Why Aren’t The Wizards Better?

For reasons that are found far beyond the scope of human rationalization, I’ve been oddly attracted to the Wizards this season. Like most NBA issues, the Eastern Conference is probably somewhat to blame, here – most NBA nights open with members of the league’s Eastern-most time zone tipping off their respective death matches, and given my placement on the Earth’s Eastern Hemisphere, I am much more likely to view early NBA games than late ones.

The Wizards somehow rise to the top among that twisted set of circumstances. The (theoretical) foursome of Wall-Beal-Nene-Gortat offers a somewhat distorted version of starpower that nonetheless serves as a beacon of light when one sifts through Mayos, Turners and DeRozans, aesthetic salvation in its most putrid form. Conversely, the Wizards offer plenty of stimulation for taste buds that have acquired a taste for the grotesque. Whatever it is that you ask of the Eastern Conference, the Wizards supply it in bundles.

That is, except for winning basketball. Much like previous permutations, this squad has managed to erase all positive offseason momentum. And in true Wizardy fashion, it’s easy to see exactly why.

The Wizards’ starting lineup of Wall, Nene, Gortat, and any two man combination of the Beal-Ariza-Webster wing platter has obliterated the opposition; in fact, all 13 of the Wizards’ most used 4 man lineups have posted positive net ratings of over 3.7 points per 100 possessions. The problem is with the phrase “most used”. In essence, if a Washington lineup is prominently featured to positive effects, at least one fifth of it is guaranteed to succumb to injury within days, if not moments.

Such has been the case with expected dings to oft-dinged Nene, ominous dings to what hopefully won’t be an oft-dinged Beal, and surrounding Ariza/Webster minutiae, all of which have combined to throw the entire structure out of whack. They have caused the dual Trevor insertion into the starting lineup, robbing a pungently abhorrent bench of its only two respectable contributors.

And even including Trevor Booker in the “respectable contributors” category is generous, as his solid individual numbers fail to compensate for the defense falling apart whenever he comes into the game. This is through no direct fault of his own, as he’s vastly outperforming the Veselyian and Seraphinian alternatives while only committing the cardinal sin of not being Nene. But the fact remains: the Booker-Gortat frontcourt duo, giving up 106.6 points per 100 possessions in 154 minutes so far, lacks the rim protection or the foot speed to sustain a defense that approaches top 10 levels. The Wizards – currently at number 12 overall – need to approximate that mark or vastly improve their 22nd ranked offense to make any real noise, even in this East.

Where this year differs from the past is that it would be a true shame if these Wizards cannot cross the absolute threshold of hearing. Whereas previous failures were somewhat cathartic punchlines to poorly constructed setups (a man walks into a bar with Nick Young, Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee; the bartender asks “hey, why the sixty losses?” /rimshot), John Wall has been good enough to warrant a narrative shift. Wall has jumped to a level that Washington’s developmental wasteland had come dangerously close to Wizarding out of the question. Rising above the fray is hardly a crowning achievement for an Eastern guard, but Wall has earned that distinction, reassuring us that the point guard of the future we envisioned him becoming when he was drafted is still a possibility.

There is much improvement still to be made, of course – for instance, while Wall has meticulously crept towards just serviceable enough from 3 point range to complement his mature game managing skills, he still sits at a decidedly below average 30.5% from beyond the arc. But even if his game is not fully formed, it is loudly present. The side pick and roll chemistry that he developed almost overnight with Gortat, the pinpoint passes to a shooter in the corner, those bursts of speed in both the open and closed court – it would be a shame if we were limited to only 82 games of this John Wall. Even if the alternative is only 86, or a gentlemanly 87, Wall is good enough for us to want to get them.

Sadly, that seems unlikely to happen without improved fortunes in either health or bench play. With the former mostly dependent on Nene turning history on its head and Beal (welcome back!) proving short trends as flukes, and the latter on the young and so far incapable shoulders of Otto Porter and Glen Rice Jr., one would be forgiven for letting pessimism reign supreme.

Statistical support from NBA.com.