The ongoing debate that has no end in sight is whether this has been coach Randy Wittman's ploy all along -- aka, the long con -- to wait until the postseason to unleash his best lineups to catch the Eastern Conference by surprise.
Of course, the strongest reaction for people outside of Washington, and even inside, is that they're not buying it. Paul Pierce playing at power forward seemed like a no-brainer especially since he logged so many minutes there with the Brooklyn Nets with good success in 2013-14. There's no way that Wittman would've jeopardized their seeding in the regular season, when Wizards could've nabbed as high as No. 2 before the All-Star break and still were in play for the No. 3 spot going into the final week? Pierce playing at the four was the subject of plenty chatter during training camp, but after the Wizards got off to a 31-15 start that faded.
"If you look at it we only used it three times. We used it against Atlanta when we were down, twice, and then one time against somebody else (Milwaukee)," point guard John Wall said after Wednesday's practice as the Wizards await their second-round opponent after sweeping the Toronto Raptors in four games. "It was very rarely that we used it."
Given Wittman's preference to be tight-lipped about obvious lineup changes and adjustments, even getting testy when questioned too vigorously about it, it's not very hard to see it is possible, or even likely. That he knew it would work this well? Very unlikely. No one did. (My colleague Ben Standig astutely made the Verbal Kint-to-Keyser Soze comparison last Sunday).
Last season, the Wizards experimented with Trevor Ariza there but he's not as versatile offensively as Pierce or as strong physically.
"Martell (Webster) would be at the three and Brad (Beal) would be at the two. Guys are used to it now," Wall said of why the smaller lineup wasn't as productive then as opposed to now. "We know that's where Paul played last year so coming into the season we thought we were going to do a lot more but coach just did a good job of saving it. He never told us."
The Raptors ran small lineups, taking center Jonas Valanciunas off the floor and using Amir Johnson in his place and Patrick Patterson at power forward. Both are undersized for those positions but have three-point range. The Wizards faced it three times in the regular season and were shredded as Nene had difficulty as the only big on the floor (Marcin Gortat never played after the third quarter vs. the Raptors until the postseason).
The Wizards weren't able to take advantage of a conference that weakened after the All-Star break and were content to settle for the No. 5 seed for the second season in a row. Pierce, Wall and Nene did a lot of resting as they relinquished wins. Drew Gooden played a lot more while Kris Humphries, who missed 17 games with a groin strain, fell out of the rotation and has yet to work his way back. Gooden's three-point shooting and presence changed the tenor of the season.
"His energy. He plays hard whether he's making shots or not," Wittman said. "He brings us good energy and I think that's contagious. ... He doesn't have to make shots to get into that mode of playing hard."
Think Wittman just realized that about Gooden? When the Wizards made a run to the East semifinals last season, it came after signing Gooden, who had been working out in secret at Verizon Center, after the trade deadline.
"It's opened up things that teams really haven't adjusted to in the regular season because now Drew wasn't used as much as he's being used here in the playoffs. Now he's getting the opportunity in the playoffs, playing big minutes, showing what he can do at the stretch four," Pierce said. "Teams are seeing a different Washington team, not the one they'd grown accustomed to in the regular season. ... Then you got a point guard who's constantly creating, getting into the lane. It's a different offense now."
Then Wittman adjusts the lineup to Pierce for Gooden at the four spot, with Wall, Beal, Otto Porter and Gortat. While it's easy to ridicule Wittman for waking up on third base rather than crediting him for hitting a triple, he told Pierce before Game 1 in Toronto that's where he'd spend more time. Wittman is 7-1 on the road in the playoffs and before dismissing the first-round upset of the Chicago Bulls last year because Derrick Rose wasn't available, the Wizards are 2-2 vs. them this year with Rose and Pau Gasol.
Wittman's salty demeanor is partly to blame for the lack of respect. But he has dealt with questions of his competence for most of his career. National pundits suggested that he should be fired because he'd "lost the locker room" -- a hollow cliche that's an indicator that the speaker has no tangible intel from the actual locker room. Even after consecutive road losses to the Minnesota Timberwolves and Philadelphia 76ers in late February, Wittman's job never was in jeopardy.
Through all of it, Wittman stubbornly stayed this mind-bending course. Instead of caving into Gortat's way of doing things, Wittman cut his $60 million center's minutes until he conformed. And he has gotten Nene to use his massive frame to rebound better and defer to Gortat offensively so he can get more touches going to the basket. Gortat shot 74.3% from the field vs. Toronto. Beal isn't settling and is taking more shots. Wall is focused more on his on-ball pressure defense than scoring. Both are getting to the foul line the way an elite backcourt should. Coaching is as much about people as it is greaseboards and analytics.
"It makes the floor so much more spaced for him. Now you have people helping. If people don't help, he's going to be open. He does a great job of screening," Beal said of Gortat's resurgence. "We need him to just continue to do it. We just got to give him the ball."
A Bobby Knight disciple, Wittman is old school and loyal. When in doubt, he has given veterans (Rasual Butler) the nod over young players (Porter). With so much size on the roster, Wittman is the kind who wants to exhaust every option to make it work with the traditional two bigs on the floor before opting for Plan B. Showing this sort of flexibility simply could be part of his growth in a league that has changed.
Respected vets who have played under Wittman who are no longer here -- Andre Miller, Al Harrington and Trevor Ariza -- have sworn by his competence. When this season began going sideways, Pierce, who won't hold his tongue when he sees something wrong much less give any ringing endorsements if undeserved, put the blame on the players' fragile psyche (Gortat and Harrington said this on two occasions last season). Then Pierce spoke truth about teammates who didn't have families (read between those lines) for enjoying the NBA lifestyle on the road a little too much being the culprit for their inconsistent play (translation: The problem wasn't coaching).
Perception makes it hard to accept that Wittman, who can be downright surly, is such a good people person with his players but somebody has to get the praise. Sam Cassell isn't on his staff anymore to get it by default.
There aren't a lot of secrets come postseason. Teams have scouted one another to the umpteenth degree. They know every play call, and the only thing that may change is the name or hand signal to initiate the action. The best teams, however, are able to execute in flow and outside of a structured offense. Maybe having Pierce has helped Wittman's confidence as much as he has Porter's.
"We just threw Paul in there once every blue moon. With him we don't run any of our sets," Wall said of Pierce playing the four. "(It's about) guys making plays and guys being able to step up and make shots. ... Everybody's locked in knowing what everybody's running."
The Wizards' next opponent, either the Atlanta Hawks or Brooklyn Nets, won't have much time to prepare. They're focused too much on each other going into Game 6 tonight. If the Hawks can close the series, it'll give them just one day to prepare before hosting Game 1 vs. the Wizards at 1 p.m. ET on Sunday.
That's advantage Wizards, even though they'll be on the road, because they'll be in position to flip the series by stealing home court right away. The quality of the opposition gets tougher as teams move on in the playoffs, and this includes the chess match that happens on the sidelines.
This isn't to say that Wittman deserves a medal for doing a job that pays him $3 million per year. Criticize how he has gotten his team to this point and his peculiar methods (and that's fair), but what matters most is they're playing their basketball in the postseason -- again -- with a better chance to go deeper than a year ago.