Photo by Reggie Hildred for The Sports Capitol

The push and pull with Scott Brooks and the Wizards

BY BEN STANDIG | OCT. 22 , 2018

While initially contemplating which names would make my list of 10 potential game-changers in the Eastern Conference, I planned on using Dwight Howard. The Wizards’ new center brought double-double production and ample baggage to the scene. When he plays remains uncertain.

Otto Porter also made for a strong Wizards entry. The talk surrounding the efficient small forward entering the season involved the need for more. More 3-pointers, more urgency, just more.

The season may hinge on what the Wizards receive from those two players. There’s also the health of John Wall’s knees, and whether the point guard dials back on hero ball late in games. Bench production and rotations are topics, along with small-ball lineups, the team taking more 3-pointers, and, as always, fundamental defense. We’ll find out over 82 games which angles define these Wizards.

Following Saturday’s 117-113 home loss to the Toronto Raptors, I shifted my Wizards thoughts for the 10-person list elsewhere. Players playing decide NBA games. They just don’t control everything.

Brooks usually controls his emotions and words with the precision of an atomic clock. There are brief moments during a season where frustration builds, and the 53-year-old coach talks himself into a technical foul or, as the case in Washington’s second game of the season, an ejection. When engaging with the media, Brooks blurts out kernels of candor with the regularity of a semi-annual dentist appointment. This Saturday was unusual.

The coach armed with a never-ending supply of dad jokes tried remaining on his bland brand postgame. Asked what he did following the ejection, Brooks joked, “I was hungry. I needed to get something to eat.” As for the ejection itself, Brooks bashed his “poor example.”

“I’m disappointed in myself,” Brooks said. “I got to do a better job, and that’s something that we’ve been talking about, and hopefully, it won’t happen again,” Brooks said.

Even if three blind mice were in fact in charge of officiating – based on the call that ramped up Brooks’ ire, maybe — it was unusual to see Brooks so amped.

It’s hard imaging this fire was about a single call or collection of whistles in the second game of the season. The outburst makes more sense when viewing the Raptors contest not like Game 2 of 82, but a carryover from last season’s eighth seed/first-round playoff exit frustrations. The most distressing aspect of the 0-2 start is the unwanted sense of more of the same.

Last season Brooks was coming off a 49-win campaign, the most for the organization in nearly 40 years. He entered the second year of a five-year contract paying him $35 million. There’s real power within that data. From the outside, it’s unclear if Brooks used any.

He threatened lineup changes throughout a season filled with inexplicable losses to overmatched or understaffed opponents, then rarely if ever followed with the hammer. Over the second half of the season, Brooks would occasionally offer direct criticism for a player, though All-Stars John Wall and Bradley Beal were rarely (ever?) named targets. Brooks’ annoyance ramped up as the Wizards slid down the conference standings.

Porter received mention once or twice. Washington’s starting small forward and highest-paid player became a talking point Saturday. Considering Brooks usually pulls his punches during media Q&A sessions and the season still has that new car smell, the postgame candor and demeanor stood out when asked about:

Porter’s lack of field goal attempts after halftime: “I don’t know… You’ve got to get yourself open. Got to get yourself open.”

Porter playing only 25 minutes: “For Otto? Because we’ve got some really good players. We got good players. I want guys to play hard. We got to play hard. You don’t need extra minutes to play not hard. Got to play hard. Everybody.”

Follow-up on what he just said in those two responses about Porter: “You got to move. You got to move. You got to set yourself up. You got to run the floor. We’ve got a fast point guard. I don’t know if you guys know that, but he’s fast. And if our wings aren’t running, what good is it when you’re going to have a one-man break?

“What makes teams play with pace is guys running. I love Otto. I love Otto. You guys know that. But he has to play faster. He has to. …The guy can do it. I’ve seen it. He didn’t do it tonight, but he’s going to bounce back. He didn’t do it the first two games, but he’s going to bounce back and do it – and we need it.”

We might need clarification from Brooks. Based on a cursory look at Saturday’s replay, it appears that Porter is running lanes per usual with minor exceptions. According to NBA.com, Porter has the third highest average speed (4.40 mph) overall among his teammates this season while clocking in fourth on offense (4.81). Last season Porter finished 4.48 overall and 4.78 on offense.

When asked by a reporter about Porter’s lack of 3-point attempts for the umpteenth time this young season alone, Wall said after the loss, “This will be the last time I talk about Otto Porter hitting 3s, not just because of you, just you all. Period. The game is different. Everybody’s switching 1 through 4, 1 through 5. Like I said, we try to get everybody…the best shot possible, get everybody shots.” That sizzle quote made the rounds on social media even though Wall responded with calm. In the same breath, he also contradicted his coach when saying of Porter, “He did a great job running the floor today, getting to the corner.”

Let’s say Brooks is right in this instance, that Porter lacked the needed end-to-end, or hard-cutting oomph. It doesn’t seem like a two-game stretch is enough sample size for that kind of call-out from a usually buttoned-up coach. Perhaps practice habits are involved.

What about the dozens of games where Porter dutifully does as desired and receives little reward by way of touches? That’s a question posed by a handful of league sources to The Sports Capitol upon hearing of Brooks’ criticism. The opposing viewpoint contrasts the Porter criticism by name with the lack of such singular focus on the team’s two All-Stars.

That’s not to say Wall* and Bradley Beal deserve all, most or any blame for Saturday or Porter’s touches overall. It’s to note Brooks rarely calls them out in public and almost never by name even last season when he held considerable power.

(* Wall maintains possession longer than nearly every player in the league does and his average speed of 3.71 mph previous season ranked fourth lowest among all NBA players.)

Forget what Brooks says to the media. Based on the here-we-go-again vibe from the opening two games, it’s unclear any message of change is taking hold. When trying to figure what pushed Brooks’ buttons Saturday, we should perhaps start here.

Howard has yet to play. The future Hall of Famer and current wild card didn’t make the five-game road trip which starts Monday in Portland even though Brooks stated he would before Saturday’s game. He remained back in Washington with the training staff to rehab his sore buttocks. It’s possible Howard joins the team on the road, a source told The Sports Capitol, but practice time is scarce on this trip. Whenever Howard joins the lineup, Brooks’ real work begins.

“It’s not going to be easy,” former Wizard Marcin Gortat told The Sports Capitol this summer when asked about the Brooks-Howard dynamic. “Scotty Brooks has a hell of a job in from of him. Is [Dwight] going to be successful with that team? I don’t know. The court will verify everything.”

With Howard’s arrival, tweaking the returning pieces and the team’s collective mindset seemed like the easy part for this head coach. That these Wizards resemble last year’s underachievers is the concern. That may account for Brooks’ demeanor shift Saturday night. Two games into a long NBA season shouldn’t define what’s to come. It might be for these Wizards unless the head coach figures out which buttons to push.

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.

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