Washington Wizards

Is this the beginning of the end for the Washington Wizards?

A late run that narrowed the Sacramento Kings’ lead to one point with 3.2 seconds to go all but summed up this iteration of the Washington Wizards: Too little, too late.

The Wizards led by six going into the fourth quarter, but turnovers and Nemanja Bjelica (!) going supernova spurred a Kings run that ultimately had Washington playing from behind when Jeff Green, in the final seconds, attempted a long inbounds pass. The ball sailed out of bounds and, with it, so did Washington’s chance to win.

The Wizards gave up 37 points in the final period. The defense looked out of sorts and the offense looked broken. There are teams that ooze chemistry. This ain’t it.

“Everybody is on their own agenda,” said John Wall after the game. “We show glimpses when we do stuff as a team and we show how good we can be. Then we go back to doing it individually and that’s mostly on the defensive end. We’re not helping each other out, not team rebounding and that’s what’s killing us.”

There are several reasons why the Wizards, with all of that talent and potential, continue to underachieve and have stumbled out of the gates to a 1-5 start. The team is near the bottom of the league in defense and rebounding rates, but there are less measurable reasons, too.

“It’s just communication and just putting effort,” Wall said.

After five games, it’s too early to smash the panic button, but veiled finger pointing is already happening.

“We have guys that are worried about who’s getting shots and where the ball’s going on the offensive end. We should never worry about that, no matter if we’re missing or making shots,” Wall said. “We have to be able to compete on the other end and if you can’t compete on the other end then you don’t need to be playing.”

That finger is not-so-subtly being pointed at Otto Porter, who has struggled so far this season. He’s made just five of his 23 3-point attempts in five games and played a season-low 22 minutes against the Kings. Kelly Oubre, his backup, played 29 minutes. When asked about it, Wizards head coach Scott Brooks told The Athletic “Otto, he has to just keep playing and can’t worry about your shots and worry about your shot-making, but Kelly is playing well.”

(Hey, at least Kelly is playing well!)

Things will likely get worse before they get better. After losses to the Golden State Warriors and Kings, the Wizards went south to play an upstart Los Angeles Clippers team and lost by (checks notes) 32 points. They’ll fly to Memphis to complete a tiresome five-game road trip. It wouldn’t be shocking if the Wizards were 1-6 by the time the calendar turns to November.

This is a big season for the Wizards. After losing to the Toronto Raptors in the first round of last year’s playoffs, management decided to keep the core together this summer and supplement it with the likes of Dwight Howard, Green and Austin Rivers rather than blow it up and set the roadmap for a successful rebuild. Which they could have done.

Wall’s $169 million contract extension is hefty but doesn’t kick in until next season, Beal is a legit asset and rising star, and Otto Porter has potential as a 3-and-D wing (and a body tailor-made to slide across two or even three different positions in small ball units) for the right team. They could realistically trade one, two or all three of them before February’s trade deadline if they were so inclined. (Though the jury is still out on how much value they could get in return for Wall, who is set to make more than $42 million per year for the next four seasons.)

But rather than rebuild, coaches and players talked about how they wanted to evolve.

Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images

Brooks has found a previously untapped appreciation for small ball lineups and has committed to playing several minutes a game with either Markieff Morris or Green at center. After playing Morris at the 5 sparsely in past seasons, Morris and Green are spending nearly half their time on the court as interchangeable small-ball centers.

Once the coach who was so reluctant to yank Kendrick Perkins down the stretch of the NBA Finals, Brooks now sounds like a downright small-ball truther.

“We definitely have opportunities to play it every night just like teams have the opportunity to do it against us every night with all the smalls that we’re playing,” Brooks told The Step Back in Sacramento. “We like it with Jeff and Markieff, two good players who can make plays at the 4 and 5 spot, they both can shoot.”

For Porter, now in the second year of a max contract, the uneven compound of internal and external pressure of scoring more has been an adjustment. He aspires to live up to his billing, using an increased volume of 3-point shooting as his primary vehicle.

Coming off of his first All-Star game appearance, Beal has increased his assist rate in each of the last three years and has become a more complete player on the offensive end.

Wall has quietly turned into a more efficient scorer, so far attempting just 17 percent of his shots from midrange compared to 35 percent last season, and has already taken half as many corner 3s as he did all of last season.

Recently, teams that have woken up to the hip ways of the modern NBA have seen near-immediate improvements. Look no further than last season’s Raptors, who under Dwane Casey started shooting more 3s, played small more often, and finished the regular season with the best record in the Eastern Conference. Washington went from taking the eighth-fewest 3-point attempts last season to taking the fifth most this season. They haven’t scored as much so far this season, but they’ve also missed a bunch of open shots. The Wizards are a good offensive team and they should catch fire soon. It’s the defense that has inexplicably fallen off a cliff.

A struggling defense can sometimes be the first symptom of something broken. Last season’s Cleveland Cavaliers had the second-worst defense in the NBA (and the worst defense if you consider the trying-to-lose Phoenix Suns were 30th), and it was clear even after a Finals run that LeBron’s second act in Cleveland had reached its end. The last season before the Clippers decided to blow it up, they went from having the fifth-best defense in the league to falling out of the top 10. Since then, various former Clippers have been open about the fact that they were tired of playing together. When that happens, communication slips, and the defense gets worse.

We could be seeing the same thing in Washington. (Sure, the injury to Dwight Howard hasn’t helped but, if Dwight Howard is the answer, you’re asking the wrong question.) You don’t have to read between the lines to see the evidence. No team gives up more second-chance points and few teams give up as many wide open shots, as defined by NBA.com. As Wall says, “that’s the proof in the pudding.”

Like those Clippers and Cavs teams, the Wizards are built to contend now. If the internal pressures of evolving don’t result in something profitable, external forces will pull them apart. That’s the tug of war happening in Washington, between a team that needs to validate its existence and the very real possibility that we’ve already seen the best this group has to offer.

Next: Jaren Jackson Jr. is just here to play his game

The jagged pill for Wizards fans, however, is that this team has never reached the heights of those Cavs or Clippers. The Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan Clippers were a perennial 50-win team ultimately sunk by nagging postseason injuries. Those Cavs made it to the Finals four years in a row and came away with a ring. Meanwhile, these Wizards never made it out of the second round and, at their peak powers, won all of 49 games in the East.

The Wizards have time to right the ship, but not much. As coaches and players try to conjure an evolved form of basketball, the gut health of this team might be shot. If that’s true, we could be headed toward a rebuild in the Capital.

Stats via NBA.com current for Oct. 27, 2018

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