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Wizards identity search rolls on

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Wizards identity search rolls on

The Washington Wizards aren't a win one, lose one kind of team this season. The peaks and valleys are prominent. Since mid-December, they've twice followed up four-game winning streaks by losing five of six. That includes the current three-game skid with Thursday's 117-113 home loss to the Denver Nuggets the latest setback.  If the pattern continues, a rise will soon follow. 

Yet this latest dip feels different. The Wizards spent the offseason, training camp and the opening 39 regular season games officially switching their brand. Break up the big men, its space and pace time. Yes, the work-in-progress situation slowed for stretches because of a transitioning roster, defensive woes and players missing more games due to injuries than any team in the league. Regardless, progress existed with each rise breaking the previous peak.

Over the last five games, Washington's lineups are from another time. That time represents last regular season, but with NBA in full-blown small ball mode, going with two hulking bigs can feel prehistoric. 

Nene and Marcin Gortat received zero minutes together all season until the Jan. 18 loss to Portland. They've started at power forward and center respectively the last four games.  

Starts of games set the tone. The Wizards' current look feels like an unnecessary rewrite. 

"I keep hearing, what's our identity, what's our identity," forward Jared Dudley said after Thursday's loss. 

The Wizards had great success using a perimeter shooting threat (Paul Pierce) at power forward in last season's playoffs. Just ask the Toronto Raptors and Atlanta Hawks. They stuck with that "stretch-4" look for the opening 40 games this season, using either Kris Humphries or Dudley, who made 26 starts. 

Added this offseason for his spread-the-court capabilities, Dudley's presence indicated an embracing of modern basketball. The current lineup reversal feels like something else. 

"Basically our identity for us on this team is to space the floor, put pressure on the defense," Dudley said. "We're a 3-point shooting team that can go in to Nene. We have to be aggressive defensively. Those are our strengths." 

Those strengths led to four consecutive wins -- three on the road -- just before this current slide.  

Those strengths also were on display late against the Nuggets. Washington trailed Denver 83-65 midway through the third quarter when Dudley made his second half debut. His perimeter presence helping to unclog the lane for John Wall combined with the desperate Wizards generating fast break chances off Nuggets mistakes turned the game.  

Nene and Dudley played together the entire fourth quarter along some combination of three guards. The Wizards tied the Nuggets at 99-99 with 5:41 left before fading. 

Denver coach Mike Malone was asked what changed when Washington went with only one true big man. 

"I'm a big Jared Dudley fan," said Malone, highlighting the veteran's high basketball IQ, defense and perimeter shot. "Now what happens is it puts a lot of pressure on the 3-point line and your basket because when you have four shooters out there and one big. John Wall has a lot more room to attack and create. We have to help on the roll and that maybe can generate open 3's. We knew they'd go to that at some point and be effective for them." 

The recent four-game winning streak ended with a 119-117 home loss to Boston on Jan. 16. With a large batch of players unavailable for the following game against Portland, Wittman used a Nene-Gortat combo for the first time this season. “Who else do I have?," Wittman rhetorically asked. Portland torched Washington with a 3-point shooting barrage partly because of the inability of those big men to switch out on shooters.

Nene, Washington's top interior defender and rebounder, replaced Dudley in the starting lineup the next game. 

Denver, which entered 17-29 and playing the second game of a back-to-back on the road, opened Thursday's contest taking a 10-2 lead and finished shooting 50 percent from the field.

"We aren’t going to outscore anybody," Wittman said," and until we take playing defense as first priority, were going to continue having nights like this.”

With all the pieces slowly returning, perhaps consistency will form. Washington (20-24) is only three games behind Indiana for the eighth and final playoff spot with 38 games remaining. 

"It's difficult because we were just on a four-game winning streak," Dudley said of the current vibe. "We showed the blueprint of how we have to do it. We have the tools. We have everything we need and then we regress."

Going back to the future with some version of the small-ball lineup they started the opening 40 games would be a big help.

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Celtics and Sixers may go relatively unchanged this offseason, as stars have gone elsewhere

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USA Today Sports Images

Celtics and Sixers may go relatively unchanged this offseason, as stars have gone elsewhere

The 2018 NBA offseason in just three weeks has become one of the wildest summers in the league's history between LeBron James signing with the Lakers, and all the characters that followed him, to DeMarcus Cousins surprising everyone to sign with the Golden State Warriors, to Kawhi Leonard getting traded to the Raptors.

As crazy as it all has been, two teams in the Eastern Conference stand out for so far doing very little, either by choice or circumstance. The Celtics and Sixers, the two teams most see as the favorites in the East, appear at least so far to be running it back with the same group of players.

This appears to be the Celtics' intention. After overhauling their roster last summer, they clearly see an opportunity to take a step forward as-is. Boston was one win away from the NBA Finals and will return Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving from injury. With James gone to the West, they can improve significanly just by keeping it all together.

Boston re-signed Marcus Smart and Aron Baynes. Their biggest addition this summer so far has been their first round pick, Robert Williams.

The Sixers, unlike the Celtics, didn't appear to plan on doing it this way. They wanted James and missed out. They reportedly had interest in Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, but both went elsewhere. There are no stars left to sign in free agency and the trade market may be drying up.

Philly made some minor moves like trades for Wilson Chandler and Mike Muscala. They may also have a deal for Kyle Korver in the works. They also had two first round picks in Zhaire Smith and Landry Shamet.

There's a chance the Sixers got better than people think, as many of the moves they made seem smart. But they didn't reel in a big fish and will probably come back for the 2018-19 season with a team very similar to the one that made the second round of the playoffs this spring.

The fact the Celtics and Sixers may stand pat is probably a good thing for the rest of the East. Both teams may improve naturally if they are healthier and if their young players continue to ascend. But neither made a game-changing addition, one that would solidify either as an unstoppable superteam in the conference. 

The West is overloaded with title contenders and All-NBA players. The East, meanwhile, is much more open and it may end up staying that way mainly because Boston and Philly have been quiet so far this summer.

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Wizards set introductory press conference for Dwight Howard

Wizards set introductory press conference for Dwight Howard

Wizards team president Ernie Grunfeld has stayed relatively busy this summer crafting his new-look lineup for the 2018-19 season. 

One of the team's key additions, Dwight Howard, is set to be introduced as a member of the Wizards on Monday. 

NBC Sports Washington will air the introductory press conference live at 1 p.m. while also streaming it online.  

Ernie Grunfeld and head coach Scott Brooks are both expected to be in attendance. 

The 32-year-old big man is coming off a 2017-18 season with the Charlotte Hornets in which he averaged 16.6 points and 12.5 rebounds per game. 

Since leaving the Orlando Magic after eight seasons in 2011, Howard has played for four different teams in the last six years. 

Howard is an eight-time all-star and a three-time defensive player of the year. 

 

RELATED LINKS: 

John Wall's take on Dwight Howard 

Wizards make Dwight Howard free agent signing official 

By the numbers: Is new Wizards center Dwight Howard still in his NBA prime?