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Five observations from Wizards' season-opening loss to the Miami Heat, as Kelly Olynyk steals the game

Five observations from Wizards' season-opening loss to the Miami Heat, as Kelly Olynyk steals the game

The Washington Wizards opened their 2018-19 regular season with a 113-112 loss to the Miami Heat on Thursday night. Here are five observations from the game...

Olynyk does it again: A ghost from the Wizards' past returned on Thursday night to spoil the season opener in Washington, a game that up until very late seemed destined to go their way. The Wizards got several key stops late in the fourth quarter, but failed to box out Kelly Olynyk, who reeled in a Dwyane Wade miss and dropped in a go-ahead layup with 0.2 seconds remaining.

Olynyk had been booed all night by Wizards fans every time he touched the ball. Though he has changed teams, they still remember his dustup with Kelly Oubre Jr. back in the 2017 playoffs when he was with the Celtics. Olynyk heard it all night, but ended up sealing the win. Man, what a gut punch for the Wizards to start the season off.

Wall looked good: He may be wearing a headband and sporting a new hairstyle, but the John Wall who showed up on Thursday night to carve up the Heat defense looked awfully familiar. It was a version of him we didn't see much of last year in what amounted to a lost season due to missed games and injury-hampered play.

Wall looked a lot like the All-NBA force we saw two years ago when he put up career numbers and had the Wizards on the brink of the Eastern Conference Finals. Against Miami, he got to the rim with little to no resistance and collected 18 points in the first half alone. He finished with 26 points, nine assists, three rebounds, three blocks and one steal. He shot 9-for-16 from the field.

One of the most intriguing parts of this season as it pertains to Wall is the potential he has with Dwight Howard, who in theory should make things a lot easier for him as a lob-devouring pick-and-roll monster. But Wall showed vs. the Heat he has the same spark we have seen over the years, the electric driving ability that was missing for so much of last season. 

He can create his own offense whenever he wants to. Imagine when he has Howard's help setting screens and drawing attention in the paint.

No Howard: Howard was a game-time decision and the Wizards ultimately made the call to sit him out. They say he's feeling great and getting better, but just hasn't had enough practice time to jump into the regular season line of fire.

It seems like Howard is very close and could be ready on Saturday when the Wizards host the Raptors. If not, he will still travel with the Wizards on their five-game road trip through the Western Conference.

With Howard out, head coach Scott Brooks appears to have more trust in Jason Smith to be the backup center rather than Thomas Bryant. Though he did go small with Markieff Morris or Jeff Green at center, that was only after Smith got into foul trouble.

Howard's absence was seen especially in the rebounding category. The Heat beat the Wizards on the glass 55 to 40 and Miami had 22 offensive boards. Though we haven't seen Howard in action with the Wizards, it's a safe bet they would have done better rebounding the ball with him on the floor.

Foul troubles: Howard's absence was compounded by key Wizards players racking fouls at an accelerated rate. Ian Mahinmi, who started for Howard, got his fourth just 15 seconds into the second half. By the end of the third quarter, Morris, Jason Smith and Bradley Beal also had four fouls by the end of the third quarter. Beal finished with five. 

All in all, it was a physical game between the teams, one that included a confrontation in the third quarter between Wall and Derrick Jones Jr. that resulted in a technical foul for Wall. It all started when Smith and Hassan Whiteside got tangled up on the floor. Wall came over and gave Jones a shove and some words to follow.

That play likely would have resulted in a technical foul last year as well, but it's worth noting the league has expanded its definition of 'hostile acts.' That type of stuff will not fly at all anymore. 

It was an interesting chicken-or-the-egg situation on Thursday because the quick whistles definitely contributed to some frustration between the teams.

Otto still deferred: Much of the talk about Otto Porter Jr. in recent years has been the need for him to shoot more often. He's the most efficient player on the Wizards, yet is the clear No. 3 option in the offense. That chatter reached a new level this preseason as Brooks joked to Wizards beat writers that they have permission to yell at Porter if he doesn't shoot.

So far, it was much of the same for Wizards swingman. He took seven shots in the game and only had three at halftime. Two of those came on the same play, as he missed a layup and then sank the putback. Porter didn't attempt a single three and had only nine points.

The Wizards want Porter to take more shots than he did last season (11.5 FGA/g), but it won't be easy. Keep in mind he posted that number when Wall missed 41 games and with Marcin Gortat as the center. Howard didn't play in this one, but when he returns he is going to expect more shots than Gortat was used to.

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Trade or hold? Wizards facing tough decisions with Otto Porter, John Wall, Bradley Beal as trade deadline looms

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Trade or hold? Wizards facing tough decisions with Otto Porter, John Wall, Bradley Beal as trade deadline looms

The Washington Wizards are Eastern Conference contenders if they maximize the talents of their three max contract players, John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Otto Porter.

Whether that’s possible when Wall returns from his season-ending heel surgery is among the biggest questions for the organization going forward.

Despite some true highs during the trio’s six seasons together, that’s a height never quite reached.

Time may be running out. Washington is over the 2019-20 salary cap with only five players under contract including that highly compensated triumvirate. These challenges for a team with a contender mindset are why a running narrative involves trading at least of the three.

So who should the Wizards consider a trade for? We broke down the arguments for each of the big three.

Bradley Beal (5-year, $127 million contract expires in 2021)

Reason to move: Unless he demands a trade, there should be a hard stop on the idea of dealing Washington’s leading scorer even with the allure of young talent and draft picks in return.

“How do you ever get a player better than Brad if you trade Brad? If I'm them I'm looking at this like I'm trying to get Brad something to win with rather than I'm going to use him as a carrot,” one former NBA general manager told NBC Sports Washington.

Reason to hold: Beal is on pace to set career-highs in scoring (24.8), rebounding (5.0) and assists (5.0), His numbers went next level over the past 10 games. The guard likely receives All-Star recognition for a second consecutive year. Making an All-NBA team for the first time seems possible.

At 25, Beal remains an ascending talent with leadership skills and a clear focus on carrying Washington to the postseason despite injuries elsewhere. Hold indeed.

Otto Porter (4-year, $106 million contract expires in 2021)

Reason to move: It’s become impossible to discuss Porter, 25, without the contract he signed in 2017 taking center stage. Basic stats won’t justify the amount of salary cap space. 

Washington could open needed salary cap space next season if dealing Porter means taking on expiring contracts along with picks.

Reason to hold: That contract combined with his primary statistics often leads to the forward receiving the short straw in who-must-go discussions. Based on conversations with league sources, front office members league-wide take a different view.

One former league executive told NBC Sports Washington: “The way I look at it, why not just let him earn the number he's on with you? If you get to the trade deadline and are clearly not a playoff team, I still wouldn't do anything with Otto because I think you have to look at John [Wall] as whatever he gives you in the future is gravy.”

Gauging Porter strictly on statistics completely overlooks the beauty of his subtle game. However, for the numbers crowd, note the following:

Per 36 minutes averages, Porter scores 13.2 points on 11 field goal attempts and sinks 36 percent of his 3-point tries playing with Wall. Without, 20.9 on 16.5 with a 43.4 percentage from beyond the arc while team’s net rating flips to what would be a league-leading 12.9 points per 100 possessions.

“If you trade Bradley, you get worse. If you trade Otto, you're probably just making a bad deal to get out of the money,” the former league executive said. “I'd look at Otto and Brad as the guys I got to build a winner around.” 

John Wall (4-year, $170 million starts with the 2019-20 season)

Reasons to move: There are three primary considerations: Injuries, finances, and style.

The season-ending surgery is just the latest procedure undergone by the point guard.

Wall's $37.8 million salary next season eats into a large chunk of the team’s cap space. That’s fine if he’s the 2015-16 version that earned All-NBA honors and played often. By season’s end, he will have missed 91 of 164 games over the last two seasons.

Finally, style. Don’t think better or worse, but different.

Washington’s current ball movement approach, necessary without Wall’s one-on-one skills, has sparked higher numbers from across the team. 

With Thursday’s win, Washington is 8-5 this season without Wall. Over the last two regular seasons, 28-26 without, 34-39 with. This season, based on points per 100 possessions, the Wizards are + 5.2 points better when Wall is off the court than on.

Reason to hold: League consensus deems Wall’s contract untradeable, though a team seeking a star might give a longer look next summer after striking out in free agency.

For the hopeful, here’s why that’s cool.

The modern NBA requires several All-Star level players for a chance at conference or league contention. Washington has three such players – but only if the Wizards maximize their talents.

Convincing Wall, an elite talent when healthy, to downshift at times from his ball-dominant ways might get them there. Doing so – and holding Beal and Porter -- offers the quickest path for reaching the conference finals for the first time since 1979.

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Owner Ted Leonsis says the Wizards' best course is not to tank this season. Is he right?

Owner Ted Leonsis says the Wizards' best course is not to tank this season. Is he right?

Shortly before his team took on the New York Knicks in a global showcase game in London, England on Thursday, Washington Wizards majority owner Ted Leonsis addressed reporters and dropped a line that created a swift and strong reaction on social media.

When discussing the state of his team, Leonsis said in no uncertain terms that the goal this season is to make the playoffs. He has no interest in looking towards the draft lottery, despite the desires of some fans who have visions of Zion Williamson throwing down lobs from John Wall.

"We will never, ever tank," Leonsis told reporters.

That quote seems like one that will be revisited periodically in the next several years. But, like all quotes, it requires some context. 

What Leonsis went on to explain is that his franchise is not in a position to lose on purpose. They have too much talent, even with injuries to Wall, Dwight Howard and Markieff Morris, to pack it in and look towards next year. They also have too much money committed with what currently ranks as the seventh-highest payroll in basketball. They already went through a rebuild, he said, and it's not time yet to go through another one.

As Leonsis told NBC Sports Washington in September, there are "no excuses" for falling short this season.

In many ways, what he said in London was not surprising at all. The Wizards have been in win-now mode for several years. Anyone paying attention to their personnel moves should understand that.

Take the trade for Trevor Ariza in December, for instance. Though some speculated that was about trading for a guy who could be dealt elsewhere months later, that was never the Wizards' intention, according to people familiar with their plans. Getting Ariza was about improving the defense and retooling their locker room culture. It was about making the playoffs this spring.

Leonsis' comments should make the Wizards' plans for the Feb. 7 trade deadline a bit easier to ascertain. The goal to make the playoffs doesn't necessarily mean they will be buyers, but it strongly suggests they won't be sellers. They are only two games out of a playoff spot in the still-pedestrian Eastern Conference with 37 games left to play. After winning six of nine, the playoffs are a realistic goal.

That still won't assuage the Wizards fans out there pining for them to make the long-term play, of course. And there is an argument to be made that their future would be better off if they take a step back this season to take two steps forward the next. If they tanked and got a top draft pick, it could help them immensely down the road if that player becomes another franchise cornerstone.

But, as Leonsis argues, gunning for top draft picks can be unpredictable. People often cite the Sixers as a tanking success story, and their future does appear to be bright. 

But the Sixers are an exception to the rule, as tanking is by no means a fool-proof strategy, even in long-term rebuilds. Teams go years and years without luck in the draft. Just look at the Sacramento Kings.

Or, you could look at the Wizards, one of the least successful franchises in the NBA historically. Only five NBA teams have a worse winning percentage all-time than the Wizards, who have been around for 58 years. They haven't won 50 games or reached the conference finals since the 1970s.

If the Wizards were to make the playoffs this season, that would be five times in six years, arguably their best stretch of postseason success since the 70s. Consider the fact they made the playoffs just once from 1988 to 2004.

Sure, the Wizards should set their sights higher than losing in the first or second round, but there is something to be said about stability for a team that hasn't really had it since the Carter administration. And there is also something to be said about trying to build on what they have, rather than tearing it down and starting over.

It's not easy to go from middle of the road to great, but other teams have done it. In fact, most of the top teams in today's NBA didn't get there by tanking. 

The Rockets made trades for James Harden and Chris Paul and drafted Clint Capela 25th overall. The Raptors traded for Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry and took Pascal Siakam with the 27th pick.

The Bucks got Giannis Antetokounmpo with the 15th pick, Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton in trades and Malcolm Brogdon with a second round selection. The Nuggets drafted Nikola Jokic in the second round and got Gary Harris with a trade for the 19th pick.

The Warriors, though they had some lean years before their meteoric rise, basically built their team without any really high draft picks. They took Stephen Curry seventh, but also got Klay Thompson 11th and Draymond Green in the second round.

What Leonsis hopes to happen is a parallel to his Washington Capitals of the NHL. When it appeared they had hit a wall, some minor changes helped them break through to win a Stanley Cup in 2018.

The NBA is different, and the Wizards aren't a few small tweaks from toppling the Warriors, but perhaps Leonsis' patience will pay off. Maybe the Wizards will get a healthy version of Wall back, and the ascension of Beal and Porter will lead to them winning 50 games or going to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 1979.

There are fans out there who want dramatic changes. They want more than a first round playoff exit. Leonsis, of course, does as well, but he believes staying the course is the best path forward to getting there. Only time will tell if he's right.

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