NBA Saturday: What is Going on With the Washington Wizards?

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Before the NBA season started, Basketball Insiders put together comprehensive season previews for each team. Several writers contributed to each preview and often times agreed in their respective analysis of each team. However, no team was more divisive in terms of predictions for the upcoming season than the Washington Wizards.

As of today, the Wizards are 8-13 and ranked twelfth in the Eastern Conference playoff race. To say that this has been a disappointing start to the 2016-17 season would be an understatement. The Wizards hired Scott Brooks this offseason to breathe new life into a team that features notable young talent, which is headlined by star point guard John Wall. The hope was that Brooks could come in and find similar success with Wall and Bradley Beal like he had with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City. So far, that has not happened.

On Tuesday night, the Wizards allowed the Orlando Magic, one of the worst offensive teams in the league, to score 124 points. Wall did everything he could to help the Wizards overcome the Magic, scoring a career-high 52 points on 18-31 shooting from the field, including five three-pointers. Despite his best efforts, the Wizards lost as they offered little defensive resistance. After the game, Wall voiced his frustration.

“We didn’t come out with our defensive intensity,” Wall said. “They were the more aggressive team and that’s why they got out to a great start.”

The Wizards have not been a particularly good defensive team this season. They are currently ranked 19th overall in defensive efficiency, allowing opponents to score 105.2 points per 100 possessions. That puts the Wizards just ahead of the Houston Rockets, who are not a good defensive team but make up for it with an extremely effective offense. The Wizards don’t have that sort of offense, as they are ranked 17th in the league in offensive efficiency. When you do the math, it’s not hard to see why the Wizards are currently outside of the Eastern Conference Playoff race.

After Tuesday’s loss, Wall criticized his team’s effort and showed the frustration that has been mounting since the season started.

“Our job is to wake up and just play hard. Before you made it to the NBA or got a college scholarship, you played hard every day to get to where you wanted to,” Wall said. “To still be talking about playing hard, that’s something that you should be able to do after just waking up. Everybody has a job and they have to go work hard. Our job is to come here and play hard and compete. That’s the easiest thing that you should do without any contracts or any money, just come in and play basketball. … If I had the answer we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

The up-and-down performance within the span of the week may be indicative of a team that is still adjusting to new personnel, a new coach, new offensive and defensive systems and is still looking for its identity. Last season, Wall told Basketball Insiders’ Alex Kennedy that the Wizards wanted to be a defensive team that also rebounds the ball effectively. The Wizards did not make the playoffs last season, and they are still struggling to establish any sort of identity, whether it be offensive, defense, or some combination.

The Wizards are ranked 26th in opponent field goal percentage, 28th in opponent three-point percentage and 23rd in points scored by opponents off of turnovers (17.7). Their inability to stay tight on perimeter players and close out on open shooters has made it difficult for Washington to slow down opposing offenses. However, the Wizards are ranked ninth in points allowed in the paint per game, which is a bit surprising considering how thin their frontcourt is. This may even improve as Ian Mahinmi gets closer to returning to action from his knee injury.

With the team performing so poorly, some may be inclined to think that somehow Wall is letting his team down or isn’t doing enough on his end. However, Wall is putting up impressive numbers and been the team’s catalyst on offense. He is averaging 23.6 points per game, 9.5 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 2.2 steals while shooting 45.5 percent from the field and 37.1 percent from three-point range. Moreover, the Wizards have a +1.4 net rating with him on the court and a -10.2 net rating when he is off the court. In fact, Beal and Otto Porter both have played well this season and have positive net ratings when they are on the court. When Beal and Porter sit, however, the Wizards’ performance suffers both on offense and defense.

While part of the problem for the Wizards is the fact that they are adjusting to a new coach, the bigger problem seems to be their lack of quality depth. Players like Wall, Beal, Porter, Markieff Morris and Marcin Gortat have been effective contributors this season, but their backups have not been able to find any sort of sustained success. For example, Marcus Thornton is averaging roughly 19 minutes per game this season, but has been very inefficient and the team has a -14.4 net rating with him on the court. The numbers are even worse for the Wizards’ backup big men, such as Jason Smith and Andrew Nicholson, who have been called on to help offset the absence of Mahinmi early this season.

The unfortunate truth seems to be that the Wizards are a team that is still trying to find its identity under its new head coach and simply doesn’t have the depth to compete at a high level on a nightly basis. The Wizards are getting great production out of their main players, but that hasn’t been enough to offset the bench’s lack of production and consistency. The good news is that the Wizards did put together their best defensive effort of the season earlier this week, holding the Denver Nuggets to just 85 points total and limiting them to four points over the final 10 minutes of the game. This was a much-needed defensive performance after they allowed the Magic to score 124 points just two nights before, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that the Wizards have solved all of their issues overnight.

The Wizards may improve as the season goes along, but based on what we have seen so far this season, it may be time to accept that this team may not be as good as many predicted they would be entering this season.