When a team fails to make the playoffs just a season after going all the way to the semifinals of the postseason and goes ahead to acquire a 30 year old non shooting Center on a four year $64 million contract, then odds are that side is heading down. Well that’s the position Washington Wizards found itself in ahead of the season after missing out of the playoffs and sacked Randy Wittman in the process.
Much worse for the aspirations of the team was the surgery performed on both knees of franchise player John Wall. Would he come back the All-Star he was before getting shut down for the season to undergo the procedure? Or would he decline like so many other stars who have never been the same after major surgeries like the ones Wall had? Considering guys like Tracy McGrady’s careers just cratered off a major knee surgery, the 2010 NBA First Overall pick’s elite career hang in the balance.
Any sap in speed would be catastrophic for a guy like Wall who relies on it to to compensate for his shooting woes. Then there was the simmering tension between Wall and backcourt teammate Bradley Beal in the aftermath of Beal’s mega contract (five year $127 million) from management to the chagrin of Wall’s $16 million a year deal.
Despite the 124-133 loss to Los Angeles Clippers earlier today, new Coach Scott Brooks time in the American capital has seen a resurgence from one of the difficult teams to beat in the NBA’s Eastern Conference. With the season near completion, the Wizards have booked a spot in the playoffs and better yet sealed the South East Divisional title for the first time in 38 years.
The Wizards got lucky a bit in finding the right formula to work with on court as the purported starting frontcourt lineup of Marcin Gortat and Ian Mahinmi, got tossed out of the window following the latter’s injury that robbed him off a chunk of the season’s opening games.
His lengthy absence opened the offense for Beal, Otto Porter Jnr. and Marcus Morris to do damage from the three point area. A spaced out offense works well for Wall whose speed collapses defense which benefits the aforementioned trio. From a John Wall perspective, defenses that stay in position get burned by his unique ability to blitz by virtually every player in the league. What worked best for Washington was maintaining the playing status quo by keeping a fit again Mahinmi on the bench.
Keeping a $16 million player on the bench is a lot of investment for at best, a 20 minutes per game player. That balance has given Brooks quality production off the bench when the starters sit. To further boost the production from the second unit, Wizards traded for Bojan Bogdanovic from Brooklyn Nets and signed Brandon Jennings after he left New York Knicks. Getting production from the bench was Washington’s problem even during the conference semifinal runs in recent seasons. Ahead of this season, Washington’s bench was ranked by CBS.com at Number 20 and Number 19 by FanSided.com. Indeed Bogdanovic’s 14.2 points and 3.5 rebounds per game has helped steer the Wizards off the chasing pack caught in the middle of the playoff race. With Mahinmi coming off the bench, Brooks can replicate his starting lineup that features one sole big man with a fleet of slashers and three point shooters around him.
Washington’s second unit mostly has Mahinmi close to the basket with Jennings, Kelly Oubre, Tomas Satoransky and Bogdanovic filling out the remaining spots. Ex-Oklahoma City Thunder Coach Brooks might have carried some lessons learned from his final year at the Thunder with him. After seeing the impact of an expensive bench player in Enes Kanter behind Russell Westbrook, it is easy to believe a correlation in keeping Mahinmi, who gets paid a million dollars less than Kanter per year, on the bench.
For the record, the Thunder just booked a place in the postseason with Kanter chipping in 17 points and 10 rebounds behind Russell Westbrook’s outstanding 57 point, 13 rebound and 11 assists triple double over Orlando Magic. With Conference favorites Cleveland Cavaliers in free fall, Washington could inch its way further up the standings with Cleveland just two games ahead of the Wizards. In the postseason, teams will be wise to avoid Washington as a good bench affords much needed rest to Wall and Bradley Beal.
Unlike previous seasons, where an exhausted and injured Wall would labour to push his side up, this Washington side is primed to be better than ever in decades.
By Yaw Adjei-Mintah
@YawMintYM on Twitter