Main photo by Brian Murphy, inset photos by Reggie Hildred for The Sports Capitol
Wizards run out of time for idle threats
BY BEN STANDIG | APRIL 10, 2018
CAPITAL ONE ARENA – A fuming Scott Brooks dropped several sizzle quotes following the Washington Wizards’ implosion against the Atlanta Hawks last Friday. He said the team played “selfish basketball” and called the loss “embarrassing.”
“We got to start guarding somebody, and we got to start moving the basketball the way we’re capable of doing it,” he said not long after Washington surrendered a 16-4 run over the final 4:16 for a 103-97 loss. “If we’re not going to do that, I’ll find five guys to do that. I don’t care how small we are or how big we are.”
This was not the team’s only curious performance during this serrated season. The forceful tone and extra dose of candor Friday came from built-up frustration Brooks admitted after Sunday’s practice. “A couple of games just starting adding up. I’ve been seeing a pattern the last eight to 10 games,” he said as his usual calm nature returned.
Several of the talking points Friday were familiar, specifically the “I’ll find five guys” sentiment. Brooks has used some form of that line numerous times this season and it’s not because he craved hamburger. The pattern of looking past draft lottery-bound opponents or simply not walking onto the court motivated began early.
So did Brooks stating he needed to find those ready to play as the coach desires. Nothing changed. Not the erratic play, not the idle threats, not the open roster spot, not the late-game inefficiency some believe the coach enables.
Brooks never made a starting lineup change. He said he won’t for the playoffs. Nobody is suggesting he should. It’s just that he is the one threatening such moves.
Individual minutes fluctuated at times and maybe a player watched more than they ran in some games, but there were no gamelong benchings from an enough-is-enough standpoint. Whatever rotation tweaks occurred, namely Tomas Satoransky’s ascension at point guard, came because of standard game performance.
You can believe Brooks, a 10-year NBA veteran who gritted his way into a career nobody saw coming, wanted more — even if just to make a point. No doubt he spoke up in team meetings and during practice. Washington spent Sunday’s practice watching film. Nobody needed a warning to hush.
“Very quiet,” Marcin Gortat said of the scene. “We were watching, listening, and it was a good session. Very good session.”
This meeting lasted around two hours. Enough bad game footage existed from this season for a movie marathon.
The season-long struggles began in the seventh game. Washington allowed 107 points over the final three quarters and fell at home to a Phoenix Suns team that enters the final week 20-60. Following a 133-109 loss at Charlotte on Jan. 17, Brooks used the phrase, “Find guys that are going to compete” twice in the same answer about the team’s performance that evening.
These are not isolated quotes. The lack of focus and erratic play lasted all season.
Brooks can vent about Gortat’s inability to defend perimeter-shooting big men like Cleveland’s Kevin Love and Boston’s Al Horford. Other Eastern Conference contenders present similar challenges. He can do little about it without making a point for making a point’s sake.
“It’s hard for (Marcin) to guard guys that shoot 3s,” Brooks said while explaining why the lumbering 6-foot-11 center sat out all but 21 seconds of the final 7:05 in Thursday’s collapse at Cleveland. “It’s always been the case, but if he wants to get minutes, everybody is shooting 3s.”
Brooks is right about Gortat and the NBA at-large in this era. Perhaps that statement was to counter any behind-the-scenes grumbling about minutes from the starting center. Yet, as the coach acknowledges about Gortat’s limitations defending deep shooters, this has “always been the case.”
The Wizards did not add a piece this offseason to combat such weaponry even after their 2017 postseason ended in large part to Horford shooting 61 percent on 3-pointers in the seven-game Eastern Conference semifinal series. Another stretch option, Kelly Olynyk, dropped 26 points on Washington in Game 7.
Players of Gortat’s ilk are vanishing from the league for a reason. The screen-setter and rebounder offers value. It’s just not in running after 3-point shooters. This has always been the case. Same goes for Brooks’ limited options in this area.
Ian Mahinmi offers more agility and defense then Gortat, but he is also not equipped to roam the perimeter and offers far less offensive help. Jason Smith’s 3-point touch disappeared and his defensive miscues do not warrant steady work.
Starting power forward Markieff Morris is Washington’s small-ball center. When he plays that role, the Wizards have no rim protection. LeBron James noticed and attacked during Cleveland’s winning comeback.
Brooks can express true frustration with Kelly Oubre Jr.’s performance on both ends of the court. He can do little about it because the wing depth is non-existent.
The coach only recently began offering sharper critiques of players by name. Though, he subtly nudged Oubre through the media much of the season.
The sleek 6-foot-8 forward looks like he was born on an NBA poster. Fans love stars and leading scorers John Wall and Bradley Beal by rote. They clamor for Oubre, 22, in the instinctual way music fans swoon for pop stars. Cool never goes out of style and he oozes hip.
NBA head coaches care for cool the way the way loan sharks care for late payment excuses. Oubre puts in the work and he’s the rare Wizards player whose in-game energy level remains steady. His high-level confidence may be faltering now. That’s what happens when shooting an NBA-worst 25.7 on 3-pointers since Feb. 1 and 34.5 percent from the field in that span with the win-or-else postseason approaching.
“(Kelly) hasn’t shot the ball well. You can’t hide that. It’s been a while now,” Brooks said Monday after Washington prepped for Tuesday’s meeting against Boston.
Oubre’s pterodactyl wingspan and athletic build suggest a potential defensive force. At times, Oubre looks the part in one-on-one confrontations. At times, the player whose basketball instincts were severely criticized coming out of college mucks up team concepts.
“With Kelly, I just want him to focus on the defensive end,” Brooks said Monday. “I would like for him to make some shots, but the game rewards you if you work on the defensive end. We haven’t been a good defensive team (lately) and he hasn’t been a good defensive player.”
Even if Brooks wanted to bench Oubre for a lesson, cause or frustration, there is no easy fix.
Oubre and starter Otto Porter are the only pure small forwards on the roster. The 6-foot-7 Satoransky can take some minutes and likely will if the cool Oubre cannot heat up. That opens another batch of questions with the backup point guard plan. Washington’s best net rating lineup the past two seasons includes Oubre. His extreme athleticism makes him a roster anomaly.
However, his maddening tendencies are frustrating his coach.
The question of a playoff rotation plan came up Friday during Brooks’ pregame media session. After previewing a tighter 8-9 man plan, Brooks shifted the response slightly to address something clearly on his mind. “Sometimes in the regular season you want to develop and win at the same time. In the playoffs you want to win. Developing, they’ve got summer time to develop if they’re not going to guard and pass the ball.”
There are several young players in the rotation, including starters Beal and Porter. Only two can be considered developing: Oubre and Satoransky. This quote is not about the point guard who, if anything, overpasses. Brooks benched Oubre for the final two games of the Eastern Conference semifinals against Boston last season. Another benching is brewing. The shortened rotation may give Brooks the cover needed to do it.
These are among the examples of a coach’s desire for change not aligning with his options.
Here is one where a fix is clear, yet Brooks has not altered the plan.
Following Friday’s home loss Brooks said, “One-on-one players, there’s not many in this league and we don’t have one on our team.” He also said, “Selfish basketball is no fun to coach, it’s not fun to play with, and it’s no fun to watch and we’re a selfish team right now. You can’t just say John’s not here and all of a sudden we’re going to be one on one players.”
The Wizards do have a certified one-on-one player. Wall just did not play against Atlanta.
Beal did. He is much improved in that realm for his own game, just not for running the offense.
He became one of the league’s elite wing threats by his work off the ball. Beal’s leadership and production fueled this team when Wall had knee surgery in January. His overall play on both ends is worthy of consideration for third-team All-NBA.
Beal is just not a lead guard. That’s a physical skill and mental approach. Though, Brooks continues using him like one when Wall sits. This is not just a late-game issue. Mid-game moments with Beal running point are dicey. This has not worked. Yet the curtain has not come down on this ineffective show.
There is a sense from some team and league sources that the lack of play-calling variation led to Friday’s late game troubles. Beal, who is not basketball selfish by nature, dominated possession in the final minutes against Atlanta. The ball was put in his hands as teammates watched. The empty trips piled up.
The first-time All-Star finished with 32 points on 24 shot attempts. Nobody else had more than 13 tries. The three other starters that played at least 29 minutes each combined for 25.
Brooks’ desire to keep the ball in the hands of his best player, or the fear that teams will deny passing lanes to Beal if he relinquishes the ball, seems to trump statistics.
Only Brooklyn’s Spencer Dinwiddie shoots a worse 3-point percentage in clutch moments this season than Beal (20.5). Washington’s leading scorer is 0-for-10 on 3s and 5-for-25 overall from the field in the final 30 seconds of games this season.
Per NBA.com, Beal’s Effective Field Goal percentage reaches 63.1 percent when he touches the ball for less than two seconds. Catch-and-shoot for the win. Between 2-6 seconds, 48.9. The sample size for each is at least 510 attempts. If only Beal could run off screens and pass to himself.
Porter is the only player this season shooting at least 50 percent from the field and 43 percent from beyond the arc with at least two 3-point attempts per game. He has attempted just one 3-pointer and three shots total in the final 30 seconds of games. He needs more assertiveness in his game.
“He’s not a thirsty scorer. He’s a good scorer,” Brooks said of Porter after a March 2 loss to Toronto. The team could also make a plan to call his number. If Beal played his natural off-ball role and teams send extra bodies his way, one of the NBA’s top shooters might end up with an open look. This seems like a good thing.
Wall’s return certainly helps. Skip past his own end-game struggles that showed with multiple misfires in the Cleveland finish. Just having Wall back is enough for now, even if it does not mean anyone can predict how the team performs game from game.
“The craziest thing about this team is you never know what kind of a team you will have (any) night,” Gortat said Sunday. “You can lose to the worst teams in the league and all of a sudden [we beat] the best team in the league.”
The players on and off the record believe they have the goods for a fourth first-round series win in as many tries with this core. This is not machismo, but actual belief. There is only so much change that can occur with two regular season games remaining. The roster realities are baked in.
One big change already happened. Brooks unloaded.
“[I] made those comments after the game and that’s how I feel,” Brooks said Sunday. “And that’s not the team that we are and that’s not the team that we need to be going forward. So we wanted to make sure that everybody saw what I was feeling, and I think the players will respond.”
It will be interesting to see how the coach responds as well. The Wizards have lost 13 of 19 games. The playoffs begin this weekend. The runway for improvement went from yards to steps. The playoffs are about matchups and making adjustments. Brooks did not always go in with certain threats. Time for waiting is over. Hope he found his guys.
Ben Standig is a host, writer and co-founder of The Sports Capitol. This D.C. area native grew up rooting for all the local squads and dabbled in the professional media world after college before making a full shift to sports writing in 2005. Since, Ben has covered every team and big event in town for several outlets including the Associated Press, NBCWashington.com and Scout.com.