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The Washington Wizards’ Clock is Ticking

It’s a vital year for Washington, who’s trying to find out if they’re a contender as currently constructed.

Ben Dowsett

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Around this time last year, basketball in the nation’s capital looked poised to crest to its highest point since the 1970s. Fresh off a 46-win season and consecutive trips to the second round of the playoffs, the Washington Wizards boasted an ascendant backcourt led by incumbent All-Star starter John Wall, plus a solid mix of veterans and young talent. Most exciting of all, fans and management alike harbored real aspirations at luring D.C.-born megastar Kevin Durant back home in nine months’ time to form LeBron James’ most daunting Eastern Conference challenger to date.

Life comes at you fast, it turns out.

Even aside from Durant’s total lack of interest, a reality that became apparent well before team brass couldn’t even get a free agent meeting with him in July, these Wizards’ magic waned badly last year. A group many picked to face the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals even without a Durant-level talent instead missed the playoffs altogether in a confusing, frustrating year that saw out-of-his-depth head coach Randy Wittman finally get the axe at season’s end.

And after a summer where they basically split that potential KD dollar up into a group of nickels and dimes – which nonetheless looks poised to clog their cap enough to limit future flexibility, maybe severely – the franchise is at a crossroads more quickly than anyone had imagined: With a ton of money invested and more possibly earmarked for next summer, is this core capable of justifying its collective price tag?

With three years left on what’s now a bargain in 2016 cap terms, Wall is both the easiest answer and the largest domino on the board. He seemed to plateau just a bit last season after a 2014-15 campaign where he looked ready to pop a squat in the elite point guard conversation and chill for several years, but at least some portion of the regression was on the defensive end and feels effort-based. Whispers that Wittman lost the locker room would certainly apply to its alpha dog if true, and Wall didn’t quite seem fully engaged in the little things that make a good defender.

This isn’t a cover-all excuse, of course – Wall wants to be viewed as a franchise player, and the best of those succeed even through adverse circumstances. His shooting caps his overall ceiling, meaning the value he adds via high-level defense is a must to keep him a superstar-level player. Wall’s regression was a big part of Washington’s fall from a fifth-ranked per-possession defense two years ago to middle of the pack last season.

Wall is still the primary driver of this team’s success, though. It’s his teammates on the perimeter who are the larger question marks with regard to contract value, both real and potential.

Bradley Beal is probably still younger than you think, but he’s well past the days where his youth alone guaranteed greener pastures for the future. Now 23 years old, Beal’s offensive efficiency has mostly stagnated since his sophomore season; he’s always been a strong shooter with real gravity, but his other skills have failed to develop much. He seems like a near lock to miss 15 or 20 games a year at this point, and his defensive regression last season was even larger than Wall’s (and started from a much lower baseline).

Simply put, Beal will need to make serious strides to even approach justifying the five-year, $127 million contract GM and President of Basketball Operations Ernie Grunfeld lavished him with in July. He and offseason addition Ian Mahinmi will eat up roughly $40 million of the Wizards’ space every year through the 2019-20 season, and the Wall-Beal-Mahinmi-Marcin Gortat foursome alone will boast a combined tag of nearly $75 million in 2018-19, which is Wall’s final year under contract.

The collar is already getting awfully tight and that’s before addressing Otto Porter, Washington’s remaining big-ticket item who sits eligible for his rookie extension from now until October 31. Actually a few weeks older than Beal, Porter is another guy reaching the expected end of his developmental curve right as the Wizards are forced to make a big decision about his future with the team. He’s a skilled defender with length who does well against guys his own size when engaged, but he’s had big issues with consistency in effort (there seems to be a team-wide theme here) and struggles with bigger wings. An improvement to nearly 37 percent from three last year was big, but Washington will have to hope it’s more of a baseline for him moving forward if they’re going to shell out another $20 million annually for a guy who does little else offensively.

And make no mistake about it: Porter is getting that sort of money if he wants it, if not from Washington then from someone else. He’s a big, young “3-and-D” wing in a market where supply for such players lags miles behind demand. He’s upped his efficiency while taking on a bigger role each year in the league, and by all accounts he’s a good character guy. He’s getting paid.

And if it’s Ted Leonsis signing Porter’s checks after this season, that’s a wrap. The Wizards’ team is built. Signing Porter in that $20 million yearly range commits roughly $90 million – or around what many expect the cap to settle in at long-term, pending CBA negotiations – to five players.

They don’t necessarily have to decide on Porter this fall; there are risks in waiting, but the Wizards still hold his matching rights if they allow him to enter restricted free agency next summer. But regardless of whether they choose to wait and gauge his development, a looming financial picture adds pressure.

Suddenly, a primary mandate in Scott Brooks’ inaugural season behind the bench is simply figuring out whether this core is worth all that dough – and the timetable is shrinking. Wall isn’t going anywhere unless he asks out, but it’s time to consider the possibility that other core pieces might have to move if things don’t pan out on the floor this year. Beal still has just enough youth and skill to command value, even if it’s lessened somewhat by his new deal; a lot of that slips away in a hurry if he posts yet another year without marked improvement. Mahinmi is a good addition at a fair price in a vacuum, but he and Gortat may end up as a $28 million frontcourt that can’t really play together. Gortat himself will be 33 years old before this season is over, and even at $12 million a year he could be tough to unload without attaching an asset.

Doomsday isn’t here yet, though, Wizards faithful. We’ve touched on effort level as a key issue several times – there’s a real expectation that Brooks will succeed here in ways Wittman was failing. Wall at his 2014-15 level is one of the 15 most valuable players in the league, and the Wall-Beal-Porter-Markieff Morris-Mahinmi projected starting lineup is strong on both sides of the floor if their leader is firing on all cylinders. Jason Smith and Andrew Nicholson were smart depth signings for cheap, and 2015 draftee Kelly Oubre still has potential despite a rocky rookie year. With health and any luck, this team could surprise some people and perhaps cash in a year late on their promise as rising contenders in the East.

That’s far from a guarantee, though, and the talent level on this roster isn’t so enormous that success is simply guaranteed as long as the primary pieces get their heads on straight. There’s a real chance Brooks does well, the locker room finds chemistry and the pieces fit together on the court… and Washington still tops out as a middling Eastern Conference team that lacks the skill beyond Wall to challenge the big boys.

There are worse realities than that, to be sure, and Washington’s front office may need to choose its priority if things continue to stagnate on the court this season: A solid core with a decent floor that’s nonetheless unlikely to compete for real glory, or a shakeup and a much wider range of outcomes?

Again, we aren’t there yet – but we’re not too far away, either. The first couple months of this season are huge: The ship could be righted in a hurry, or the signs could become clearer than ever that this group’s ceiling is capped too low. It’s a quietly vital year for a Wizards franchise hoping their buzz isn’t a fleeting apparition.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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NBA Daily: Tyus Jones Thriving in Bigger Role

Minnesota’s Tyus Jones speaks to David Yapkowitz about his growing role with the Wolves.

David Yapkowitz

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It was the last game of the 2016-17 NBA season. The Minnesota Timberwolves had been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention for quite some time. Their opponent that night, the Houston Rockets, had an impressive year and were on their way to the postseason.

Although the Wolves would go on to lose that game, 123-118, Tyus Jones came off the bench to have to his best game of the year. He would finish with 17 points on 66.7 percent shooting from the field, 75 percent from the three-point line, seven assists, four rebounds, two steals, and a blocked shot.

Jones had just finished up his second year in the NBA, which had gone a little bit just like his first; a few games played here and there followed by some DNP-CD’s. Rookie Kris Dunn was ahead of him on the depth chart at backup point guard for the majority of the year. That stat line he put up on the last night of the season, however, should have been a sign of things to come.

Now in his third year, and second playing under Tom Thibodeau, Jones has firmly seized the backup point guard spot. Thibodeau is notorious for playing short rotations, and along with Jamal Crawford and Gorgui Dieng, Jones has solidified himself as one of Minnesota’s most dependable reserves.

“It’s been good, I’m just trying to contribute to the team as much as possible,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “I want to do whatever I need to do to help this team win more games.”

The Timberwolves have done just that so far. They won 31 games all of last season. This year, they already have 16 wins. They didn’t break that mark last season until mid-January. Jones’ impact on the Wolves this year has been a big reason for that.

His stats may not jump off the page; he’s averaging 3.9 points per game on 42.5 percent shooting, and 2.8 assists in about 17 minutes of play. But he’s become a reliable floor leader who is able to anchor the Wolves second unit. He’s also one of their best floor spacers at 38.2 percent from the three-point line, and he’s an improved defensive player.

“For me, having a little bit bigger role this year, it’s what I wanted,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just trying to make the most of it and take advantage of it.”

Jones has definitely taken advantage of his new role. Starting point guard Jeff Teague missed four games last month due to a sore right Achilles tendon. Aaron Brooks started in place of Teague for the first game he missed, but Jones was the starter for the next three.

In his first ever career start on Nov. 26 in a win over the Phoenix Suns, Jones had nine points on 50 percent shooting, four rebounds, seven assists, seven steals, and two blocks. The following game, albeit in a loss to the Washington Wizards, he finished with 12 points, four rebounds, and seven assists. In his final start before Teague returned, a win over the New Orleans Pelicans, he had his best game of the season with 16 points on 66.7 percent shooting, four rebounds, six assists, and four steals.

“It was a dream, I’m just trying to make the most of it,” Jones told Basketball Insiders about being a starter. “Once again, take advantage of the opportunity and just do my role.”

Although Jones only spent one season playing college basketball before entering the NBA draft, it was the program he attended that’s allowed him to make a seamless transition. He played at Duke under Mike Krzyzewski during the 2014-15 season, winning a national championship alongside fellow NBA players Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, and Quinn Cook.

“It’s the best program in the country. Coach K is the best coach, arguably ever, to coach the game,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “There’s nothing comparable on the college level, playing at Duke. They’re the brightest lights, so that helps prepare you for the next level.”

The Wolves are a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in over a decade. It was the 2003-04 season, to be exact. This year, however, they are hoping to change that. They currently sit in fourth place in the Western Conference, fighting for the right to host a playoff series in the first round.

“We’re trying to make the playoffs, that’s our goal right now,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “Each year, we’re trying to get better. We’re still trying to take that next step. This organization hasn’t been to the playoffs in a number of years.”

With Jones playing a pivotal role, the Wolves’ playoff drought looks like it will be coming to an end very shortly.

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NBA Most Valuable Player Watch — 12/12/17

Dennis Chambers updates the latest MVP watch rankings.

Dennis Chambers

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The NBA season is coming in hot on Christmas Day games, and before we know it the new year will arrive as well. As the second half of the season starts to come into sight, more stability among the league’s MVP candidates will prevail.

By now, most of the frontrunners for the award have staked their claim of consistent dominance over the last eight weeks of the NBA season.

For our list here at Basketball Insiders, the same names make up our ladder from the last MVP race installment. A slight juggling of the order is the only new wrinkle. Thus far, these individuals have put themselves ahead of the pack.

A full season in the NBA is a long race, but through the first few laps, these are the MVP leaders.

stockdown456. Steph Curry (Last Week: 3)

Coming in at No. 3 on the last list, Steph Curry sees a bit of a tumble in the standings. Unfortunately for Curry, he’s suffering from a sprained ankle that is going to cause him to miss some time. Fortunately for the Golden State Warriors, they’ve won three straight games without their star point guard.

This doesn’t discredit the type of season Curry is having, or his brilliance on the court when he’s healthy, but the fact that the Warriors have enough firepower to sustain his absence damages his claim to the most “valuable” player throne.

Nevertheless, for the Warriors to truly fulfill their championship potential, Curry needs to be healthy and playing. Otherwise, the Warriors aren’t as lethal as they could be.

Barring a complete meltdown from his ball club, Curry’s spot will likely continue to drop slightly as he sits on the bench watching his team win games without him.

stockup455. Joel Embiid (Last Week: 6)

Almost the exact opposite of Curry, the Philadelphia 76ers don’t seem to have a prayer at winning basketball games that Joel Embiid sits out of. Luckily for the city of Philadelphia, though, that hasn’t been nearly frequent of an occurrence as past seasons.

The on/off numbers for Embiid are staggering. On both ends of the court, no less. Without their big man, the Sixers’ offensive rating drops off by more than five points and their defensive rating sees a 10-point spike in favor of their opponents.

In short, it’s worse for the Sixers when Embiid is tweeting rather than playing.

After missing back-to-back games over the weekend, Embiid’s value became more apparent to the Sixers. Among a myriad of injuries, Embiid’s was felt the heaviest as his team posted a defensive rating of 111.6 to the Cleveland Cavaliers and then a 130.2 the next night to the New Orleans Pelicans.

Both figures are a far cry from the 102.9 rating the team records with Embiid on the floor.

Much like Curry, the Sixers will need Embiid on the court moving forward to live their best life. So long as he is resting on back-to-backs, or sitting with back soreness, the Sixers won’t be as fortunate as the Warriors to pull out wins.

stockup454. Kyrie Irving (Last Week: 5)

Masked Kyrie joined Untucked Kyrie this season as another alter ego capable of taking the NBA and Twitter by storm on a nightly basis.

Irving, despite suffering an injury to his face that forced him to wear a protective mask a la Rip Hamilton, still has the Boston Celtics atop the league standings with his MVP campaign so far this season. Over Irving’s last 10 games, he’s averaging 25.8 points on 53 percent shooting from the field and 44 percent from beyond the arc. Over the course of that same span, the Celtics are 7-3.

Just to strengthen his already solid MVP claim, the Celtics went into Chicago Monday night to play the Bulls without Irving, as he sat out of the game with a quad contusion. All the league’s best team preceded to do was lose 108-85 to the league’s worst team.

At this point in the season, MVP candidates have their statistics in place. As viewers and fans, we really get to see the difference they make on their teams during the games that they aren’t playing, and Monday night for the Celtics was a microcosm of Irving’s season-long importance to the success of their team.

stockup453. Giannis Antetokounmpo (Last Week: 4)

The Greek Freak is still putting up absurd numbers, keeping him right in the conversation for Most Valuable Player. On top of his gaudy production, the Milwaukee Bucks are starting to pile up some wins as well.

Winning six of their last seven games — the only loss coming to the Celtics where Antetokounmpo put up 40 points, nine rebounds, and four assists — the Bucks currently hold a 15-10 record and the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference.

It’s been well-documented up to this point how effective Antetokounmpo is for Milwaukee from a numbers standpoint. If he can really start translating those performances into wins over good teams, the narrative of him winning the award may begin to revert back the dominance it held over the first few weeks of the season.

As it currently stands, though, Antetokounmpo is ahead of the rest of the pack before a pretty sizeable gap at the two spots above him.

stocknochanges452. LeBron James (Last Week: 2)

After having his Cavaliers’ 13-game win streak snapped by an unconscious Victor Oladipo, LeBron James returned to business as usual by defeating the shorthanded Sixers without Kevin Love by his side. He did so in typical Year 15 fashion, posting 30 points, 13 rebounds, 13 assists, and three steals.

No big deal.

That’s the mantra for James’ 15th year in the NBA: Do it all, and do it well. He doesn’t have the supporting cast that many projected coming into this season, and Irving is out doing his thing in Boston. But for the King of the NBA, after a month of rough basketball, he seems to be figuring it all out for his club and putting them in the positions they need to be in to be successful.

Since the start of Cleveland’s winning streak up until the game against Philadelphia, James is averaging 27.5 points, 9.3 rebounds, 8.5 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.1 blocks, 55 percent shooting from the field and 44 percent shooting from beyond the arc.

His team is 14-1, Irving is in Boston, and Isaiah Thomas is on the bench.

Year 15 may very well end with James getting MVP number five.

stocknochanges451. James Harden (Last Week: 1)

The only man standing between James and his fifth MVP is the man who’s setting the league on fire trying to get his first.

James Harden is recreating his stellar season from a year ag but improving it, somehow. Harden’s averages are incredible: 32 points, 9.5 assists, 5.1 rebounds, 40 percent from downtown, and a 31.6 player efficiency rating.

Not to mention he’s led the Houston Rockets to a 21-4 record, and looks to be a real threat at knocking off the Golden State Warriors.

What Harden is doing on the defensive end is what is brining his game, and his MVP case, to the next level. Harden is posting his lowest defensive rating is four years and coming up big on D in crunch time situations.

On Monday night against the Pelicans, Harden came up with a clutch steal with under a minute to go (his sixth of the night) to extinguish a New Orleans rally and put the icing on his 26-point, 17-assist performance.

LeBron may be having an MVP season, even by his standards, but Harden’s performance this year thus far is keeping the King at arms length of the MVP crown.

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NBA DAILY: What Is Really Wrong With The Thunder?

The Thunder continue to struggle to string together wins. What’s the problem in OKC?

Steve Kyler

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At Some Point It Just Doesn’t Work

The Oklahoma City Thunder continue to be middling, despite having the star level talent it takes in the NBA to be exceptional. With the clock ticking in the wrong direction, is it more likely that this combination of players won’t work, or is there something bigger at play worth considering?

Before we dive too far into this, keep in mind the Thunder have played their 26th game, and are just a half a game out of the eighth spot in the West. Equally, they are also three and a half games behind the fourth-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves, so the sky is far from falling. In fact, they have won four of their last six games, including wins over the Spurs and Timberwolves, which only makes the Jekyll and Hyde of all of this even more frustrating.

All of that said, what’s really wrong with the Thunder? Here are some thoughts:

Not Enough Touches

The Oklahoma City Thunder are dead last in the NBA in touches per game as a team at 384. To contrast that number, the Philadelphia 76ers lead the league in touches at 480.9 touches per game.

Thunder guard Russell Westbrook accounts for 94.4 touches per game, while forward Carmelo Anthony accounts for 61.3 touches with swingman Paul George bringing in 56.0 touched per game. Those three players account for 211.7 of the Thunders 384 touches per game.

That’s not as bad as you would think watching the Thunder play, but what it does illustrate is that neither Anthony or Paul are getting the volume of touches both are used to getting before joining the Thunder. It’s also why neither seems to be able to get into a rhythm on a game to game bases. They have had their moments individually, but it been far from consistent.

It’s more than fair to say that the Thunder offense isn’t generating enough touches to maximize what George and Anthony bring to the table. When the Miami HEAT brought their “Big Three” together, one of the biggest challenges they faced was how to generate the touches to get all their guys in a rhythm and rolling.

That seems to be the biggest part of the problem with the Thunder.

Russ Has To Be Russ

When you look at the Thunder’s “convincing wins” those wins in which they look like an elite team in the NBA, Russell Westbrook plays like last year’s MVP.

The problem for the Thunder is it seems Russell is trying to get other players, specifically Anthony, often to the detriment of his team and his own game. When Westbrook puts his head down and plays his game, the Thunder tend to come out on top.

Westbrook never seemed to have this problem playing with Kevin Durant, and maybe that’s why Durant opted to leave, but Westbrook seems to be trying too hard to get others going.

Where’d Offense Go?

The Thunder continue to talk about how good they are defensively, and that’s a real thing. They are currently the ranked second in the NBA’s defensive rating category. They rank second in point allowed per 100 possessions at 103, just behind league leader Boston at 101.6 points per 100 possessions.

There is no doubt their defense is keeping them in games, but what’s killing them is the long stretches of sub-par offense, many times in the fourth quarter where their offense comes to a grinding halt.

Some have suggested that head coach Billy Donovan simply isn’t creative enough for the construct of this roster. Looking at the stats this far into the season, there may be something to the idea that the Thunder, offensively, just are not creative enough to maximize the potential of their star players.

It’s Not A Selfish Problem

The easy answer on the Thunder is to say they are simply selfish players. There is enough historical evidence on Anthony and Westbrook to support the idea, however, if you really look at the Thunders’ games, it’s actually the opposite. Westbrook likely isn’t selfish enough; it’s likely why he’s struggling from the field on the season.

Part of the offensive problem may be Westbrook’s shooting. His averages this season is markedly down from a year ago—39.6 percent this season from the field versus 42.5 percent last season. Westbrook is also 31.1 percent from three this year versus 34.3 percent from three last season.

But Westbrook is not alone, George is tying his second worst season from the field at 41.8 percent shooting. Anthony is having his worst year as a pro from the field at 40.4 percent.

All three are producing some of their lowest efficiency ratings of their careers, so it’s not just one guy doing so much more than the other. None of them are playing particularly well together.

It’s easy to look at the Thunder and label them one thing or the other; there are enough polarizing personalities on the roster to draw the labels. The truth of the matter is the Thunder just are not very good or efficient offensively, and until they find a way to make that part work, they will likely continue to be middling.

That’s going to make things fairly tough on the Thunder front office, because come the February 9th NBA Trade Deadline, the Thunder may have to cut bait on some players before they potentially lose them in free agency for nothing. The trade deadline is only about 60 days away, believe it or not.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @MikeAScotto, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @SpinDavies, @BuddyGrizzard, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_, and @Ben__Nadeau .

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