Ever watch your favorite baseball player mash a ball into the next area code, then jumped off your seat to join the roaring crowd, just to watch that player get stopped at second to be told the ball went foul? That’s kind of what it was like to watch the Wizards this season. Just one postseason ago the Wizards were dark horse contenders to be one of the Eastern Conference finalists, after blasting the Raptors in round one and taking a 2-1 lead over the Hawks in round two after vintage Paul Pierce hit his signature fall-away jumper as time expired.
"Did you call bank?"
Playoff Wittman, you genius! I don’t know what you did, but you did it!
At least, that’s what we were saying before three straight Hawks victories. But after five years of not making the playoffs, two trips to the Eastern Conference Semis ain’t half bad with third overall pick Otto Porter taking big strides in becoming an NBA-level player, averaging 10 points and eight rebounds in 10 playoff games, ensuring the fans that they had another skilled young player to join Wall and Beal next year. We weren’t talking about championship implications, but we certainly weren’t talking about the lottery either.
2016. 41 wins, 41 losses. No playoffs. Randy Wittman sent packing. What happened? Or, who happened?
Here are the five guys who played the most minutes in 2014-15: John Wall, Marcin Gortat, Bradley Beal, Paul Pierce, Nene.
Here are the five for 2015-16: John Wall, Otto Porter, Marcin Gortat, Jared Dudley, Garrett Temple.
Ah, there it is. No disrespect intended towards Dudley and Temple, but I don’t think those two were who we planned to see take up the minutes of Pierce (left in free agency), Beal (missed 27 games), and Nene (missed 25 games). I guess we also didn’t expect Beal and Nene to miss so many games, either. 15th pick Kelly Oubre played in 63 games, but was 11th on the team in minutes. Ouch. Markieff Morris played more minutes for the Wizards in 27 games.
So the Wizards were a bit short on bodies here and there, and possibly lacking leadership following the departure of Paul Pierce. At least they stayed trendy by firing their coach.
Here’s the main problem I see with the Wizards: As great of a player as John Wall has made himself, he doesn’t possess the type of leadership qualities the team needs. Not because of his maturity this time, but because he’s fearless. No matter the score, Wall is pushing the pace. Sometimes you need to slow the game down to get back in it. I don’t see Wall doing that. Marcin “We should be allowed to fight like in hockey games” Gortat also doesn’t strike me as the guy who can corral these young players. This is why the Brooks hiring is so important.
I think Brooks is the perfect coach among those that were available to work with Wall. Brooks already has experience working with a team building from scratch, as he took the Thunder coaching job after Kevin Durant’s rookie (of the year) season, taking the step up from his assistant coaching role with the Sonics. This was also the year Russell Westbrook was drafted.
Here’s the catch: The Wizards have no draft picks in 2016. This is not a good year to not have any draft picks. Washington could easily fall into NBA purgatory, where they’re too good to tank and not good enough to contend. The good news is the Wizards “only” have about $50 million on the books next year with plenty of free agents to pick from. I would be very surprised if the Wizards didn’t try to spend a lot of money this offseason. So, who do they go for?
Top priority: DeMar DeRozan. The Wiz still have Wall and Gortat locked up to cover the point guard and center positions. There are rumors that DeRozan would rather play for the Lakers, but maybe the Wizards can lure him with the opportunity to play for Brooks and alongside Wall. I doubt this happens, but I’ve seen weirder things.
Risky option: Harrison Barnes. Is he worth a max? Who knows. Will he get one? Most likely. It would be a shame to waste Wall’s best years with a mediocre roster, but if the Wizards miss out on DeRozan, they may have to take a risk to stay relevant. I think everybody wants to see what Barnes can do in a more prominent role, but nobody wants their favorite team to be the one to pay him.
Probably bad option: Hassan Whiteside. I love Whiteside’s game, and whoever gets him will be glad they did, but I don’t see him sharing the court with Gortat. If the small ball trend continues, then Washington won’t get away with playing Whiteside and Gortat at the same time, and I’m sure both of those guys would expect to be starters.
Obligatory mention of Kevin Durant option: It’s not happening.
Best case scenario that I see happening for Washington is that they stay in the mix for a while. They don’t have to tank or lock up all their money right away if they don’t need to. Blake Griffin is a free agent in 2017, and I think it’s only a matter of time until the Clippers have to hit the reset button. The Wizards would have a better shot at a successful short term rebuild by looking competitive enough to lure Griffin than they would tanking and trying to build through the draft (don't look at the Wizards' draft history if you value your eyesight).
Even if they can’t pick up a top-tier free agent, there are a lot of 3-and-D guys on the market this year, and maybe Mirza Teletovic and some solid role players are enough to push them back into the playoffs, and ideally above the eighth seed.
Whatever happens, I think it’ll be at least a couple years before a plan can come together. Patience is key.