Wizards Regression Was Not a “Bump In the Road”

 

Last season, the Washington Wizards were two wins from reaching the Eastern Conference Finals. Despite the loss, Washington entered the 2015 offseason with a high morale; they had a bright core of John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Otto Porter, who were 24, 21, and 21 years old. They had a locker room leader in Paul Pierce. They had a top-five defense. Beal seemed ready to explode after averaging 23.4 points, 5.5 rebounds, 4.6 assists, and 1.6 steals in the playoffs. Porter was finally ready for a starting role.

But then the 2015-16 season arrived.

Washington ended the season a mediocre 41-41, and missed the playoffs for the first time in three years. To put the icing on the cake, head coach Randy Wittman was fired hours after the inconsistent season concluded. Wittman wanted the Wizards to increase their pace this season to capitalize on their athleticism. This increased Washington’s scoring, but had defensive consequences. It gave the Wizards more possessions, but efficiency did not improve and it took away from the defensive focus.

A Tale of Two Seasons Points Scored Points Allowed Point Differential
2014-15 98.5 97.8 +0.7
2015-16 104.1 104.6 -0.5

Paul Pierce’s departure left leadership responsibilities in the hands of Wittman and Wall. Wall is a rare talent, but he struggled to motivate the team to play hard every night. It certainly did not help that Wittman lost control of the locker room mid-season. The Wizards had an inferior attitude for most of the season, contributing to the substandard defensive production.

Wittman’s biggest criticism was that he made poor rotational decisions and failed to make effective in-game adjustments. He allocated 25 minutes per game to players like Jared Dudley and Garrett Temple, when he could have given Kelly Oubre Jr. some valuable NBA experience.

Oubre averaged 10.7 minutes which was less than Kris Humphries and Marcus Thornton. This slowed his development and hurt his chances of improving into a young star. Oubre is an athletic freak who can play phenomenal defense and has solid handles and a smooth outside shot. Next season, Washington must give Oubre opportunities to develop and play alongside the team’s core members.

Beal was poised to be a prolific sidekick to Wall, but he missed 27 games in 2015-16. Even when he was on the court, he showed a drastic decline in his Real Plus-Minus, which measures on court impact. The 22-year-old will be a restricted free agent this summer. Despite the health concerns, Beal will likely have big offers on the table because of his age and scoring ability.

Bradley Beal Games Played Points FG% Real Plus-Minus Rank (SG)
2013-14 73 17.1 41.9% 25
2014-15 63 15.3 42.7% 14
2015-16 55 17.4 44.9% 64

Washington is desperate for scoring threats so the front office may open their wallets and give Beal another chance to show that he can stay healthy. One alternative is to execute a sign-and-trade, which would give the Wizards value in return for Beal. They could pair him up with 32-year-old center Marcin Gortat to attract supreme talent.

Another option is letting the injury-prone Beal walk and use their plethora of cap space to sign other big-name free agents. The obvious target is Kevin Durant, but other players such as Al Horford, DeMar DeRozan, and Harrison Barnes would be good fits. With only about $35 million in guaranteed salaries for next season, the Wizards will have the money to be aggressive in free agency.

Regardless of what GM Ernie Grunfeld decides to do with Beal, Washington needs scorers to complement Wall. Wall is an exceptional distributor, an inconsistent shooter, and the only player on the roster besides Beal to average over 12 points. With Beal often injured, Wall had a significant offensive burden this season. As a result, he had his lowest field goal percentage in four years, and averaged the most turnovers of his career. Wall thrives when he can create shots for his teammates, but struggles when he must create his own shot; this is why Grunfeld must bring in scoring threats.

John Wall Points Per Game FG% Assists Turnovers Real Plus-Minus  Rank, (PG)
2013-14 19.3 43.3% 8.8 3.6 19
2014-15 17.6 44.5% 10.0 3.8 4
2015-16 19.9 42.4% 10.2 4.1 8

The Wizards must hire a head coach who can be a leader, promote discipline, and hold his team accountable. The man for the job may be Scott Brooks, who is highly regarded among NBA players. Hiring Brooks would help attract free agents, and would bring in a coach who led the Thunder to multiple top-five defensive efforts. Durant and Russell Westbrook both had great relationships with Brooks, showing that he can manage a player with All-NBA potential like Wall.

Just when the Wizards seemed ready to compete for an Eastern Conference title, they regressed. With no first-round pick this year, the front office will need to be active in acquiring talent and leadership. Ernie Grunfeld said this season was simply “a bump in the road.”

If appropriate changes are made, this team has the talent and personnel to take two steps forward after their substantial step back.

 

photo via llananba