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Morning tip: Big void remains until Ian Mahinmi is able to return to Wizards

Morning tip: Big void remains until Ian Mahinmi is able to return to Wizards

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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Which team is closer to contention: the Wizards or Grizzlies?

Which team is closer to contention: the Wizards or Grizzlies?

While watching the Wizards take on another rebuilding team, as they did on Saturday night in their loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, it's only natural to compare the stages of those respective rebuilds and wonder which team is closer. That may be an even more interesting question with a game like Saturday's that matched the Wizards against a team doing things a decidedly different way.

In a sense, the Wizards are where the Grizzlies were last season. Memphis had unexpectedly bottomed out the year before, enough to land Jaren Jackson Jr. in the draft. And, like the Wizards this year, they were holding onto their core veterans, in their case Mike Conley Jr. and Marc Gasol.

But the Grizzlies didn't bounce back into playoff contention like they had hoped and ended up trading both Gasol and Conley, and arguably too late. The Wizards wish to avoid that fate with Bradley Beal and John Wall.

Neither the Wizards (7-17) or Grizzlies (9-17) are a good team right now and both would like to be back in the playoff mix sooner than later, maybe even next year. So, who is closer?

The Grizzlies have the more impressive young core with Jackson and Ja Morant. Both are just 20 years old and they each look like future All-Stars, if not All-NBA talents.

Jackson is averaging 17.6 points and 1.2 blocks while shooting 40 percent from three on six attempts per game. He's a two-way unicorn who can make plays like a guard and has potential to become an elite rim protector.

Morant is the early favorite for rookie of the year, averaging 18.7 points and 6.4 assists while shooting 42.6 percent from long range. He has future star written all over him with a game reminiscent of a young Wall or Russell Westbrook.

The Grizzlies appear to have hit on their high draft picks, but have also nailed later ones, the type of moves that separate the best front offices. Brandon Clarke, the 21st pick this past June, looks like a steal. And Dillon Brooks, a second round pick in 2017, is a solid young player.

But the Wizards also have an emerging young core with Thomas Bryant, Rui Hachimura and Moe Wagner. None of them are as good as Jackson or Morant, but they are good players on the rise. And, most importantly, the Wizards have Beal.

While Jackson and Morant could someday be stars, Beal already is one and he's signed long-term. Potential is a commodity in the NBA, but nothing is guaranteed for young teams and young players. Just look at the Bulls and Hawks this season.

Now, the Grizzlies do have something the Wizards would absolutely love to have and that is real financial flexibility. They have close to $70 million in salary coming off the books this summer and have the second-lowest payroll committed for next season of any team in the NBA, second only to Atlanta.

The Wizards, meanwhile, are strapped with Wall's supermax contract which, depending on how he returns from a torn Achilles, could be an albatross for years to come. Though cap space doesn't mean the Grizzlies will be able to lure free agents, as Memphis has never been mistaken for a prime destination, but it's a preferable spot to be in. Wall's deal may prevent the Wizards from keeping players they would otherwise re-sign, when Memphis should have no such problem.

So, so far we have the Grizzlies with a better young nucleus and a much better salary cap situation. The Wizards, though, have the proven star and may have two if Wall returns to form.

But here's what may give the Wizards the edge, or at least secure a push. The Grizzlies have to give one of their next two first round picks to Boston by way of a 2015 trade. It is top-6 protected this year and unprotected in 2021 if it doesn't convey this June. That could be a major problem for a team trying to build through the draft.

Also, the Wizards are lucky to be in the Eastern Conference. Though the Grizzlies geographically should be in the East, they remain in the West which has been the superior conference basically since Michael Jordan retired from the Bulls.

There is, of course, no definitive answer to the root question of this analysis. The easiest way to settle it would be to say the Grizzlies have a higher ceiling at this point because of Morant and Jackson, but the Wizards probably have the more likely path to the playoffs next season, given they play in the East and have two guys with a track record of getting there.

But as we compare the teams, keep in mind what Memphis wanted to do and what they ended up doing in terms of trading their veteran stars. The Wizards don't want to take their rebuild that far, but sometimes things don't go according to plan. Just ask the Grizzlies.

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Wizards fall flat in battle with young Grizzlies

Wizards fall flat in battle with young Grizzlies

The Washington Wizards lost to the Memphis Grizzlies 128-111 on Saturday night. Here are five takeaways from what went down...

1. It was just over a week ago the Wizards had their best win of the season against the Sixers. Saturday night was one of their worst.

They went into Memphis to play an emerging, but struggling team and got their you-know-whats handed to them. The Wizards jumped out to a 13-6 lead in the first, then lost the momentum and never got it back.

By halftime the Wizards were down 15. That deficit grew to 24 in the second half.

The Wizards ended up losing by 17, but it wasn't as close as the score would suggest. It was Washington's seventh loss in eight games.

Maybe it was the three-day layoff. Perhaps they weren't sharp. Whatever the reason, that was a bad one.

2. As this game went on, it became very obvious that Memphis' gameplan was to make sure Davis Bertans didn't beat them. They swarmed the Latvian Laser on the perimeter and guarded him well beyond the three-point line.

Bertans was held to nine points on 2-for-9 shooting and 1-for-6 from three. His one three was a quick release shot from about 27 feet out. Soon after that, the defense was picking him up at halfcourt.

 

This type of treatment was inevitable for Bertans, who has been the biggest surprise of the Wizards' season so far. He has turned into one of the league's best three-point shooters and the second-best scorer on the team. Teams now know it.

3. Rui Hachimura's college teammate stole the show in this one. Brandon Clarke, who played last year with Hachimura at Gonzaga, put on an impressive scoring display highlighted by a series of vicious dunks. He measured a max vertical of 40 1/2 inches and used every inch of it to dunk all over the Wizards.

He had 19 points in the first half, including an alley-oop where his head was level with the rim and a poster dunk on the fastbreak that nearly ended Ian Mahinmi's career.

 

Clarke had 25 points on 11-for-14 shooting with four rebounds. Coming out of the draft, he was considered a good defensive player but too old (he's 23) and too raw offensively without a three-point shot.

So far, he's looking like a major steal at the 21st overall pick. 

4. The Grizzlies might not be good, but they are fun to watch and have a nice young core with Clarke alongside Jaren Jackson Jr. and Morant. Jackson is a unicorn at 6-foot-11 with the ability to drive coast-to-coast and hit threes. Morant is a force of nature, able to play well above the rim despite being 6-foot-3.

Morant nearly pulled off one of the most disrespectful plays in basketball on Bradley Beal. He tried to pull a "Michael Jordan on Ron Mercer" by snatching the ball off the glass with two hands. But he clipped the rim and was called for goaltending. Still, it was impressive because of how high he got in the air.

Memphis has an exciting young team. They might contend for a playoff spot next year with a good offseason. If they were in the East, they could really make some noise.

5. The Wizards were without several key regulars once again. Isaiah Thomas missed his fifth straight game with a left calf strain and Moe Wagner was out with his left ankle sprain after playing in the past four games.

They did get back Garrison Mathews, though. The two-way guard played in his first game since Oct. 25 after sitting out due to a stress reaction in his right leg. It was Mathews' third professional game, but he made his first shot - a corner three. It happened to come in his home state of Tennessee. 

Mathews might actually get some minutes in the next few weeks because he is the second-best shooting guard on the roster with Jordan McRae out due to a finger injury.

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