The Washington Wizards aren't a win one, lose one kind of team this season. The peaks and valleys are prominent. Since mid-December, they've twice followed up four-game winning streaks by losing five of six. That includes the current three-game skid with Thursday's 117-113 home loss to the Denver Nuggets the latest setback. If the pattern continues, a rise will soon follow.
Yet this latest dip feels different. The Wizards spent the offseason, training camp and the opening 39 regular season games officially switching their brand. Break up the big men, its space and pace time. Yes, the work-in-progress situation slowed for stretches because of a transitioning roster, defensive woes and players missing more games due to injuries than any team in the league. Regardless, progress existed with each rise breaking the previous peak.
Over the last five games, Washington's lineups are from another time. That time represents last regular season, but with NBA in full-blown small ball mode, going with two hulking bigs can feel prehistoric.
Nene and Marcin Gortat received zero minutes together all season until the Jan. 18 loss to Portland. They've started at power forward and center respectively the last four games.
Starts of games set the tone. The Wizards' current look feels like an unnecessary rewrite.
"I keep hearing, what's our identity, what's our identity," forward Jared Dudley said after Thursday's loss.
The Wizards had great success using a perimeter shooting threat (Paul Pierce) at power forward in last season's playoffs. Just ask the Toronto Raptors and Atlanta Hawks. They stuck with that "stretch-4" look for the opening 40 games this season, using either Kris Humphries or Dudley, who made 26 starts.
Added this offseason for his spread-the-court capabilities, Dudley's presence indicated an embracing of modern basketball. The current lineup reversal feels like something else.
"Basically our identity for us on this team is to space the floor, put pressure on the defense," Dudley said. "We're a 3-point shooting team that can go in to Nene. We have to be aggressive defensively. Those are our strengths."
Those strengths led to four consecutive wins -- three on the road -- just before this current slide.
Those strengths also were on display late against the Nuggets. Washington trailed Denver 83-65 midway through the third quarter when Dudley made his second half debut. His perimeter presence helping to unclog the lane for John Wall combined with the desperate Wizards generating fast break chances off Nuggets mistakes turned the game.
Nene and Dudley played together the entire fourth quarter along some combination of three guards. The Wizards tied the Nuggets at 99-99 with 5:41 left before fading.
Denver coach Mike Malone was asked what changed when Washington went with only one true big man.
"I'm a big Jared Dudley fan," said Malone, highlighting the veteran's high basketball IQ, defense and perimeter shot. "Now what happens is it puts a lot of pressure on the 3-point line and your basket because when you have four shooters out there and one big. John Wall has a lot more room to attack and create. We have to help on the roll and that maybe can generate open 3's. We knew they'd go to that at some point and be effective for them."
The recent four-game winning streak ended with a 119-117 home loss to Boston on Jan. 16. With a large batch of players unavailable for the following game against Portland, Wittman used a Nene-Gortat combo for the first time this season. “Who else do I have?," Wittman rhetorically asked. Portland torched Washington with a 3-point shooting barrage partly because of the inability of those big men to switch out on shooters.
Nene, Washington's top interior defender and rebounder, replaced Dudley in the starting lineup the next game.
Denver, which entered 17-29 and playing the second game of a back-to-back on the road, opened Thursday's contest taking a 10-2 lead and finished shooting 50 percent from the field.
"We aren’t going to outscore anybody," Wittman said," and until we take playing defense as first priority, were going to continue having nights like this.”
With all the pieces slowly returning, perhaps consistency will form. Washington (20-24) is only three games behind Indiana for the eighth and final playoff spot with 38 games remaining.
"It's difficult because we were just on a four-game winning streak," Dudley said of the current vibe. "We showed the blueprint of how we have to do it. We have the tools. We have everything we need and then we regress."
Going back to the future with some version of the small-ball lineup they started the opening 40 games would be a big help.