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Morning tip: Noticeable loss of toughness without Nene

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Morning tip: Noticeable loss of toughness without Nene

As the Wizards were spiraling out of control during a three-game losing streak, hemorrhaging turnovers and leading the coach to clash with his starting center, more than one person close to the situation pointed out the fix they needed. Nene, who had missed a game with back spasms, is the rock on which the revitalization of the franchise -- and its last two playoff appearances -- was built.

Saturday, in a 108-99 victory vs. the Orlando Magic, the mesaurables said this: nine points on 4 of 8 shooting, six rebounds, three assists and one block in 20 minutes. The unmeasurables: Defense to slow down Nikola Vucevic, rotating properly to seal off baseline drives to help perimeter teammates, the inability of the Magic to collapse on him with the ball because of how he always makes the right reads with the ball and, of course, toughness. The latter is a word that's rarely used in relation to the 7-footer who has moved from starting power forward to backup center.

"His physicality is key. That's what he's always had. He's one of the strongest guys from that type of standpoint of being moved," coach Randy Wittman said. "If I got the spot, you're not moving him off that spot. I thought he came in that first quarter, we were kind of teetering there midway through and I called a quick timeout. When he came in, he got us solidified better defensively there."

The Magic shot 60% in the first quarter when Vucevic was 5 of 7. But only one of those field goals came when Nene entered for Marcin Gortat at 4:29.

Immediately, Nene snatched a rebound in traffic away from guard Elfrid Payton then assisted Gary Neal with a nice bounce pass for a layup on a give-and-go to tie the score at 21. When the Magic's defense sucked in on him in the mid-post, Ramon Sessions cut to the basket and Nene found him with a pass over the top for a layup. 

With 3:34 left in the second quarter, Vucevic made one more field goal on a 17-foot fadeaway, but the Brazilian went strong to the basket himself for a finger-roll layup. 

In other words, because of how Nene bodied Vucevic off of his spot, he was relegated to taking shots farther from the rim. Nene, who played in a pace-and-space offense when he spent all of his career with the Denver Nuggets before being traded to Washington in 2012, couldn't be more comfortable in this role and got to the rim at will. Even if it didn't result in a basket for him, it broke down Orlando's defense.

"Nene's probably our best passing big. Someone that when you give him single coverage that can score one-on-one which is huge and he's a physical defender. He's someone if you come across the lane, he's going to put a little wood on you. He can rebound the ball. You saw he dunked a couple people today," said forward Jared Dudley who comes off the bench with Nene. "You need that. You need an enforcer down there, especially with the second unit.

"With the second unit what we try to do is we go small with myself and we try to space the floor. It gives them more of a lane. Defensively we lose a little bit when it comes to rebounding and that's when you need him, myself. Try to box out as best we can so we can get out and run a little bit more."

After not playing well in the season opener in Orlando, a game the Wizards still won 88-87, Nene has been steady. He has shot 19-for-30 in the last six games in which he has played. He wasn't available for the 24-point loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder last week, a game in which Wittman lamented his team allowing themselves to be pushed around. 

That doesn't happen with the Brazilian. There's so much nuance to his game. He seals multiple defenders with his box outs and enormous wingspan, preventing them from getting loose balls and rebounds so his own teammates can have a clear path for recovery. Nene doesn't complain about his numbers because he realizes that his sacrifices are key to the Wizards winning. His teammates realize it, as do his coaches, though most on the outside looking in don't see it. 

“He’s a lot different than Marcin," said point guard John Wall. "Marcin uses his height. Nene uses more of his hands and quickness. Nene uses his power against guys. Vucevic is a heck of a player. I feel like he can be an All-Star in this league at any time. A lot of guys on their team can make plays and they’re one of the toughest teams to play because they’re always playing hard.”

Nene, 33, played harder. He just can't play starter's minutes anymore. The only question is if he can play a full season given his repeated health issues. 

MORE WIZARDS: Always will be spots in NBA for players like Garrett Temple

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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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