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Morning tip: Big void remains until Ian Mahinmi is able to return to Wizards

Morning tip: Big void remains until Ian Mahinmi is able to return to Wizards

The moment Ian Mahinmi had his second look at his right knee, he knew something wasn't right beyond just soreness. The Wizards have managed to almost dig themselves out of hole without him and Marcin Gortat logging a career-high in minutes with no true experienced center as his backup.

It'll be at least six weeks until relief comes. The Wizards announced Tuesday that Mahinmi not only would get a platelet-rich plasma procedure on the right knee but the surgicially left one, too, that initially put him on the shelf during the preseason. Mahinmi additionally sustained a bone bruise on the left one and hasn't been able to practice fully.  

Jason Smith can play there but he's more of a face-up four who can play the position based on the matchup. He's not a good matchup for mobile, athletic centers who can play away from the rim. Andrew Nicholson is a forward who is the backup to power forward Markieff Morris and is out of position in the middle. Daniel Ochefu could be the best option in the long run, but the undrafted rookie didn't have much seasoning in real-time action until recently. He's not a threat on the offensive end.

"I think it’s fine," said Bradley Beal after he led the Wizards with 22 points in a 107-105 loss at the Indiana Pacers on Monday. "Marcin is playing great. Daniel is stepping in as a rookie and giving us solid minutes. We’ve still got plenty of bigs. Do we miss Ian? For sure. But we’ve been playing all year without him. It’s not like we’re going to use it as an excuse. We’ve just got to work with what we’ve got. We’ve had success with big lineups and small lineups. It doesn’t matter, just do what it takes to win."

Gortat, averaging a career-high 35.8 minutes, has posted 15 double-doubles after 21 points and 13 rebounds in Indiana. His 11.8 rebounds are a career-high. 

Mahinmi, however, was supposed to fill the void left when Gortat leaves the floor. Last season, the Wizards used oft-injured Nene in that role to good effect. He left for a one-year deal with the Houston Rockets for $3 million and has appeared in 23 games -- 22 more than Mahinmi -- and is averaging 7.1 points and 3.6 rebounds in 16.8 minutes. Mahinmi, who is younger at 30 and being more mobile would be a better pick-and-roll defender, is a $64 million commitment over four years for Washington.

The size and athleticism of Mahinmi is striking when he's healthy. He started 71 games for the Pacers last season, averaging career-highs of 9.3 points and 7.1 rebounds in only 25.6 minutes per game. He was Tyson Chandler's primary backup with the Dallas Mavericks, where he was a role player on the 2011 NBA championship team. 

A big who can step out to contain the ball and cover the rim simultaneously is a rare find. That's what Chandler did so well for the Mavericks which allowed them to contain and limit elite players such as Kobe Bryant, Russell Westbrook, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James en route to that title. That coverage has been a major weakeness for the Wizards in recent years, and president Ernie Grunfeld sought to tighten up that area. 

The problem the Wizards have beyond Mahinmi's absence is fewer options to bolster the bench via trade before the deadline which is two months away. No one is going to deal for Mahinmi's contract while injured and there's not a huge market for the healthy pieces they do have availalble outside of Kelly Oubre. Given how he's blossoming and Otto Porter's status as a likely restricted free agent (Wizards have to make him a qualifying offer first), it's difficult to see they'd part ways with the first-round pick.

John Wall knows what the Wizards are missing without Mahinmi. 

"You see the presence that he brings to the team when you play against him. You’ve seen what he’s done in the past," Wall said. "He’s another big that can run the floor. He does a great job of screening, blocking shots and protecting the paint. Just his vet presence, being in the locker room and talking. And being an athletic big that can catch lobs and finish plays around the basket for us, we know what he can do. He would have been a great piece to have right now in the beginning of the season. We’ve only had him for one game and he kind of wasn’t in there for very long. He’s doing the best he can in fighting, rehabbing and trying to get back healthy."

Coach Scott Brooks is going to have to continue to mix and match his lineups to compensate. Small-ball has worked in the short-term, but when opponents adjust -- and they will after seeing enough on film to prepare -- will determine how long they can stick with it.


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Road ahead suggests a wild finish in Eastern Conference playoff race

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Road ahead suggests a wild finish in Eastern Conference playoff race

The Eastern Conference standings are so closely bunched as of today that the third-place Cleveland Cavaliers are only 1 1/2 games ahead of the sixth-place Philadelphia 76ers. With roughly a dozen games remaining for each NBA team, much can and likely will change over the next several weeks.

That is common for this time of the year, but a closer look suggests we could be in for some chaos in the final stretch. There are lopsided remaining schedules and impending personnel changes which could all contribute to one of the wildest regular season finishes in recent memory.

The Wizards are smack dab in the middle of the East playoff race and have their own circumstances to navigate. Let's take a team-by-team look at the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff picture, knowing the top two seeds are all but locked up by the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics...


3. Cleveland Cavaliers (41-29, 12 games left)

Monday was a crazy day for the Cavaliers. First, they announced their head coach Tyronn Lue is taking a leave of absence to deal with an undiagnosed health issue. He will be replaced by associate head coach Larry Drew in the interim as he hopes to heal up before the playoffs.

Then, news broke they were getting Kevin Love back from a broken wrist after missing 21 games. Love returned to put up 18 points, seven rebounds, four assists and two blocks in a big win over the Milwaukee Bucks. 

The Cavaliers will be without their coach for an undefined period of time, but now have their second-best player back on the court. That makes their final part of the season extra fascinating.

The Cavs are the team to watch of this group. Even though this season has been filled with turmoil, they still have LeBron James. He and Love have helped form the core of the last three Eastern Conference champion teams. If they pick things up, it's not crazy to consider them among the favorites to get out of the East again.


4. Indiana Pacers (41-30, 11 games left)

The Pacers are mostly healthy as they only feature a slew of minor injuries to big men Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis. But Indiana's remaining schedule is unusually tough and it could make the difference in where they end up.

With only 11 games remaining, the Pacers still have to play the first-place Toronto Raptors once and the Golden State Warriors twice. Six of their last eight games will be on the road. They also see the Heat, Pelicans, Nuggets and Clippers.

The Clippers are currently ninth in the West and battling to make the playoffs. The Pacers will play them twice.

Keep in mind the Wizards own the season series over Indiana and will have a playoff seeding tiebreaker if they end up with the same record. Also worth noting is the Pacers have been much better at home (24-13) than on the road (17-17) this season.


5. Washington Wizards (40-30, 12 games left)

Though the Wizards' schedule is finally letting up soon from the 13 straight playoff teams stretch they have had to endure dating back to February, they too have a tough road ahead. The Wizards still have to play the Spurs (twice), Rockets, Cavaliers, Celtics and Nuggets. Four of their last six games are on the road and they have three back-to-back sets in their final seven games.

That's brutal. They may not have to see the defending champions twice like Indiana does, but the Wizards don't exactly have it easy.

The Wizards will, however, get John Wall back at some point. The five-time All-Star is slowly but surely working his way back and could participate in a full practice by the end of the week. Ideally they will get some games under his belt before the playoffs, but any time an All-NBA player is coming back to your team it's a good thing.

The problem is that there is little room for error in the standings and head coach Scott Brooks will have to reinsert Wall into the lineup during a tough schedule and while Wall is on a minutes restriction. It will be a tricky task to balance his lineups. 


6. Philadelphia 76ers (39-30, 13 games left)

The Sixers may have the most ideal road ahead of these four teams, at least in terms of their schedule. They still have the Timberwolves, Nuggets, Cavs and Bucks. But none of those teams are the juggernauts that Golden State, Houston and Toronto are. And of their final 13 games, the Sixers will play nine against teams outside of the playoff picture.

Philly also does not have to reincorporate a major piece into their rotation, like the Cavs do with Love and the Wizards with Wall. Their biggest injury is to Markelle Fultz, the 2017 No. 1 overall pick. If he does return this season, it will likely be in a minimal role, at least to start.

What could work against the Sixers is their inexperience and recent struggles against good teams. The Sixers are relying on very young players who have never been here before to carry the way. And since Valentine's Day, Philly has just one win against a team above the .500 mark, when they beat the Cavs on March 1. During those 14 games since Feb. 14, they have beaten up on the bad teams but lost to the Wizards, Bucks, Pacers and Heat (twice), basically all the teams surrounding them in the standings. 

Philly also lost their season series against the Cavs and Pacers, tied with the Wizards and are down 2-1 against the Bucks with one game to go. They may go to the finish line without a playoff tiebreaker against all the teams they would want one against.

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Oklahoma star freshman Trae Young to enter NBA Draft

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Oklahoma star freshman Trae Young to enter NBA Draft

After a sensational freshman season at the University of Oklahoma, point guard Trae Young plans to enter the 2018 NBA Draft, according to a report by ESPN.

Young will be one of the most fascinating prospects in this class given the extreme highs and lows of his one college season. He vaulted into the top 10 in most mock drafts after beginning his freshman year on fire, but then began to slip over the final months as his shooting percentage dropped.


Right now the Wizards are lined up to be in the late teens, so it's unlikely he falls to their range. But at this point it's difficult to predict where he will go, whether that is top five or later in the lottery.

It really could go either way. Some teams may see him as a Steph Curry-like scorer who can hit shots from unusually deep range. There were certainly times where Young backed up those comparisons.

Teams could see his flaws as a result of opposing defenses honing in on him because they could at the college level. In the NBA he may have more space and therefore be able to play to his strengths.


Or, teams could look at the fact he shot 36.1 percent from three on a whopping 10.2 attempts per game as a sign he is a chucker. He also led the nation in turnovers, commiting 24 more than the next guy. Young averaged 5.2 giveaways per game.

While Curry is the best-case scenario, Jimmer Fredette may be the worst-case. Fredette was the 10th overall pick in 2011 and now plays in China. 

Young will be an intriguing prospect in the draft because the ceiling is high and the basement is low. 

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