Quick Links

Morning tip: Wizards' next coach can't play favorites, alienate Wall


Morning tip: Wizards' next coach can't play favorites, alienate Wall

When a team fails, and the Wizards were an exceptional train wreck this season, the leader comes under the spotlight. John Wall had an interesting take in his exit interview and I followed up with him to clarify his remarks. Then I followed up with others close to the situation to flush out exactly what Wall was referencing as the underlying factor that prevented him from being more effective.

I did a great job leading as much as I could. A lot of guys that's on a one-year deal, you put your foot down, you say what you need to say as a leader, but at the end of the day if everybody is not held accountable from the starting position down -- from me to the last person on the bench -- if we're not held accountable if one person wants to do something more no matter what I say as a leader if he's not backing me up it's not going to work. I think it was tough because with nine guys coming in on one-year deals everybody wanted the last word. Everybody wanted the last say so. This is probably the most flare ups or whatever throughout games.

This probably went over a lot of people's heads, but this onion needed peeling. Exactly who or what was Wall referencing? Clearly, Wall is suggesting that coach Randy Wittman, now fired, wasn't consistent in how he handled the locker room.

"If I'm the best player on the team and I can take the criticism," Wall said to me after he talked to the media horde at his press conference, "then everybody else can."

Specifically, I'm told by multiple persons with knowledge of the situation, it was Wittman's outright refusal to ever call out Nene that was at the heart of it. The 7-foot Brazilian, in the final year of a contract that paid him $13 million this season, is treated with reverence for good reason. He brought a seriousness and a professionalism to the locker room that it lacked post-Gilbert Arenas. He was acquired in a 2012 trade that also sent JaVale McGee out of town. 

Nene's lengthy injury history has long been a source of frustration for the Wizards, but without him they don't make two consecutive playoff appearances. They don't beat the Chicago Bulls in five games of a first-round series in 2014. Where does that appreciation end and more accountability begin?

As some players saw it, Wittman's refusal to be fair in this regard contributed to his loss of credibility in the locker room. In Wittman's defense, he was in a classic Catch-22. He berated Marcin Gortat for not being Nene on the defensive end every chance he had. Nene plays more physical, angry and reads the floor so well on both ends that he almost always connects with the right pass or make the right rotation. He needed Nene. 

He couldn't start Nene, however, because of his constant foot and leg injuries and had to keep his minutes down. He could never bench Gortat as a form of punishment because he'd check out mentally for the rest of the season. And Gortat felt unfairly targeted by Wittman because he took the criticism for two players. 

Tensions were raised when the team would study game film and Wittman always was quick to call out the likes of Wall and Bradley Beal while Nene routinely received a free pass. While Nene was vital, he wasn't flawless. He had five turnovers in 17 minutes in their game at Golden State, stripped from behind on double-teams by Stephen Curry that he should've seen coming. Then by Leandro Barbosa. What could've been a major upset turned into a 102-94 loss. Nene commanded double-teams because Golden State had no one to handle him in the low post without Andrew Bogut on the floor, which forced them to take a chance and compromise their defense. That's a good thing. His reaction time was just too slow vs. a cat-quick team. That's a bad thing.

"It was all our fault. He did nothing wrong," a player said, nodding at  Nene, in the locker room in Oakland, Calif., and this came the night before Beal's blowup following a loss the to the Sacramento Kings when he called his teammates for not playing hard or smart.

Even when it came to Ramon Sessions, who had a strong season as Wall's backup and in the final year of his deal, Wittman curiously refused to criticize him for soft defensive coverages on pick-and-rolls. The perception became that Sessions is such a likable and great player to coach, Wittman didn't want to mention him by name and as with Nene he'd blame the mistake on the collective instead of that individual.

Sessions, I'm told, actually challenged Wittman to call him out if he's suggesting that he was at fault. It wasn't a combative posture by Sessions. He wanted the coaching. He wanted to be challenged.

Wittman's eventual departure wasn't the a case of players turning on their coach to get him out of office. Wall has been candid about how Wittman helped him become thicker-skinned. He takes criticism so well now, became an All-Star three times and made an NBA All-Defensive team because of those lessons. 

But even players who were partial to Wittman saw the favoritism and also suspected that their coach was afraid of angering Nene, or just bowed to him because he was a veteran of 14 seasons. This undoubtedly contributed to repeated spats between young and old, with Beal and Nene going at it heavily in a home loss to Portland. 

When asked about this likely being the last time he'll play with Nene, Wall was genuinely complimentary. But you also can read between lines:

He's a feisty competitive person. He wants to get his point across. I want to get my point across. Somebody that came in and gave us a physical presence that we needed on the low post, that can pass, understands basketball. When he's healthy you know what you're going to get from him. .... Nothing I have bad to say about him.

It would've been easier if these players didn't like each other as people. Almost everyone got along off the court. Professionally, they saw the game in different ways and one of Wittman's major mistakes was playing favorites. 

Gregg Popovich is the gold standard of NBA coaches so this is a high bar, but he will yell at Tim Duncan, Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili -- in front of his team -- as easily as he'll verbally assault Patty Mills or Boban Marjanovic. He'll also bench his entire starting five if he feels they're playing lackluster and they'll need to get over it if they don't like it.

The best player has to set an example for everyone to follow. He has to take it. But so does everyone else when their turn comes to go to the woodshed. This is how a team maintains order.

Only in this type of an environment can Wall or Beal have a chance to have any chance at fulfilling their ability to lead. It's imperative for the Wizards' next coach to understand that.

MORE WIZARDS: 10 biggest surprises of the NBA regular season

Quick Links

Road ahead suggests a wild finish in Eastern Conference playoff race

USA Today Sports Images

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.

NBC Sports Washington is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Quick Links

Oklahoma star freshman Trae Young to enter NBA Draft

USA Today Sports Images

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. 

NBC Sports Washington is on Apple News. Favorite us!