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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