the record, it’s not like they were life-savers – but they did enough that Beal wasn’t single-handedly responsible for how the Wizards turned out.

Even if the season didn’t go nearly as well as the Wizards would have hoped, Beal’s superstar-like play combined with the efforts of the lowly-paid guys put them a notch above terrible.

Whether that’s a good thing is debatable.

What Needs To Change

It’s funny how the Wizards already made the one change that many have begged them to make for years now. Just this past week, Washington cut ties with general manager Ernie Grunfeld after a long history of some rather questionable decisions.

Besides that, the Wizards really have to ask themselves where they should go from here. Scott Brooks has not done a good job captaining the ship since his first season. John Wall won’t be coming back until the fall of the new decade. Plus who knows if he’ll ever be the same player following two very serious injuries consecutively. Most pressing of all, Bradley Beal’s expiring contract next season really puts Washington at a crossroads.

It really depends on what direction new management wants because it could honestly go either way. Do they cut their losses with Beal this summer and trade him for the most value they can, or do they ride it out, bank on getting him an extension, and then see what to do?

A team that wins between 30 and 35 is one that’s really in no man’s land. It’s not quite good enough to qualify for the playoffs – even in the East – and yet not bad enough to help one’s odds of getting a franchise player in the draft. Staying in that state is not going to help anyone. Having cap room thanks to the Otto Porter trade should help them, but Wall’s prolonged absence and uncertain future put a dark cloud over the franchise.

This summer should speak volumes about where they want to go. Nobody would fault them for going after win-now stars just as nobody would fault them for trading their best players for young assets.

So to summarize, what needs to change is the Wizards need to go over what’s gone wrong for them in the last two years and then determine what is the best avenue to take from here on out.. They should keep in mind that no matter where they go, they are eating John Wall’s new expensive contract whole.

Focus Area: Free Agency

After trading Otto Porter and his $28+ million contract, the Wizards will probably have some breathing room cap-wise this summer. What they do with it is entirely up to them. Only Wall, Beal, Ian Mahinmi and Troy Brown Jr. are committed past this season alone so there are some decisions to be made.

How much money the team will have depends on what they do with Jabari Parker. Jabari actually wasn’t that bad in his short stint in DC. 15 points per game on 52/30/68 splits is solid. And the Wizards were plus-7 with him on the court. That’s good. That’s just not good enough to justify paying him $20 million.

It’s much likelier that the Wizards won’t pick up his team option. That does not mean the team won’t try to keep Parker, who’s only 24, at a reduced price.

Bobby Portis is also someone potentially worth keeping around. He also proved to be a reliable contributor for the Wizards. His 14.5 points per game on 44/40/79 splits as well as 8.6 rebounds per night are exquisite for a guy on a rookie contract. He also wasn’t too far behind Parker in overall impact on the floor, as the Wizards were plus-4.9 when Portis was on the court.

Since he’s a restricted free agent, Washington will have the edge on any interested suitors this summer. If they are able to keep Portis on a team-friendly deal, then that’s a win for them.

There are other free agents Washington will have to ponder keeping around. Particularly their wings. Much has been talked about Jeff Green, Tomas Satoransky and Sam Dekker. They could keep any of the three of them if they wanted to. It just all depends on what management thinks is the best road ahead.

The same applies to Trevor Ariza. The Wizards overpaid to trade for him, but he did his best. In fact, while his 40 percent shooting and 32 percent three-point shooting weren’t too great, his 14.1 points per game average was the highest he’s put up since his last season in his first tenure with the club.

It’s just a shame that all of their efforts had to go to waste. They could stay if Washington wanted them. If they want their efforts to mean something however, it may be in their best interests to go elsewhere.

There are other guys who will be on the market who aren’t as vital. Dwight Howard did next to nothing this season. So, given that he has a player option, he’s probably going to opt in. In fact, him opting in will probably impact Thomas Bryant’s potential return.

There is a solid chance that the Wizards come back next season with an entirely different roster. It will be interesting to see if the hypothetical roster is designed to win now, later, or both.

Focus Area: Draft

So much could go right and wrong for the Wizards. It all depends on how they do against the one team that ruined them in 2017. Washington will face off against Boston for its last game of the season. Believe it or not, there are a lot of implications from this one game.

Washington currently has a half-game lead over Memphis and Dallas for the sixth lowest-record in the league. It owns the tiebreaker (as far as highest draft position goes). If the Wizards lose to the Celtics, that will help them keep the sixth-highest odds to get the first overall pick. If they win, that could drop them all the way to ninth if Memphis, Dallas and New Orleans all lose.

In the Wizards’ case, they should probably throw this next game away because getting a higher lottery pick after all that’s blown up in their face provides them with a light at the end of the tunnel. This draft is pretty top-heavy, so a nine percent chance at the first overall pick isn’t too exciting. Getting a pick somewhere in the six-to-eight range is not much better. Still though, with everything that’s gone wrong, getting some form of young talent can make such an underwhelming season feel somewhat worth it.

Washington could also very well package where their pick lands along with Ian Mahinmi’s suddenly expiring contract for someone useful to boost their playoff chances if they do in fact believe Wall will be back to normal when he returns.

In case it hasn’t been clear, there’s no clear answer for how to fix the Washington Wizards. If they try to win now, they have limited options to get back to where they were two years ago, let alone become a contender. If they rebuild, they have John Wall’s mammoth contract extension about to take effect which would prevent them from being as flexible salary-wise as rebuilding teams would like.

If that’s not a Catch-22 at its finest, then this writer doesn’t know what is.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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NBA

NBA Daily: What We Forgot

With the NBA season now a month old, Matt John looks into no what we have learned, but we had previously forgotten.

Matt John

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With every new NBA season, we tend to forget a few things here and there; players or teams that go through a down year are often, warranted or not, cast aside for the next best thing, only to resurface in the NBA’s collective conscience later on.

Like last season, for example, Dwight Howard was regarded as a nothing-addition for the Los Angeles Lakers, a gamble that they may have been better off not taking. However, Howard played an integral role in the Lakers’ run to the NBA title and reminded everyone that, when he plays without distractions, he’s one of the league’s fiercest around the basket.

But that’s just one example. So, who or what has been re-discovered this season? Let’s take a look.

Stephen Curry: Still Phenomenal

Nobody’s forgotten that entirely. It’s just been a while since people have seen Curry at the peak of his powers.

Sure, it was easy to be skeptical of what he was capable of coming into this season. But, with Kevin Durant gone, Curry had free reign to score and shoot as much as he desired. And, with that freedom, Curry’s put up his best numbers since 2016, his second MVP season. In 15 games, Curry’s averaged 28.2 points 5.5 rebounds and 6.1 assists and shot 45 percent from the field, 37 percent from three and 93 percent from the line. He’s reminded everyone why he’s one of the games best and that he can accomplish anything or score on anyone on any given night.

Of course, the absence of Durant, as well as the loss of Klay Thompson and others, has led to another atypical season for the Warriors. Their 8-7 has them tied for seventh in the Western Conference and, while they have certainly improved on how they looked to start the season, they have a long way to go before they’re back in title contention.

The Warriors may never again reach the heights they once knew, either before or with Durant. But, until Father Time dictates otherwise, Curry should long remain a nightmare for the opposition.

Tom Thibodeau Can Get It Done

What can you say about the New York Knicks? Unironically, a lot.

Not only have they shown themselves to no longer be the butt of the NBA’s jokes, but, compared to the last decade-plus of Knicks’ basketball, the 2020-21 season might be their brightest yet.

Julius Randle’s transition into more of a point forward-type has generated a career-year and All-Star buzz. RJ Barrett has continued to improve rapidly, while rookie Immanuel Quickley has “quickley” become a fan favorite. Most impressive of all, however, is that New York has allowed the fewest points per game (102.7) and the fourth-fewest points per 100 possessions (106.8) in the NBA.

In other words, they finally look like a competent basketball team. But what’s changed? Two words: Tom Thibodeau.

The players have bought in to Thibodeau’s scheme and, clearly, it’s had a positive effect. Of course, the disaster that was his Minnesota Timberwolves tenure made us forget just what a proven head coach Thibodeau could be, but he’s put it all together in the past and, in New York, he would seem to be doing so once again.

Of course, there is plenty left to do. The Knicks’ spacing is a joke — and a bad one at that. In fact, their entire offense could stand to see some of that energy they bring on defense; the Knicks are dead last in the NBA at 101.3 points per game.

Still, at 8-8, New York is no longer a doormat and, given the last few seasons, that’s probably the best they could’ve hoped for. Rome wasn’t built in a day and the Knicks won’t be either, but the franchise looks like they may have finally turned a corner toward relevance.

Maturity Issues Loom Large

Like the Knicks, the Cleveland Cavaliers have been another NBA-darling this season. And again, like New York, their players have bought in; head coach J.B. Bickerstaff has everyone playing with energy on defense and, while their offense hasn’t quite reached the same level, they’re competing to the best of their ability.

Of course, the progress of Kevin Porter Jr. could have been the cherry on top of it all. But that ship has sailed.

After an outburst directed toward general manager Koby Altman, Cleveland has since moved on from the young forward. Of course, the Cavaliers knew Porter came with baggage when they selected him with the last pick of the first round in the 2019 NBA Draft, but his potential was salivating and Cleveland had hoped they could help him grow — not only as an NBA player, but as a person. There have been success stories in the past, troubled players that have come in and shut out the noise and become both respectable characters and NBA players. DeAndre Jordan, a former lottery talent, dropped in his own draft due to similar concerns, but overcame those issues and has since gone on to play a long career.

Unfortunately, it just hadn’t gone that way with Porter and the Cavaliers, as the noise became too much to bear for a team with a long road back to relevancy. It’s reminded everyone just how hard it can be, both as a player and as their team, to deal with those issues and, regardless of the talent or potential, the headache sometimes just isn’t worth the risk.

Luckily for Porter, it’s not too late; a fresh start with the Houston Rockets should do him wonders. And, hopefully, the Rockets can help him overcome that baggage, his maturity issues and whatever else he may be dealing with.

But even if they don’t or can’t, Porter must wake up and seize his opportunity while he still can; if he sees another falling out in Houston, there’s no telling if he’ll ever get another chance elsewhere.

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NBA Daily: Three Trade Targets for the New York Knicks

Drew Maresca explores three restricted free agents-to-be who the Knicks should explore adding via trade before the March 25 trade deadline.

Drew Maresca

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Often the NBA’s biggest flop, the New York Knicks have been significantly better-than-expected to start the 2020-21 season. They’ve won eight of their first 16 games and have surrendered the fewest points per game on the season, placing them squarely in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

That said, they’re not out of the woods yet; with much of the season left to play, the Knicks are devoid of any meaningful offensive weapons. Additionally, the roster features a number of high-quality veterans whose deals are set to expire, the kind of players that contenders like to fill out their rotations with down the stretch, so the roster could look much different at the end of the year than it does now.

So, the Knicks are expected to be active on the trade front, again – no surprise there. But this year could be among the last in which the Knicks are sellers at the deadline. And, while moving some of those veterans for future assets is smart, the Knicks may also want to look at players they can add to bolster that future further.

Of course, New York shouldn’t go all-in for Bradley Beal — they’re not there yet — but there are a number of restricted free agents to-be that would fit both their roster and timeline nicely.

But why give away assets to acquire someone that the team could sign outright in just a few months? It may sound counterintuitive to add a player that’s about to hit free agency, restricted or otherwise, but procuring that player’s Bird rights, an exception in the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement that allows teams to go over the salary cap to re-sign their own players (not to mention offer them an extra contract year and bigger raises), can be key to securing a player’s services and building a long-term contender.

Further, the 2021 free agent market isn’t might not live up to expectation, with many presumed free agents already agreed to extensions. So, with that in mind, which players should the Knicks pursue via trade prior to the March 25 trade deadline?

John Collins, Atlanta Hawks

Collins’ production is down this season, but that has nothing to do with his ability. A 23-year-old stretch-four who’s shooting 35% on three-point attempts, Collins is big, athletic, can score the ball (16.7 points per game this season) and is a great rebounder (7.5 per game). He also connects on 80% of his free-throw attempts.

Despite those impressive stats, Collins was even more productive last season, averaging 21.6 points on better than 40% three-point shooting and collecting 10.1 rebounds per game.

But the Hawks rotation has become increasingly crowded this year. They added Danilo Gallinari and rookie big man Oneyeka Okongwu, the sixth overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, to the frontcourt this offseason, while Collins was already vying for minutes with Clint Capella, who Atlanta added via trade last season. Cam Reddish, a second-year wing who is versatile enough to play some power forward, has also stolen some of Collins’ potential minutes.

So, as much as the Hawks seem to like Collins, he may be a luxury they can do without. He’ll obviously demand a relatively high-priced contract. The fact that Atlanta and Collins failed to reach an extension last summer would also seem to make a reunion less likely; would the Hawks invest so heavily in him now that they have three players at the position signed through at least the 2022-23 season? Further, could they invest even if they wanted to at this point? The Hawks are already committed to more than $100 million next season and, with Trae Young and Kevin Huerter extensions on the horizon, they might be hard-pressed to scrounge for the cash Collins would want in a new deal.

He won’t come cheap, for sure. But, while Julius Randle fans may not love the idea of bringing in his replacement, Collins is simply a better long-term solution.

Lonzo Ball, New Orleans Pelicans

The point guard position has been a sore spot for the Knicks for some time. And while Ball might not be the franchise cornerstone that many hoped he’d become, adding a young player with his upside is clearly a positive move.

Granted, Ball is inherently flawed. His jump shot appeared to be much improved last season and he’s showcased a significantly improved shooting form from years past. But he’s struggled in the new season, shooting only 28% on three-point attempts (down from 37.5% last season). In fact, he’s struggled on the whole on the offensive side of the ball, posting just 11.9 points and 4.4 assists per game (a career-low). He’s also missed some time with knee soreness and moved to more of an off-the-ball role as new head coach Stan Van Gundy has put the ball in the hands of Brandon Ingram more and more.

But, with New York, Ball would step into a significant role immediately. For his career, Ball is a net-positive player and, despite his shooting woes, has posted a positive VORP every year he’s been in the league, save for this season. He’s an above-average defender and, while he does need to ball in his hands, he doesn’t necessarily need to take shots to be effective.

Ball may never become the All-World caliber guard many pegged him as before the 2017 NBA Draft, but he’s better than any other option currently at the Knicks disposal. And, best of all, his trade value is arguably as low as it’s ever been. So, while the Pelicans won’t just give him away, New York should do what they can to acquire him for a reasonable price.

Devonte’ Graham, Charlotte Hornets

Last but not least, the surprise from the 2018-19 rookie class. Graham is possibly the hardest sell on this list, but it’s not for a lack of talent.

Graham burst onto the scene last season, posting an impressive sophomore campaign of 18.2 points and 6.4 assists per game. Unfortunately, those numbers have taken a drastic dip this season with the arrival of Gordon Hayward and the highly-touted rookie LaMelo Ball in Charlotte. Likewise, Graham’s struggles through the Hornets’ first 10 games limited his opportunities further.

That said, he would appear to be done slumping, as he’s connected on 43% of his attempts from deep in the team’s last two games.

But his efficiency wouldn’t be the main challenge when constructing a Graham trade. Instead, some in New York could be concerned with lack of size – Graham is only 6-foot-1 – and his inability to act as a facilitator at the guard spot.

But Graham is talented, plain and simple. In fact, he’s the exact kind of talent the Knicks should be looking to add right now. More specifically, Graham shot 37.3% on three-point attempts last season; the Knicks rank 21st in three-point percentage so far this season.

The Knicks could ultimately sit tight, swap a few veterans for future draft picks and rest assured that they’ve made enough progress by simply adding coach Tom Thibodeau. But they could and should be aggressive while they can. If New York can add one or more the players mentioned, they may not only build a brighter future, but improve on what the team could do this season. Either way, the Knicks look to be on a good trajectory, but every move they make from here on out can and will affect how quickly they make the leap from laughingstock to respectable contender.

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NBA AM: The Utah Jazz Are Showing Continuity Is Key

Is Utah’s early success an indicator of things to come? Between Donavon Mitchell, a stingy defense and hot three-point shooting, they may just be the real deal.

Ariel Pacheco

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The Utah Jazz are riding high on a seven-game winning streak, hotter, at this point, than all hell. 15 games into the season, the Jazz have been the third-best team in the Western Conference. The key for them has been continuity as they have 11 guys who were on last year’s team. The only addition they made to their rotation this offseason was Derrick Favors, who was with the team for nine seasons before a one-year departure. 

Quinn Snyder is widely regarded as one of the best coaches in the league, and he’s showing why this season. The Jazz are currently in 7th in both offensive and defensive rating. Beyond that, there are only three teams who can say they are top 10 in both: The Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers and the Phoenix Suns. Often, teams that finish in this select category are historically serious contenders. 

Moreover, the Jazz have been on a shooting tear. Using Gobert’s rolling ability to collapse opposing defenses and find open shooters, Utah’s offense is clicking right now. It’s worked tremendously too, considering the Jazz have attempted and made the most three-pointers of any team this season – and hitting on 40.3 percent as a team. Royce O’Neale, Donovan Mitchell, Jordan Clarkson, Joe Ingles and Mike Conley are all shooting above 40 percent; while Bojan Bogdanovic is almost there at 37.8.

Basically, the Jazz are just shooting the ball at a ridiculously well rate right now and good ball movement has propelled them. 

Mitchell seems to have taken another jump in his development, although it is subtle, and his growth as a playmaker has benefitted everyone. He’s made teams pay for overhelping, often initiating the ball movement that has led to open looks. He’s also taking fewer mid-range jumpers, converting those attempts into three-pointers. The budding star’s play has been more consistent overall, and he’s been effective out of the pick-and-roll. 

Mike Conley’s improved play this season has been needed – now he’s settled and red-hot. Coming off a disappointing season last year, there were questions as to whether he was declining. While it’s safe to say he’s no longer the guy he was in Memphis, this version of Conley is still a good one. He looks a lot more comfortable in his role and the Jazz are reaping the benefits. In a contract year, Conley is averaging 16.3 points and 6.3 assists per game while shooting 41 percent from three.

Jordan Clarkson is a strong candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, fitting in perfectly as the Jazz need his scoring and creation off the bench – even leading the league in such scorers from there. But the Jazz’s bench is more than just Clarkson though, as they’ve gotten strong minutes from Joe Ingles, Georges Niang and Derrick Favors too. They’re a solid group that plays both ends of the court, and all fit in nicely with the starters as well. 

Sorely needed, however, Bojan Bogdanovic’s return has helped tremendously. He gives them another big wing who can shoot and is a scoring threat, and before he got hurt last season, he was averaging 20 PPG. While he isn’t at that level this season, he gives them another reliable scoring option that they badly need. Better, it also allows Ingles to remain on the bench, where his playmaking ability can really thrive.

The Jazz have been playing stylistically a little bit different this year and it has worked. They don’t run often but when they do, they have been potent. Playing at the same pace as last season, Utah is scoring almost five more points per game in transition. Additionally, they are taking six more threes a game too. This all amounts to a 6.1 net rating, which is good for fourth-best in the NBA. 

Lastly, their defense has been impossible for teams to penetrate, inviting opponents to try and finish over Rudy Gobert in the paint. Gobert is a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate for a reason – his presence alone almost assuredly guarantees his team will be a top 10 defense, which the Jazz are. Favors’ addition has helped stabilize the defense when Gobert sits, which was a major issue last season. Overall, they are just a very disciplined defense that makes teams earn their points, rarely committing cheap fouls.

As it stands today, the Utah Jazz are solidifying themselves as one of the best teams in the Western Conference. It remains to be seen if the hot shooting is sustainable, but the way they are generating those open looks seems to be. The defense is legit, and if they can remain healthy there’s reason to believe that this team can continue to compete at this level. The Utah starting lineup has outscored opponents by 58 points, but they’ve also had one of the best benches in the league – needless to say, the Jazz’s continuity has been a big part of their early success.

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