The Washington Wizards struggled through most of the first half of last night’s home game against the extremely shitty New York Knicks. If you’ve followed the Wizards at all in … well, ever, then it was the type of game you’re used to seeing them piss away (or, sometimes even more maddeningly, to seeing them pull out undeservedly in the fourth quarter with an embarrassed last-minute demonstration of bare professional dignity, portending a grotesquely lopsided loss in their very next game). Against a demonstrably worse team, they played two quarters of sloppy and listless ball, committing hideous turnovers at one end and giving up an endless succession of offensive rebounds at the other, seeming to expect that the respective teams’ win-loss records would do all the work for them.
Only, a very weird thing happened. The Wizards delivered their demonstration of bare professional dignity at the beginning of the third quarter, like not-bad teams do, and cruised to an easy 117-101 win that required almost no fourth-quarter participation from the principals on either team. It was against the friggin’ Knicks, sure, and if there were any justice in the world it’d count for at most a third of a win in the standings, but it’s an occasion to ask: Are the Wizards … good, now? I think maybe they are good?
They kinda look good!
Consider the evidence. It was their fifth straight win, their ninth in their last 10 games. The only loss in there came on a buzzer-beating tip-in on the road in Detroit. They’re 12-4 in 2017, 22-9 over the past two months; both marks put them among the best teams in the NBA. Their 20-6 home record is the league’s third-best. After the miserable 7-13 start that had a certain horse’s ass writing them off as dead, they’ve rocketed up to fourth in the East and are bearing down hard on the wobbly Raptors. I think … I think they’re actually good.
How did they become good? And why are they good now when they were bad as recently as November? Who the hell knows. But I have a few ideas.
1. John Wall is healthier than he has been in a long time
After playing through pain for a couple years, Wall had surgery on both knees after the end of last season: a minor procedure on his right knee, and a more serious and extensive one on his left that required months of recovery and rehab. This obviously helps explain why the he, and the Wizards, are better this season—John Wall is dope!—but it also helps explain the ragged start: Wall missed pretty much the entire off- and pre-season while he recovered, which meant rust on his game, and less time to get familiar with a new coaching staff’s schemes before the games began.
Now he is doing extremely good shit like this basically all the time …
… and the Wizards are winning a lot.
Here is a list of all the players in the NBA who are averaging at least 22 points, 10 assists, and 2 steals per game this season:
I’m gonna go get some frickin’ knee surgery now. Shit seems pretty effective!
2. They stopped relying on their atrocious bench so much
Back in December, when I, a dingus, was shoveling dirt on their grave and calling for general manager Ernie Grunfeld and owner Ted Leonsis to be fired into outer space (more on that in a minute), I mentioned that the Wizards’ starting five—Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, Markieff Morris, and Marcin Gortat—was one of the best high-usage five-man lineups in the league, and that their bench prominently featured several of the game’s worst players. Neither of those things have changed. The Wizards’ starting five remains good as hell:
While the Wizards’ bench still includes some ridiculous bozos:
The difference is, coach Scott Brooks isn’t using the latter in quite the same ways he was at first. In November, the Wizards were regularly rotating 13 players, and sad useless pear-shaped goof Marcus Thornton was acting as the de facto sixth man by virtue of God knows what. Lately, garbage time and spot duty aside, they’ve settled on a tight eight-man rotation. Energetic young cock Kelly Oubre Jr., who seemed pent-up and lost playing 14 scattered minutes a night in November, has emerged as the sixth man; he runs and does athletic stuff and shoots threes and is lots of fun. Jason Smith (is bad, but) has found a mostly serviceable niche as a pile of personal fouls that can throw in the occasional pick-and-pop 19-footer to punish the defense for ignoring him. Trey Burke (is bad, but) plays just enough to keep Wall from dropping dead. And even when these three play at the same time, it usually isn’t for very long.
Sometimes Brooks throws in overwhelmed European person Tomas Satoransky for the hell of it. As for Thornton, he appeared briefly in the team’s first two games of the calendar year—the Wizards went a combined minus-19 in those stretches—and then never again. I forgot he was in the NBA until a minute ago.
This is a near-term improvement that, because we are talking about the Wizards here, could cost the team down the road a bit. Sure, it’s normal for good teams to have settled on eight- or nine-man rotations by the time the playoffs roll around—but having a bench that is so terrible as to preclude letting most of its members ever take their warmups off puts a heavy burden on the guys whose freshness will be most important come April and/or May and/or (ha ha) June (shut up).
3. Randy Wittman isn’t their coach, so Bradley Beal and Otto Porter are good now
Check this shit out:
That, via Basketball Reference, is Beal’s shot distribution by year, from the beginning of his career (top), to now (bottom). He’s taking more threes and more shots at the rim than ever; gone, or nearly gone, are the long passive two-pointers that characterized his game to a miserable degree under Wittman. And hey, shocker of shockers, that has turned out to be a good move. His free-throw rate has exploded. His TS% (True Shooting Percentage, a measure of shooting efficiency that takes three-pointers and free throws into account) has exploded. His Offensive Box Plus-Minus (basically, a measure of how good a given player is at adding points to his team’s offense) is 3.9, the 20th highest in the NBA.
This is all a way of saying that now that Randy Wittman no longer is coaching him to shoot 21-foot twos all the time—and now that he has adjusted to the change—Beal is not butt anymore. In fact he is very good.
Meanwhile, Porter has been a revelation, now that Wittman is not around to yank him off the court and banish him to the end of the bench every time he puts his foot in the wrong place. After three seasons of quiet but steady improvement as an all-around player but more specifically as a jump-shooter (and of not being trusted by his own coach), he’s now leading the entire friggin’ NBA—including Steph Curry and Klay Thompson and various other famous shooters!—in three-point shooting, at an otherworldly 46.2 percent, on over four attempts per game. His Offensive Rating (an estimate of how many points a player will produce per 100 individual possessions) is 129, the fourth highest in the NBA, up there among guys like DeAndre Jordan and Tyson Chandler, who pretty much never use individual possessions to do anything but dunk the ball from immediately in front of the rim. This is to say, Porter has become one of the most efficient scorers in all of basketball this season.
The Wizards have, in effect, added two good scorers to a roster that also includes one of the best passers and playmakers in the NBA. No wonder they’ve improved! All it took was getting the hell out from under Randy Wittman, and getting used to the new guy.
Huh, you are thinking. Sounds like Grunfeld and Leonsis actually have done a good job after all. Hell the hell no they haven’t!
Beal could have taken less than five years to become an above-average pro guard. Porter, a highly accomplished college player whose draft stock was based on his readiness to produce in the NBA, could have done more with the first three years of his career than being handled like some clueless project doofus from Antarctica with elbows for fingers and a learning curve measured in continental drift. Wall didn’t need to lose an entire wasted and pain-wracked 2015-16 season to his team’s foolish, doomed pursuit of Kevin Durant. Brooks wouldn’t have had to give the month of November to figuring out which incompetent stiff would be his first big off the bench if the team hadn’t dumped a long-term contract on Ian fucking Mahinmi right before Ian fucking Mahinmi’s body dissolved into an even more useless puddle of broken shit than it already was.
So anyway, yeah, the Wizards are not dead. Actually they’re good. Now that I have written and published this blog post, Bradley Beal will barf his femur into John Wall’s eyesocket and they will never win another basketball game so long as I live.