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Wizards identity search rolls on


Wizards identity search rolls on

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.

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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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