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Morning tip: Ready or not, it's probably time to credit Wittman


Morning tip: Ready or not, it's probably time to credit Wittman

The ongoing debate that has no end in sight is whether this has been coach Randy Wittman's ploy all along -- aka, the long con --  to wait until the postseason to unleash his best lineups to catch the Eastern Conference by surprise.

Of course, the strongest reaction for people outside of Washington, and even inside, is that they're not buying it. Paul Pierce playing at power forward seemed like a no-brainer especially since he logged so many minutes there with the Brooklyn Nets with good success in 2013-14. There's no way that Wittman would've jeopardized their seeding in the regular season, when Wizards could've nabbed as high as No. 2 before the All-Star break and still were in play for the No. 3 spot going into the final week? Pierce playing at the four was the subject of plenty chatter during training camp, but after the Wizards got off to a 31-15 start that faded.

"If you look at it we only used it three times. We used it against Atlanta when we were down, twice, and then one time against somebody else (Milwaukee)," point guard John Wall said after Wednesday's practice as the Wizards await their second-round opponent after sweeping the Toronto Raptors in four games. "It was very rarely that we used it."

Given Wittman's preference to be tight-lipped about obvious lineup changes and adjustments, even getting testy when questioned too vigorously about it, it's not very hard to see it is possible, or even likely. That he knew it would work this well? Very unlikely. No one did. (My colleague Ben Standig astutely made the Verbal Kint-to-Keyser Soze comparison last Sunday).

Last season, the Wizards experimented with Trevor Ariza there but he's not as versatile offensively as Pierce or as strong physically.

"Martell (Webster) would be at the three and Brad (Beal) would be at the two. Guys are used to it now," Wall said of why the smaller lineup wasn't as productive then as opposed to now. "We know that's where Paul played last year so coming into the season we thought we were going to do a lot more but coach just did a good job of saving it. He never told us."

The Raptors ran small lineups, taking center Jonas Valanciunas off the floor and using Amir Johnson in his place and Patrick Patterson at power forward. Both are undersized for those positions but have three-point range. The Wizards faced it three times in the regular season and were shredded as Nene had difficulty as the only big on the floor (Marcin Gortat never played after the third quarter vs. the Raptors until the postseason). 

The Wizards weren't able to take advantage of a conference that weakened after the All-Star break and were content to settle for the No. 5 seed for the second season in a row. Pierce, Wall and Nene did a lot of resting as they relinquished wins. Drew Gooden played a lot more while Kris Humphries, who missed 17 games with a groin strain, fell out of the rotation and has yet to work his way back. Gooden's three-point shooting and presence changed the tenor of the season.

"His energy. He plays hard whether he's making shots or not," Wittman said. "He brings us good energy and I think that's contagious. ... He doesn't have to make shots to get into that mode of playing hard."

Think Wittman just realized that about Gooden? When the Wizards made a run to the East semifinals last season, it came after signing Gooden, who had been working out in secret at Verizon Center, after the trade deadline. 

"It's opened up things that teams really haven't adjusted to in the regular season because now Drew wasn't used as much as he's being used here in the playoffs. Now he's getting the opportunity in the playoffs, playing big minutes, showing what he can do at the stretch four," Pierce said. "Teams are seeing a different Washington team, not the one they'd grown accustomed to in the regular season. ... Then you got a point guard who's constantly creating, getting into the lane. It's a different offense now."

Then Wittman adjusts the lineup to Pierce for Gooden at the four spot, with Wall, Beal, Otto Porter and Gortat. While it's easy to ridicule Wittman for waking up on third base rather than crediting him for hitting a triple, he told Pierce before Game 1 in Toronto that's where he'd spend more time. Wittman is 7-1 on the road in the playoffs and before dismissing the first-round upset of the Chicago Bulls last year because Derrick Rose wasn't available, the Wizards are 2-2 vs. them this year with Rose and Pau Gasol.

Wittman's salty demeanor is partly to blame for the lack of respect. But he has dealt with questions of his competence for most of his career. National pundits suggested that he should be fired because he'd "lost the locker room" -- a hollow cliche that's an indicator that the speaker has no tangible intel from the actual locker room. Even after consecutive road losses to the Minnesota Timberwolves and Philadelphia 76ers in late February, Wittman's job never was in jeopardy.

Through all of it, Wittman stubbornly stayed this mind-bending course. Instead of caving into Gortat's way of doing things, Wittman cut his $60 million center's minutes until he conformed. And he has gotten Nene to use his massive frame to rebound better and defer to Gortat offensively so he can get more touches going to the basket. Gortat shot 74.3% from the field vs. Toronto. Beal isn't settling and is taking more shots. Wall is focused more on his on-ball pressure defense than scoring. Both are getting to the foul line the way an elite backcourt should. Coaching is as much about people as it is greaseboards and analytics. 

"It makes the floor so much more spaced for him. Now you have people helping. If people don't help, he's going to be open. He does a great job of screening," Beal said of Gortat's resurgence. "We need him to just continue to do it. We just got to give him the ball."

A Bobby Knight disciple, Wittman is old school and loyal. When in doubt, he has given veterans (Rasual Butler) the nod over young players (Porter). With so much size on the roster, Wittman is the kind who wants to exhaust every option to make it work with the traditional two bigs on the floor before opting for Plan B. Showing this sort of flexibility simply could be part of his growth in a league that has changed. 

Respected vets who have played under Wittman who are no longer here -- Andre Miller, Al Harrington and Trevor Ariza -- have sworn by his competence. When this season began going sideways, Pierce, who won't hold his tongue when he sees something wrong much less give any ringing endorsements if undeserved, put the blame on the players' fragile psyche (Gortat and Harrington said this on two occasions last season). Then Pierce spoke truth about teammates who didn't have families (read between those lines) for enjoying the NBA lifestyle on the road a little too much being the culprit for their inconsistent play (translation: The problem wasn't coaching). 

Perception makes it hard to accept that Wittman, who can be downright surly, is such a good people person with his players but somebody has to get the praise. Sam Cassell isn't on his staff anymore to get it by default.   

There aren't a lot of secrets come postseason. Teams have scouted one another to the umpteenth degree. They know every play call, and the only thing that may change is the name or hand signal to initiate the action. The best teams, however, are able to execute in flow and outside of a structured offense. Maybe having Pierce has helped Wittman's confidence as much as he has Porter's.

"We just threw Paul in there once every blue moon. With him we don't run any of our sets," Wall said of Pierce playing the four. "(It's about) guys making plays and guys being able to step up and make shots. ... Everybody's locked in knowing what everybody's running."

The Wizards' next opponent, either the Atlanta Hawks or Brooklyn Nets, won't have much time to prepare. They're focused too much on each other going into Game 6 tonight. If the Hawks can close the series, it'll give them just one day to prepare before hosting Game 1 vs. the Wizards at 1 p.m. ET on Sunday.

That's advantage Wizards, even though they'll be on the road, because they'll be in position to flip the series by stealing home court right away. The quality of the opposition gets tougher as teams move on in the playoffs, and this includes the chess match that happens on the sidelines. 

This isn't to say that Wittman deserves a medal for doing a job that pays him $3 million per year. Criticize how he has gotten his team to this point and his peculiar methods (and that's fair), but what matters most is they're playing their basketball in the postseason -- again -- with a better chance to go deeper than a year ago. 

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Yuta Watanabe is chasing NBA dream, hoping to lead the way for Japanese basketball players


Yuta Watanabe is chasing NBA dream, hoping to lead the way for Japanese basketball players

Before meeting with local basketball media following his pre-draft workout with the Washington Wizards on Thursday at Capital One Arena, George Washington forward Yuta Watanabe first addressed a swath of reporters from his home country of Japan. Then, while he talked to the American contingent, cameras from Japanese news outlets trailed him from a distance, documenting even the media part of his experience.

Watanabe, who played four years for the Colonials in Foggy Bottom, is now chasing an NBA dream with an entire country's hope on his shoulders. He is aiming to become just the second Japanese-born player to reach basketball's pinnacle.

It's a responsibility he carries with pride.

"I know there was only one Japanese player who played in the NBA like a long time ago, so he was the only one," Watanabe said. "If I can make it, I know that’s a really big thing in Japan. That would make young guys come to the U.S. and play basketball in the U.S. I want to be one of the pioneers for younger guys."

The only player to make the NBA from Japan in the history of the league was Yuta Tabuse, who appeared in four games for the Phoenix Suns in the 2004-05 season. Four games, that's it. If Watanabe can carve out an extended career in the NBA, it would be a first for Japan, which like many countries outside of the United States has begun to produce more basketball talent in recent decades as the game has expanded globally.

Watanabe grew up in Miki, Kagawa, a town in the southwest of Japan. He had American basketball idols growing up, including Kobe Bryant who was the NBA's biggest star when Watanabe was a kid.

Now, as Watanabe has set his sights on the NBA, he has focused on others to model his game after. He said he watches film of Jazz forward Joe Ingles because he sees similarities in their game.

"I see myself trying to be like him. He’s a lefty, a great shooter and a great defender. I’ve been watching his tape a lot," Watanabe said.

Watanabe has also been consulting with Hawks forward Joe Cavanaugh, his former teammate at George Washington. Cavanaugh went undrafted last summer, but caught on in Atlanta and appeared in 39 games as a rookie.

Watanabe's best bet may be a similar path. He is currently not projected to be drafted, but there are many avenues to the NBA, as Cavanaugh has shown. He was signed for 2017 training camp by the Hawks, then cut. Then, he inked a two-way contract which was later converted to a regular contract.

Along the way, Cavanaugh spent much of his time with the Erie Bayhawks of the G-League. Watanabe may have to go that route to make the NBA. For now, he's trying to prove what he's capable of and that has not been easy. The Wizards were his second workout and Watanabe isn't happy with his performance thus far.

He is dealing with an ankle injury that has affected his conditioning, he said, and his shots haven't been falling.

"To be honest, I didn’t shoot well. I didn’t really do well in the 1-on-1s or 3-on-3. I know I have to do better on that if I want to make an NBA team," he said.

Watanabe, who stands at 6-foot-9, said he also needs to get stronger. If defense is going to be his calling card, he can't be pushed around by bigger players in the NBA.

"I know I can defend one through four. Today, I didn’t shoot well but I know I can shoot and I can handle the ball, I can pass. I think versatility is one of my strengths," he said.

The Wizards could use depth at the small forward position and will be in the market for a host of undrafted guys to fill out their summer league team and new G-League team. Perhaps Watanabe will land in one of those spots.

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Michigan's Moritz Wagner could be Wizards' solution for a stretch-five

Michigan's Moritz Wagner could be Wizards' solution for a stretch-five

The pre-draft workout process can be an exhausting journey for players, with so many flights, hotel rooms and NBA arenas that they can all blend in together. Michigan big man Moritz Wagner, though, may have felt a sense of comfort in Washington for his pre-draft workout for the Wizards on Wednesday.

It was just over a year ago that his Michigan Wolverines cut down the nets at Capital One Arena as champions of the Big Ten conference.

"It was good memories, man. Never gets old," he said while glancing around the stadium.

Wagner, 21, will be seeing a lot more of Capital One Arena once he joins the NBA ranks and it is conceivable he ends up in Washington. They hold the 15th pick in the first round and the 44th pick in the second round and Wagner could be within their reach.

Wagner had an impressive workout in Washington and could provide what the Wizards need. He is a big, mobile and can spread the floor. Wagner was terrific at stepping out to hit threes off pick-and-rolls at Michigan and that ability would work well with Wizards All-Star point guard John Wall.

Wagner measured in at just under 7-feet at this month's NBA Combine, fifth-tallest among those who attended. He averaged 14.6 points as a junior this past season and made 39.4 percent of his threes on 4.1 attempts per game.

With three years of college experience and an NBA-ready jumper, Wagner believes he can step right in and help the Wizards.

"I think what we did at Michigan, sharing the ball and playing as a team, very organized basketball, that can help big-time," he said. "It's basically pro basketball I was playing on a different level."

As Wagner will tell you, he is very confident in his abilities. He is comfortable in his own skin and that includes openly discussing his faults. He feels good about his ability to score at the next level. Defense is where he needs to prove himself.

Despite his size, Wagner wasn't much of a rim protector in college. He averaged just a half-block a game as a junior. The Wizards need rim protection badly and he likely would not provide that.

Wagner, though, believes he can bring more to the table defensively than the numbers would suggest.

"I think I've been an offensive guy all of my life, but the more that you mature as a player, you understand that both sides are important. Without defense, you aren't going to play at any level," he said.

"I think the most important thing that I wasn't able to show in college is that I'm able to switch the ball-screen, especially with the way the league is going. Switch on everything and stay in front of guards as a big guy."

Wagner is from Germany and looks up to Mavs legend Dirk Nowitzki, who is entering his 21st season and will be in the Hall of Fame someday. Nowitzki's game has always been built around shooting and, though he developed into a decent shot-blocker in his prime, was never an elite rim protector.

Wagner hopes to follow in his footsteps playing a similar style.

"He was my MJ. He kind of shows you 'okay, this is possible and this is doable.' It's just basketball," Wagner said. "It gives you a lot of hope. It gives you a lot of belief and motivation."

Hear more from Wagner in his one-on-one interview with Chris Miller in our latest Wizards Tipoff podcast. His interview can also be found in the video above:

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