1. The Wizards lost to the Sixers because their defense was horrendous. We’ll get to that. First, I want to say the following: Washington’s offense is badly broken. In the disastrous first quarter, 10 of Washington’s 19 shot attempts were midrange jumpers, versus only four attempts in the restricted area, and just two 3-pointers. They managed just 15 points in the quarter. Ah ha, you are thinking, but they got going in the second quarter when their shot selection improved! Not so! The improvement was minor—they attempted eight midrange jumpers—and their comeback came down largely to players making more shots. In fact, there was a two minute stretch of the second quarter prior to a Marcus Thornton 3-pointer from the wing where four different Wizards players attempted nearly identical elbow jumpers on consecutive possessions.
This wouldn’t matter so much, except that there’s really only one above average midrange shooter on the entire roster. I am not someone who thinks no one should ever take midrange jumpers, but I do think average midrange shooters should not be trying to work themselves into a shooting rhythm by dribbling into midrange jumpers when there’s space in front of them. Like, for example, Marcus Thornton is not at all a good NBA player—the Wizards cannot afford to let this man shoot his way into a rhythm. When he is out there, the least he can do is throw himself at the rim and hope to get someone in foul trouble.
By my count, the Wizards attempted something like 32 midrange jumpers in this game, and I’m being fairly conservative. This next point really can’t be overstated: when teams practice defense, they practice taking away 3-pointers and layups. If you find yourself taking a jump shot from the elbow with time left on the shot clock, and the name Nowitzki is not on the back of your jersey, the defense has won the possession, whether you make the shot or not.
It’s incredibly alarming that the Wizards haven’t moved past this tendency from the Wittman era, and even more alarming that they seem to have even more freedom to fire away from midrange this season. This is probably my biggest concern about the job Scott Brooks is doing, right now.
2. If you are inclined to look at the box score and list Markieff Morris among the few Wizards players who showed up, don’t. Those two offensive fouls he picked up in the first minute of the game were terrible, and took Morris off the floor before the Wizards had even attempted a shot. The Sixers would go on to outscore the Wizards by 14 points in the first quarter while Morris sat on the bench. Sure, the Wizards were in the plus when he was on the floor tonight, but they also wouldn’t have been so far in the goddamn minus in the first quarter if he’d been around to participate.
Look. Those are turnovers. For all my bitching about midrange jumpers, I’ll take a midrange jumper all day long over a goddamn turnover. Especially when those turnovers lead to the team almost immediately playing with two unproven bench guys on the floor. Morris can’t spend his fouls so stupidly and then have anything to say about his teammates’ IQs. The fucking guy had to go to the bench 54 seconds after tip-off.
3. At least part of the reason those fouls hurt so much is this: Andrew Nicholson is a calamitously bad defender. He looks completely lost out there, whether closing out on the perimeter or defending off the ball or checking a man in the mid post. Nicholson had a minus-65.6 Net Rating in this game, and his Net Rating on the year is minus-26.4. Until they can try him out alongside a better defensive center, they can’t use him. And I’m not sure they can use him even then. Morris leaving so early forced Brooks to insert a walking disaster. The Sixers outscored the Wizards again in the third quarter, so it’s not like this all falls on Nicholson, but he played one stretch of just over 12 minutes tonight, and the Wizards got absolutely hammered during those minutes.
4. The limitations of this roster have put Scott Brooks into a real bind, and the Wizards are in deep shit. They’ve got no fewer than four players on their bench who absolutely should not be taking the floor in an NBA game, and three of them are backing up players who the Wizards knew would miss time this season: Thornton might occasionally be able to hide in certain lineups and against certain lineups, but he should not be a rotation player in the NBA; Jason Smith has a negative PER, which honestly should not be possible, and also somehow manages to understate how bad he’s been; Trey Burke has a minus-24.9 Net Rating on the year and observably cannot handle the ball or initiate an offense in the NBA. And Nicholson is a total bozo.
So, what the fuck is Scott Brooks supposed to do? He’s got an All Star point guard on a minutes restriction, and an injury-prone wing who may also come under a minutes restriction, and a key free agent who may not be available for several more weeks. He has no choice but to use players who are so bad that his team cannot form even minimally competent lineups when any two of them are on the court together.
5. OK, the defense. Brooks has them doing too much. They’re pressuring farther up the floor than they should against guys who do not meaningfully threaten their defense, and they’re hedging too aggressively against screens, and it’s triggering sequences where multiple guys have to shift and help and recover at full speed, and the Wizards players just don’t have it. It’s fucking anarchy. The reason the Wizards are giving up so many 3-point attempts is that they’re doing the opposition’s work for them, contorting themselves and getting out of shape over simple, non-threatening actions.
Of course, it doesn’t help that they’re often playing several sloppy, frantic, chronically zoned-out and/or inattentive defenders at a time. Thornton in particular got lost on the weak side several times tonight, and several other times left his teammates high and dry by going for long-shot steals. There was no stretch of the game where the Wizards defended well—when they outscored the Sixers, generally it was because the Sixers are a bad basketball team.
6. I really hate to say this, but these ten games have been the first time in several years when the lack of a steady, dependable veteran seems like a glaring weakness. Not because the Wizards need some wizened Gandalf type to issue stirring locker room speeches, but because the Wizards sometimes need someone out there who can kinda settle things down with smart, clear-headed play. Paul Pierce could halt an opposing run with a well-timed and beautifully-sold flop. Nene could create space around the basket for a high-percentage shot. Even Jared Dudley would draw a charge or make a smart extra pass to get the Wizards pointed more towards the right direction.
Too often, John Wall and Bradley Beal look to reverse momentum by taking lower percentage shots and bigger risks, instead of by bearing down and insisting on a higher percentage move. It’s vaguely heroic when Wall tries to bring his team to life by taking shots he should not be taking, like he assessed the situation and thought someone needs to get hot, and I’m the All Star, so I guess it should be me. I can totally understand this line of thinking—it’s a response to a feeling of urgency and an impulse to take positive action. For that matter, so is sniping at a teammate who blows an assignment. That a behavior is the result of caring about your job doesn’t mean it is particularly virtuous.
Otto got into this routine tonight, too, during a stretch of the second half where he jacked a series of ill-advised long-twos, including one from 21 feet with something like 22 seconds of shot clock left after an offensive rebound. Otto is a good player, and it was kind of a tragic moment, watching him press in that exact way. “Hero ball” has a certain negative connotation, which it should, I guess, because it is generally a wildly inefficient way to play, and often seems motivated by a desire for personal glory. But I also think it’s an easy trap to fall into when your team is scuttling: I need to take this thing in hand or we are going to lose. It was nice having players on the team whose version of that skewed more toward expending energy to force higher percentage plays, and less toward hoping to catch fire.
7. Bad bench and lousy roster or no, the Wizards badly need to win tomorrow night. And it’s gonna be tough, especially if Beal doesn’t play. Not that Beal is an especially good NBA player—honestly, I’m not totally sure he’s even much better than average—but every minute he plays is one fewer minute they’re stuck giving to guys who probably don’t belong in the NBA at all. The Wizards so badly need their roster to stabilize, and that’s not something that can happen while Beal is out of action.
Incidentally, this roster stabilization has been held hostage by Beal’s injuries for literally his entire career. I’m not blaming him for this—it’s just an unfortunate fact. They need him out there less because he’s irreplaceable and more because their lineups will continue to be in flux while he is out, and the Wizards are nowhere near deep enough to keep the fire lit through this amount of soul-searching. Scott Brooks needs an opportunity to take a long look at his players in the appropriate context—these are my starters, these are my rotation guys, these are my reserves. He needs a stable top six or seven guys, so that he can figure out how to splice in other guys in ways that don’t completely sabotage momentum, and test out lineup adjustments from a position of relative strength, or at least firm footing.
While Beal and Mahinmi are out, Brooks has a maximum of five dependable rotation players available, and the drop off from there is breathtakingly steep. Center, for example, should be a position of strength for the Wizards, but it is instead a tightrope walk over a deep ravine and near-certain death. The only available reserve to play the position has produced an efficiency rating that suggests he has almost never done a good thing for his team. They really are in deep shit.
Thanks for reading, you.