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Morning tip: Defensive abilities separate Wall and Beal from most backcourts

Morning tip: Defensive abilities separate Wall and Beal from most backcourts

Suddenly, out of nowhere, John Wall and Bradley Beal are the "in" backcourt again, and the lost 41-41 season that was 2015-16 is all forgotten. Bygones. 

Except, it shouldn't be. How quickly the narrative turned on a duo that was Wall's broken left hand and wrist from an Eastern Conference Finals appearance when he was undercut by Jeff Teague in Game 1 of the semifinals vs. the Atlanta Hawks.

It was a small sample size but in the 10 games of that playoff run that included sweep of heavily favored Toronto in the first round validated their claim to best backcourt in the East. 

Then came the fallout. Wall played through two bad knees last season -- both required surgery May 5 -- and still averaged 20 points and 10 assists. Beal played a career-low 55 games because of a stress reaction for the fourth year in a row to his lower right leg. 

Wall went from being an All-Star starter to a reserve again. Damian Lillard jumped him in the national conversation as being the better point guard, and that point was further cemented after he scored 41 points in an overtime win over the Wizards. No one ever talks about Beal, but he probably should've been a first-time All-Star this season. 

A 2-8 start this season understandably led to no attention and low expectations. But Wall was playing his way back into shape as he beat the timetable from returning from his surgeries. The Wizards won 17 games in a row at home before losing in overtime to the Cavaliers on Monday night. 

Going into tonight's game at the Brooklyn Nets, they have a chance to run the table until the All-Star break that begins after Feb. 16 with as many as 34 wins. A 50-win season would be in reach for the first time since 1979 when they were the Bullets and advanced to the NBA Finals. 

If someone has said: "If John Wall ever develops his mid-range game ..." they haven't been watching not just this season but the previous two.

If someone has said: "If Bradley Beal can develop his game off the bounce ..." they haven't been watching as he has set a career-high assists (nine) and reached eight twice already this season. 

[RELATED: Harlan calls Wiz-Cavs 'best regular season game' he's seen]

Wall is averaging career-highs across the board and has 30 double-doubles with no other guard in the East being anywhere near half that total. Beal has scored 41 or more points three times and had five or more assists 14 times. 

Statistically, an argument can be made for most top-flight players as there are enough numbers to support an argument for anyone. While they matter, the eye test still matters, too.

Most numbers, unfortunately, have to do with offense. When is the last time you've heard an analysis of the lock-and-trail technique of Beal? (For the record, it's pretty damn good. Isaiah Thomas? Not so much).

If anything beyond a player's individual stats matter -- creating for others, deflections, close outs -- then no one should be shocked by the ascension of Wall and Beal other than they're both healthy at the same time.

When Wall went out in that playoff series in 2015, did Beal shrink without his playmaker in that series with the Hawks? He averaged 23.7 points, 7.3 assists and 4.7 rebounds minus Wall before they lost in six games to the No. 1 seed. Wall returned to play through the broken hand to average a double-double wearing little protection.

Beal signed for $128 million this summer in what was a no-brainer negotiation for president Ernie Grunfeld. Where else was he going to find a 23-year-old shooter with his upside on the open market who is a two-way player? Let Beal walk with nothing in return and make a move to sign Dwyane Wade in free agency? There was no other choice but to max Beal. None. There was no better option on the market in terms of age, talent, attitude and upside. None. This decision was as easy as an uncontested layup and no need to debate this. None.

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The final number for Beal's contact was much bigger than what Wall signed for in 2013 under a much small salary cap ($80 million), but where else were the Wizards going to find a pass-first point guard who had a track record for making everyone around him better; who is 6-4 and can post up Thomas, Kyle Lowry, Kemba Walker and Kyrie Irving; and who can score just 10 points and still be the best player on the floor?

Smart contracts are more about the ceiling -- what a player can grow into during the life of a deal -- and not as much about where he's at during the moment he signed (Gordon Hayward). It's a futures market. There are players out there with more accomplishments, All-Star apperances and national reputations but where will they be during he life of the max deal. Will they still be max-worthy or will their returns diminish with age (Carmelo Anthony).

Beal's leg injuries never required surgery. It was an overuse injury that's cured by monitoring his workload not just in games but practices which have been tamped down under coach Scott Brooks. 

Now that he's at optimum health and Wall is, too, the it shows how such short-sighted views on both could've backfired. Now they're exploding into the NBA's national consciousness. How ridiculous are those early-season, "It's time to trade John Wall and start over" blog posts, sound? 

The roster had to be turned over to the two young stars to see what they were made of, having to co-exist and lead by example. They drew chuckles for making too much of a "funeral" game vs. the hated Celtics and dominated them. Wall was questioned for calling Monday's game the biggest regular season game of his career and then helped make it one of the most memorable finishes of all time in a showdown with LeBron James.

Maybe, instead of rolling those eyes use them to watch. Relatively speaking, it's easy to be a one-way player who scores 30 points a game. It's more difficult to defend Irving for an entire game, hold him to 8-for-24 shooting (yes, he did hit big shots in overtime) and average 23 points and 10.4 assists yourself like Wall. Or 22.2 points, 3.7 assists and 39% from three-point range like Beal who takes on equally tough assignments. 

Now that the Wizards are two years removed from Paul Pierce, the credit has no choice to go where it belongs. All the barriers have been removed. It's their team, and they're just not the future. Wall and Beal are the now. 

[RELATED: What's been the reason for Wizards' turnaround this season?]

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Potential coaching staff changes rocket into discussion for Wizards

Potential coaching staff changes rocket into discussion for Wizards

We can begin free agent watch with the Washington Wizards way before July 1.

This isn’t about players. Coaching changes can happen whenever.

News broke Saturday out of Houston that the Rockets would not retain associate head coach Jeff Bzdelik. Considered one of the league’s top defensive minds, Bzdelik’s relationship with Scott Brooks along with comments made by the Wizards head coach at the NBA Combine makes this transaction interesting.

Bzdelik, 66, gave Brooks his first NBA coaching job when the then Denver Nuggets head coach hired the former player in 2003.

"I'm thankful for coach Bzdelik," Brooks told the Houston Chronicle in 2016.  "He gave me my first NBA coaching start. One of the best coaches I've ever been around. He has great understanding of the game, both ends of the floor.”

Fast forward to Thursday inside Chicago’s Quest Multisport facility. Amid 5-on-5 games involving 2019 draft prospects, players holding court with media members and the general convention vibe that comes with the NBA Combine, Brooks spent a few minutes chatting with reporters.

Among the non-draft or general manager search topics, whether any changes to the coaching staff were forthcoming.

"I’ve talked to Ted. I definitely talked Ted,” Brooks began his reply, referencing Wizards owner Ted Leonsis. “I have a lot of respect for our organization. I have to get better, first and foremost…Will the staff remain the same? Every year, staffs change. Every year staffs change. We're probably going to make some changes. I don't know if it's for sure. Everything is still up in the air.”

Brooks also noted change could come from members of his staff seeking opportunities elsewhere. Tony Brown, Brooks’ lead assistant during his three seasons with the Wizards, became a coaching free agent following Washington’s 32-50 season, according to NBC Sports Washington’s Chris Miller.

Two days after Brooks’ comments came news of Bzdelik’s exit in Houston.

Bzdelik, a former Bullets assistant from 1988-94 and three-time college head coach, retired following the 2017-18 season. He returned to the Rockets in November following Houston’s slow start. The associate head coach is credited with guiding the team’s defensive improvement as the Rockets rose up the Western Conference standings.

The Houston Chronicle reported Bzdelik, whose contract expired after this season, remained uncommitted to returning. The Rockets announced Saturday they would not renew his deal.

The Wizards do not want a repeat of their defensive struggles. Only the Atlanta Hawks allowed more points per game than the 116.9 Washington surrendered last season. The Wizards ranked 28th in opponent field goal percentage (48.0) and 27th in 3-point shooting percentage (37.0).

It’s unclear how the Wizards fix those defensive concerns based solely on personnel. The current roster with five healthy players does not include any forwards or mobile big men. Point guard John Wall is expected to miss the majority of the upcoming season following February’s surgery for a ruptured Achilles. Wall, an erratic defensive presence in recent seasons, was previously selected to the NBA’s all-defensive team in 2015.

Coaching strategies could become the primary driver of change on the defensive end. The man who brought Brooks into the coaching fraternity would make for an obvious addition if both sides are interested.

"The accountability that [Jeff] taught me with the coaching staff and the players is second to none,” Brooks told the Chronicle in 2016. “I learned about work. I learned how to transfer my playing career into a coaching career with his help."

News of the next front office leader likely comes before coaching staff tweaks.

Nuggets President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly was offered the same position with the Wizards Saturday after Denver granted Washington permission to meet. In the interim, the Wizards sent a contingent of scouting personnel along with Brooks to Chicago as the team conducted player interviews and watched scrimmages.

“Ted is going to make a decision and I trust that I going to be the best for the program moving forward,” Brooks said Thursday. “As of right now, (interim GM Tommy Sheppard) is doing a great job leading the group. We all feel comfortable with what’s going on. Hopefully, things work out and we move forward as an organization. We all have to get better, myself included.”

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Five things to know about Wizards general manager search candidate Tim Connelly

Five things to know about Wizards general manager search candidate Tim Connelly

The Washington Wizards have reportedly offered their vacant general manager position to Tim Connelly. The news was first reported by the Athletic.

Here are five things to know about him...

1. Connelly is a Baltimore native who transferred to Catholic University in D.C. during his junior year in college, graduating from there in 1999. 

2. Connelly began his NBA front office career with the Wizards, starting as an intern in 1996. He spent a decade with the organization, holding such roles as assistant video coordinator, head scout, and director of player personnel. 

3. After leaving the Wizards, Connelly spent three seasons serving as the assistant general manager of the New Orleans Pelicans. 

4. Connelly joined the Nuggets organization in 2013 as the executive vice president of basketball operations. He was promoted to President of Basketball Operations in 2017. Connelly has been part of a Denver front office that has drafted the likes of Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, and Gary Harris over the last five years. 

5. Connelly has six siblings, including four brothers: Joe, Pat, Dan and Kevin. All four of them have also worked in basketball in some capacity, Joe, Pat, and Dan all following Tim into the NBA ranks. 

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