Ian Mahinmi’s Injury Forces the Wizards to Test Their Front Court Depth

Ian Mahinmi's injury could be seen as a continuation of the Washington Wizards' awful luck or as a chance for the remaining front court bench players to prove themselves.

The 2016-17 NBA season has not even started yet, but the injury bug that plagued the Washington Wizards in recent years made an unwelcome early return.

Ian Mahinmi, the recently acquired center, had to undergo a surgery for a partially torn medial meniscus in his left knee. He will miss 4-6 weeks, which translates to between 9 and 15 games, including matchups against Cleveland, Boston, Toronto, Houston, and probably San Antonio. Not an ideal way to start your season.

From Foreign to Foreign

Mahinmi was signed to a 4-year, $64 million deal by the Wizards this off-season. Largely seen as a consolation prize after the failed attempts at landing Kevin Durant or Al Horford, the 29-year-old Frenchman is replacing the Brazilian Nene, who signed with the Houston Rockets.

Out of all the players that the Wizards have acquired this off-season, Mahinmi is considered to be the most proven and reliable. Last season, he started 71 games for the Indiana Pacers, averaging 9.3 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks per game, while shooting 58.9% from the field.

The unspoken part of this signing is its impact on Marcin Gortat’s future. The Polish Hammer, while still serviceable on offense, is slowly declining in his defensive productivity and has probably no more than 1-2 years of starter-worthy numbers left in him. Mahinmi’s proven defensive skills and solid offensive fundamentals should ensure a smooth transition, and in this context locking him in for four years makes more sense.

This plan would be reassuring if it were not for a significant detail – Mahinmi is only three years younger than Gortat. Not to say that a duo of veteran centers cannot be effective, but it could be a potential stumbling block in Coach Brooks’ plan to install a fast-paced offense. The former Pacer’s history of injuries does not bode well for his long-term viability either.

Next Man Up

Having to replace the backup center for 10-18% of the regular season is no easy task, particularly when the remaining options are other recent signings.

Jason Smith, the 30-year-old who got a 3-year, 16 million dollar contract this off-season, will most likely inherit the bulk of Mahinmi’s minutes. Last year, Smith averaged 7.2 points and 2.9 rebounds in 15.5 minutes per game for the Orlando Magic.

The other recent addition, Andrew Nicholson, is a power forward who has played the center position in the past. A detailed account of how it turned out can be read in an article tellingly titled “The Andrew Nicholson Center Experiment is a Disaster.” To be fair, Nicholson was a 36% three-point shooter last year and based on the admittedly small sample size of pre-season games he could easily develop into an important piece of this team.

A slightly less crazy idea would be to experiment with Markieff Morris at the 5 and Otto Porter at the 4. Trotting out such an undersized and defensively shaky lineup could prove equally disastrous, but if there ever is a time to make Wizards Twitter’s dreams come true, it’s a November game against Philadelphia.

Glass Half Full

An injury to a player who was expected to be a crucial part of reestablishing the Wizards’ defensive identity is obviously a huge blow to the team’s development. By throwing the rest of the front court bench players into action for a few weeks, in a relatively low-stress environment, allows the Wizards to learn some valuable lessons about what they really have (and what they still lack), that will ultimately help them down the road.

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