After squandering another double-digit lead in the fourth quarter at home against Portland, but winning an uneven nail-biter in Minnesota against the Timberwolves, the Washington Wizards continue a difficult odyssey without their all-star point guard, John Wall. With six of the Wizards’ next seven games on the road, head coach Scott Brooks will need to find the right combinations of players to cover for Wall’s 20 points, 9 assists, and 35 minutes of on-court leadership. If the Wizards’ most recent string of late-game ineptitude is any indication, though, finding effective combinations that yield wins may not be easy for Brooks. While completing the rotational puzzle may be difficult, there are steps Brooks can immediately take to increase the chance of weathering the storm without Wall and move up in the Eastern Conference standings.
Bench Ian Mahinmi
Ian Mahinmi is playing too many minutes (13.1 MPG). General manager Ernie Grunfield desperately attempted to keep pace with the rest of the league during the free-agency frenzy of 2016, signing Mahinmi to a bloated four-year, $64 million contract. Grunfield grossly overpaid for Mahinmi’s services, but his 2015-2016 season with Indiana (9.3 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 16.6 PER in 71 games) showed that he could be an effective option to backup center Marcin Gortat or start if Gortat regressed over the length of the contract. Mahinmi, however, immediately struggled to stay healthy in Washington, stunting his impact on the court and possibly defining his bleak future as a 31 year-old traditional big man. After playing in only 31 games last season, Mahinmi is currently a bench nightmare (2.9 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 6.9 PER) that needs to either have a permanent seat on the end of the bench or be traded like another one of Grunfield’s disastrous 2016 summer signees, Andrew Nicholson.
The Mahinmi nightmare has endured long enough (forget his relative effectiveness in the Wizards' most recent win against the Timberwolves). Brooks needs to come to terms with Mahinmi’s dismal play and adjust the rotation accordingly. If Mahinmi was wreaking defensive havoc with his length, then he would be the dream center Grunfield hoped for when he signed him. This dream, however, is not reality. Mahinmi’s on/off statistical splits support the need to drastically decrease his minutes. Mahinmi is not wreaking havoc on the defensive end (.540 opponent eFG% when he is on the court/.498 opponent eFG% when he is off the court) and not slowing down opposing teams with his 6’11” frame (107.6 opponent offensive rating when he is on the court/105.9 opponent offensive rating when he is off the court).
Photo taken by Keith Allison
A way to alleviate the Mahinmi nightmare is to give most, if not all, of his minutes to Jason Smith. Smith has shown to affect the game with his energy and athleticism, something Mahinmi has not shown to date. Smith’s on/off statistical splits support an increase in playing time. Opposing teams are struggling to efficiently score the basketball (.419 opponent eFG% when he is on the court/.516 opponent eFG% when he is off the court) and his activity on the defensive end is far superior at slowing down opposing offenses than Mahinmi (93.0 opponent offensive rating when he is on the court/107.6 opponent offensive rating when he is off the court). Brooks has stated previously that not playing Smith has “kept [him] up at night.” Brooks can get better sleep by inserting Smith into the regular rotation immediately.
Start Kelly Oubre, Jr.
Brooks was very clear that veteran power forward Markieff Morris was going to be inserted into the starting lineup once he returned from sports hernia surgery in early November. No one could blame him. Morris started all last season and helped the Wizards develop into one of the most consistent and efficient starting fives in the NBA. Morris arguably had the finest season of his career (14.0 PPG and 6.5 RPG in 31.2 MPG) and asserted himself as the Wizards’ enforcer, forging a new D.C. basketball identify that had been lacking in years' past. This past offseason, however, was full of burdensome storylines for Morris. After he was acquitted of an assault in Phoenix, his necessary sports hernia surgery kept him out of training camp and the lineup to start the season. These events have contributed to his slow start (9.8 PPG and 4.6 RPG in 23.3 MPG).
While Morris plays his way back into game shape and restores some of his explosiveness, Brooks needs to start Kelly Oubre, Jr. and play him appropriate starter minutes. It’s overwhelmingly clear that Oubre brings a different dynamism than Morris. From his length and leaping ability to his defensive activity and open court playmaking, Oubre has sparked the Wizards both offensively and defensively when he is on the court. The former starting five (while Morris was out recovering from surgery) of Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, Jr., Marcin Gortat, and Oubre yields +21.2 points per 100 possessions (in 161:22 minutes of playing time), while the current starting five of Wall, Beal, Porter, Gortat, and Morris yields only +1.4 points per 100 possessions (in a comparable 168:43 minutes of playing time). More than this, Oubre running with the starting five yields more of basically everything:
Regular Season: 5-Man Combinations Table
||Beal, Gortat, Morris, Porter, Wall
||Beal, Gortat, Oubre, Porter, Wall
Morris still provides value to the Wizards. If the Wizards want to begin a more sustained winning trend, though, it’s clear Brooks needs to increase Oubre’s minutes. It starts with inserting Oubre into the starting lineup.
Trust Otto Porter, Jr.
Porter was inconspicuous in the final minutes of the Wizards’ loss to Portland. After lighting up the Blazers’ defense for 24 points on 60% shooting, Porter did not attempt a shot in the final nine minutes. Beal, alternatively, shot 11 times (making only three). This shooting disparity is not an indictment on Beal, but rather highlights the unevenness of Brooks’ pre-game scheming and in-game adjusting. Just because Porter has been publicly christened as the Wizards’ third option does not mean Wall and/or Beal need to be the fourth-quarter heroes every game. Porter is more than capable, as he has overwhelmingly been the best shooter for the Wizards this year (.548 FG%, .486 3P%, .629 eFG%). Wall (.435 FG%, .317 3P%, .473 eFG%) and Beal (.467 FG%, .367 3P%, .530 eFG%) need to realize their third man in the D.C. Big Three may help them get more wins. This was evident in Minnesota when Porter made the go-ahead shot with less than 24 seconds to go after tieing the game with 55 seconds remaining.
Brooks needs to ensure the Wizards look to Porter in more situations (like the win in Minnesota) by citing some alarming trends. The most appalling trend is that Porter is taking the fourth most three-point attempts per 100 possessions out of the Wizards’ primary playmakers. Morris (6.2 3PA/100 possessions) should not be attempting more shots than Porter (5.7 3PA/possessions), no matter how small the difference. Porter needs to be taking a total closer to, if not more than, Beal’s (8.8 3PA/100 possessions). No matter how you look at the data, Porter shows he needs more shots:
Instead of fans exclaiming, “Why is Otto Porter not on the floor?” only to then realize he is indeed playing, fans need the regular opportunity to chant Porter’s name in Capital One Arena during clutch-time situations. The whole world knows Wall and Beal will put their shots up. It’s time Porter does the same in the Wizards’ most important moments.
Brooks can tinker with many parts of the roster in attempts to reverse the Wizards’ most recent stretch of mediocrity. None of the aforementioned action steps address covering for Wall’s facilitation. Even with an underwhelming backup point guard, Tim Frazier, in the game against Portland, Beal regularly assumed primary ball-handling duties and justifiably struggled to facilitate the way Wall is capable. Frazier’s inconsistent play on both ends of the floor may trigger more minutes for Tomas Satoransky.
By benching Mahinmi, starting Oubre, and trusting Porter, though, Brooks may be able to quickly spark a Wizards’ run and get back to winning in D.C.