Washington Wizards' West Coast Worries

The Wizards look to rebound from an unsatisfying 2-2 Western road trip full of missed opportunities and disturbing trends.

Splitting four games out West typically scores as a win. But, for the 2017-2018 Wizards, a 2-2 road trip leaves much to be desired. Bookended by victories in Denver and Sacramento, the Wizards blew two fourth-quarter leads in Los Angeles (102-99) against the Lakers and in Oakland (120-117) against the Warriors. These two losses showcased some of the Wizards’ weaknesses that may develop into trends moving forward, from erratic pacing and bench insecurity to star players’ shooting woes. Let’s take a look at why the Wizards coughed up these games.

Fourth-Quarter Pacing

Some Wizards’ fans surely wondered whether former head coach Randy Wittman was back on the bench for the fourth quarter in LA and Oakland. With double-digit leads, the old-style Wittman offense must have summoned John Wall to take it easy and slow any sort of pace by which the Wizards could have fueled their large leads. Dribble, dribble, dribble, nobody move, waste the entire shot clock, and then finally shoot an ill-advised isolation jumper. Clank. Repeat this process over and over.

The Wizards were up by 10 (85-75) at the 7:08 mark in the fourth quarter against the Lakers when the old-style Wittman offense clearly took over. Current head coach Scott Brooks confirmed what was evident after the loss in LA by stating, “We [the Wizards] did too much standing around. We had more dribbles than passes and it wasn’t good basketball.” The Wizards scored only 13 points in the fourth quarter against an inferior, inexperienced Lakers’ squad.

If the Wizards want to be considered and treated like an elite team, they can’t relinquish a big lead to a non-playoff team full of very young rookies and second-year players. This is not how climbing the NBA hierarchy works. Shooting 5-for-23 (.217) in the fourth quarter is not how it works. Missing all eight 3-point FG attempts in the fourth quarter is not how it works. Going 2-for-6 from the line at the crucial end of regulation and OT is not how it works. Forget that loss happened in October--that’s no excuse. When the Wizards reflect on the schedule at season’s end, they’ll point to this game as one that got away. Let’s hope the loss in LA doesn’t have playoff seeding implications down the road.

The Golden State loss was less surprising but equally as agonizing. Nobody thought an 18-point lead was safe against the defending champions, but, again, the way the Wizards lost was frustrating. The pacing was again the issue down the stretch. The Wizards were up 10 at the start of the fourth quarter, but that lead quickly dissolved when Kevin Durant and company decided to increase their pace and play Warrior basketball. The Wizards either cowered (as many teams do against the Warriors’ pace of play) or simply decided to revert to Wittman’s offensive playbook, scoring 20 points (the Warriors had 33) in the fourth quarter after filling it up with 30+ points in each of the first three quarters. Wasting the entire shot clock, dribbling through isolation basketball, and shooting bad jumpers was again the story of the fourth quarter for the Wizards. 7-for-25 (.280) shooting isn’t going to finish a game. What could have been a statement win ended up being a loss reminiscent of two nights prior in LA.

Bench Insecurity and Rotational Challenges

Brooks clearly doesn’t trust the bench. He has played the starting five of Wall, Bradley Beal, Kelly Oubre Jr., Otto Porter, and Marcin Gortat together an astounding 43% of the minutes played to date (126 total minutes, 30 more minutes than the second most-used lineup in all the NBA). This unit is +24.4 points per 100 possessions, while the primary bench lineup (second most-used Wizards’ lineup) of Tim Frazier, Jodie Meeks, Oubre, Mike Scott, and Ian Mahinmi are -16.7 points per 100 possessions. Leads are evaporating quickly when bench players assume primary playmaking duties.

Brooks is struggling to find the rotational efficiencies that will balance rest, scoring, and defensive effectiveness throughout the game. Keeping Wall or Beal or Porter or Oubre in the game surrounded by bench personnel should help, instead of the mass exodus of all five starters from the floor. For example, albeit a smaller sample size, the lineup of Beal, Frazier, Meeks, Scott, and Jason Smith yields +33.9 points per 100 possessions. Brooks needs to commit to keeping a proven scoring option, leader, and playmaker on the floor at all times. General manager Ernie Grunfeld gave max contracts to Wall, Beal, and Porter for a reason. Brooks needs to keep at least one expensive asset on the floor at all times.

Additionally, Markieff Morris is due to return from his sports hernia surgery very soon, which will help Oubre assume a more solidified leadership role off the bench. While many are excited that Oubre has been running with the first unit, his real chance at breaking out is being the first man off the bench for Brooks. Oubre’s usage rate sits at only 12.4%, second lowest on the team. Oubre is taking advantage of the looks he is getting as the fourth option in the starting unit (11.5 PPG. 6.2 RPG, 44.4% from beyond the arc), but to truly maximize Oubre’s output, he needs to be the first or second option.

Bench play was always going to be a wild card this season. Is Frazier going to be able to handle second-unit duties and give Wall much needed rest on a nightly basis? Are the power forward options going to be effective enough to withstand the injuries to Morris and Smith? How long will it take for Meeks and Scott to get back into NBA game shape after missing extensive time last season? These questions have not been fully answered yet, as it’s too early to provide a full critique. The two losses, however, should worry Brooks slightly, as the bench unit and its rotational effectiveness has looked overmatched or slightly below average, at best.

Stars’ Shooting Woes

Beal and Wall need to be better. While it’s still safe to bet that both stars will put up close to career numbers by the end of this season, Beal and Wall have shown an early propensity to let down when the Wizards need them the most. Wall is shooting an abysmal 39% from the field and Beal is shooting a woeful 25% from beyond the arc. Both guards are also missing the key free throws you’d expect stars to knock down to finish games and both are revealing glimpses of increased selfish personalities that may be symptoms of pre-season hype. Beal getting thrown out for a skirmish with Draymond Green in Oakland (let Keef take care of it when he returns) and Wall’s obvious desire to recklessly fill up the stat sheet during nationally televised games (his 77 offensive rating against Lonzo Ball and the Lakers on ESPN was by far his lowest of the season) hurts the Wizards. The star duo needs to figure out how to manage their elevated profiles for the good of the team if they want the Wizards to reach 50 wins and make an appearance in the Eastern Conference final.

Lost in this critique are the Wizards’ wins in Denver and Sacramento, each highlighting exciting strengths the Wizards will certainly showcase throughout the season. It’s never too early to be critical, though, and hopeful that the Wizards fix things and take advantage of the messy Eastern Conference. A 2-2 road trip out West isn’t the worst thing in the world. The Cavs? They’re busy losing to Orlando, Brooklyn, and New York.

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