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NBA Power Rankings 2017-18: Down the final stretch of the regular season

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USA Today Sports

NBA Power Rankings 2017-18: Down the final stretch of the regular season

Injuries have been a major storyline throughout this season.

The Celtics started the season off with the biggest injury news, and now look likely to end the regular season with that too, losing Kyrie Irving for the entire playoffs after his knee surgery.

With teams like the Cavs getting healthier, and the Raptors continuing to stay consistent, the path doesn't look very bright for Boston as the playoffs approach. 

Oh yeah, the Sixers don't seem to know how to lose anymore either. 

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The Wizards also will use the last few games of the regular season to work John Wall back into regular season form, and they may just see Boston in the first round.

Of course, no team has been hotter than the Rockets, who sit head-and-shoulders record-wise above the rest of the league.

On the other end of things, the tanking is some of the strongest we've seen in years, with a race to the top (or bottom) of the lottery odds.

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Watching Go-Go games takes Wizards' coach Scott Brooks back to his own, unglamorous minor league days

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Watching Go-Go games takes Wizards' coach Scott Brooks back to his own, unglamorous minor league days

When Scott Brooks walks into the gym at St. Elizabeths Arena to catch a Capital City Go-Go game, the players can't help but notice. The building also houses the Wizards' practice facility where Brooks has an office and he is often around at tipoff. So, he makes the short walk over to catch a glimpse of the team's G-League affiliate.

Naturally, he is easy to spot.

"One of our assistants or a player, they'll say something," guard Chasson Randle said. "You've always gotta be on your A-game. When you see him in the stands, though, it's a little bit more motivation for sure."

"They can literally just walk down the stairs from their office and go through a door and be at our game," guard Chris Chiozza said of Wizards' brass. "It just adds a little more fire to have a good game."

Brooks knows the feeling. He was once a minor league basketball player chasing the NBA dream. 

After graduating from U.C. Irvine in 1987, he spent time with the Albany Patroons of the Continental Basketball Association and then with the Fresno Flames of the World Basketball League (which oddly featured a 6-foot-4 height restriction) before catching on with the Sixers in 1988.

Brooks himself can recall what it was like to be on a minor league team when someone from the NBA was in attendance.

"I just remember that our coach would say 'there are scouts here,'" Brooks told NBC Sports Washington. "When you're in the minor leagues, your goal is to be in the majors. You want to be in the NBA. You know it can take just one coach or one scout to give you that opportunity. So, when I go watch our Go-Go play, I take it seriously because I was in that position."

So, what exactly does Brooks look for? Some of it can't be found in the box score.

Brooks looks for intangibles.

"In reality, they're not all going to be NBA players, but out of respect for the game you've gotta give them an opportunity to be an NBA player," he said.

"I don't even look at their scoring because if they become an NBA player, they're not going to come in and score a bunch of points. Are they being good teammates? Are they helping their teammates off the floor? Are they pointing at them after a good pass? Are they high-fiving them? Are they making eye contact with their coach? I think those are way more important than somebody making a bunch of shots."

Brooks understands that may be counter-intuitive to some players, but he knows what it takes to not just get the chance to play in the NBA, but stay there. Brooks ended up playing 10 NBA seasons with six different teams and won a championship with the Rockets in 1994.

None of it came easy. Brooks got his first NBA gig after a tryout in the Loyola-Marymount Summer League in Los Angeles back in 1988. He borrowed $400 from a booster at Irvine. 

"I don't even know if that was legal at that time," he joked.

The games were early in the morning and, listed at 5-foot-11, he played small forward. Brooks was on a team of free agents that faced NBA players and he was told there would be many scouts in attendance.

"All that were in the stands were your girlfriend and your parents," he said.

But the Sixers saw him and gave him an NBA contract. From there, he never looked back.

"I had my 1-800 calling card that my mom paid for when I was 22- or 23-years-old. They thought somebody stole it because I called so many people that night I was told I made the 76ers. It was one of the best days of my life," Brooks said.

As Brooks tells it, even his early days in the NBA were rough compared to the accommodations now provided to the Wizards' G-League team. He may have been earning an NBA salary playing for the Sixers, but he had to wash his own jersey. He also had to wash the uniforms of veteran teammates.

"There were many times where I kept my jersey on [in the shower]. I shampooed my hair and I shampooed my jersey at the same time. You ring it out, you dry it. I was Maurice Cheeks' rookie and I had to take care of his jersey as well," he said.

But in the minor leagues, it was worse. Brooks was fresh out of college and wasn't yet an expert at doing laundry.

"We wore things multiple days without washing them," Brooks said. "When you're young and hungry, you knew better, but you had no other choice. You did whatever it took to get on the court and play well and impress the scouts."

Go-Go players have equipment managers to wash their jerseys. They also have a well-rounded staff of coaches and player development assistants. One of their best perks is food provided by the team and a designated eating area at St. E's. Not all G-League teams get those benefits.

Well, it's not that glamorous. The Go-Go do their air travel through BWI, roughly an hour from their home base in Ward 8. That has led to some John Candy and Steve Martin-like adventures. 

For instance, when they played the Windy City Bulls in December, they had to bus an hour from the Sears Centre in Illinois to Midway Airport, fly to BWI and then leave for Washington on a bus from Baltimore at 1 a.m. That's a far cry from the charter jets some players enjoyed at big-time college programs, like Chiozza at the University of Florida.

Sometimes an NBA call-up will require Go-Go general manager Pops Mensah-Bonsu to drive players late at night to airports for flights back to Washington because the rental car is registered in his name.

But, as Brooks can attest, it's all worth it. Finally realizing the NBA dream makes you appreciate the steps it took to get there.

Brooks did it and Randle, after spending much of this season in the G-League, now has a guaranteed NBA contract. 

"I love stories like that," Brooks said of Randle, who like him went undrafted. "It's definitely earned. Nothing was ever given to him."

For others, the journey continues.

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Wizards at a crossroads as trade deadline looms

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Wizards at a crossroads as trade deadline looms

The Feb. 7 NBA trade deadline isn’t some all-or-nothing moment for the Washington Wizards.

The final 38 games of the regular season won’t define the franchise.

However, there’s a connection between the two markers. Three weeks from now, we’ll have a better sense of the organization’s on-court direction this season and beyond.

While the Wizards look ready to at least compete for a playoff run after the past week of impressive games against the top teams in the East, the team has more than just this season to think about.

Financial projections show Washington already careening into 2019-20 salary cap concerns with only five players under contract.

That is unless moves are forthcoming. The first sell opportunity, one with perhaps three-quarters of the league playing the role of buyer, comes over the next three weeks.

Two of the five players with contracts beyond this season, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr., typically take a perception back seat to Wall, the five-time All-Star. It’s understandable why. Wall arrived first and with red carpet hoopla as the No. 1 overall selection in the 2010 NBA Draft. With help, a turnaround eventually followed.

Watching the Wizards over the last two seasons with and without their point guard has some believing it’s time for a change. The alterations could occur in multiple ways: Moving one or more of the top three players, changing their roles or finding more suitable pieces to put around them.

Should Beal, who has taken his game to elite levels, and Porter will Washington into the playoffs with a pass-heavy approach that also saved the prior season from potential collapse, style changes are on the table.

At least they should be. There’s a universe where, if their talents are maximized, a Wall, Beal, Porter triumvirate lifts the Wizards to the Eastern Conference finals, a level the organization hasn’t reached since advancing to the 1979 NBA Finals.

Reaching such lofty heights seemed inevitable following a 49-win 2016-17 campaign. At least to those not burdened with the knowledge of Bullets/Wizards history from the prior four decades.

The possible fixes are tricky but exist.

“The number one thing you can do if you're the Wizards is pick a point in time where you think you can be elite and don't mess anything up for that,” a former league executive told NBC Sports Washington. “You're not elite now. This isn't binary. It's not win or tank. You don't have incredible trade assets. Put yourself in the best position you can in small steps.”

Does a recent surge put more emphasis on a fifth playoff appearance in six seasons? Should Washington regroup for a larger goal once Wall returns next season? Decide the current mix needs an overhaul?

By the early February trade deadline, we may have a window into those evaluations and priorities.

Cutting bait seems prudent. Trade the expiring contracts of Trevor Ariza, Jeff Green, and Markieff Morris, and regroup for a Wall return with more assets. Consider bigger changes.

In the coming weeks, we’ll see what the Wizards decide.

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