Well, that sucked.
The Washington Wizards finished the year not with 45 wins, not with 40 wins, not even with 35 wins. They went 32-50 – good for the sixth-worst in the NBA – in a calamitous campaign that cost Ernie Grunfeld his seemingly permanent role as President of Basketball Operations and saw franchise face John Wall rupture his achilles.
Here’s what went wrong, and what Wizards fans have to look forward to.
The Wiz started the year by leaking points, especially off offensive boards. That wasn’t totally unexpected; they’ve been middle-of-the-road guarding folks for a few years now, and they were missing chief rebounder Dwight Howard for the first few games. But the ship somehow never stabilized, even when Howard briefly returned.
Washington finished in the bottom third of the league in defensive efficiency every single month of 2018 before a sudden 8-6 surge in January. But that anomalous turn-of-the-year improvement turned out to be just that: an anomaly. The team came crashing down from fifth in defense in January to dead last in February. It remained a bottom-dwelling unit for the rest of the year, finishing 27th overall and leaking 112.8 points per 100 possessions.
The trade for Jabari Parker and Bobby Portis didn’t help, especially since the always-solid Otto Porter Jr. went the other way. Grunfeld went all-in on offense at the forward and center positions, where some level of defensive competence is a necessity.
So Scott Brooks didn’t have much to work with. But he also didn’t try enough crazy stuff once everything went downhill. The Wiz remained in drop coverage, switching only when a guard lagged too far behind his man (which was a lot, by the way), and never hedging. Ian Mahinmi was effective in limited minutes, but fell from the rotation entirely. Brooks went to a zone only when the season was pretty much toast.
The defense was ugly all damn year, and no one – not the players, not Brooks, not Grunfeld – is free from blame.
Bradley Beal balled
Bradley Beal went from nice secondary creator to legitimate star this season. His final nightly averages: 25.6 points, 5.0 rebounds, 5.5 assists. He suffered a down year from deep, canning just 35.1 percent of his triples, but he compensated with a relentless assault on the rim and improved playmaking chops.
The Florida product’s workload was immense. He led the league in minutes, all while finishing with career-highs in usage, assist rate, and free-throw rate. He did all that while keeping his true shooting up at 58.1 percent, well above his career average.
The overall result was an offense that flourished with Beal as its catalyst. Washington poured in a solid 111.3 points per 100 possessions with the 25-year-old playing, including an an outstanding 113.4 after Wall went down for the year with his achilles tear.
No one is going to ask Beal to be an ace defender; the offensive end is where he earns his paychecks. Those paychecks will be fat as long as he puts together alpha dog seasons like this last one.
The lottery beckons
Washington will have a nine percent chance at snagging the top pick in the 2019 NBA Draft and therefore Zion Williamson. Even if those odds still aren’t “good,” they can inspire some hope. The Duke superstar would immediately boost Washington’s defense and give the franchise a star to pair with Beal. He’s an enormous human, so filling a hole the size of John Wall’s achilles tendon shouldn’t be too hard.
But as tantalizing as Zion is – screw AP Style, he is a first-name-only kind of prodigy – the Wizards have a 37.2 percent chance at a top five pick. With several returning players or free agents either peaking, injured, or in their 30s, they’re in desperate need of a dude on the right side of the aging curve.
Maybe no one in this draft outside Zion strikes you as a future star. That’s fine; I feel the same way. But even just getting a young dude on a cheap contract could change the fortunes of the franchise.
Lottery optimism. That’s the reward you get for enduring a disastrous season.
Just how good is Thomas Bryant?
One of the few young dudes on the roster is center Thomas Bryant, who had a breakout-ish year. He started 53 games, averaging 18.2 points and 10.9 rebounds per 36 minutes. Mostly a lanky rim-runner, he also flashed a nascent jump shot, attempting 99 threes and making a third of them.
Bryant combined that jumper with knockdown free-throw shooting and ferocious dunks in the paint as a kind of all-purpose play finisher. He ranked fourth leaguewide in true-shooting percentage. He also played with a contagious end-to-end enthusiasm, getting out ahead of the pack in transition and dashing from screen to screen without complaints.
But Bryant is bad on defense. He’s 21, so we should expect him to miss some rotations, but even the raw rim-protecting instincts just aren’t there. He averaged less than a block per game and never picked up steals. Opponents shot 62.9 percent within six feet with Bryant challenging them, 59th out of the 70 centers to play at least 40 games.
Center is a defense-first position. You need to be an extremely unique offensive player – we’re talking Nikola Jokic, Karl-Anthony Towns, Nikola Vucevic – to add value as a big without at least middling D. And even those guys are much better than Bryant defensively.
The Wiz youngster is a strong offensive player, but unless that three-point volume ratchets up considerably, his production is still pretty replicable. What makes him a different offensive player than, say, Dwight Powell?
The defense needs to catch up with the offense, and the offense needs to grow incrementally. Whether those two things happen will determine if he’s a core piece of this team or just another backup center.
Who will replace Ernie Grunfeld?
Wizards fans will learn plenty about owner Ted Leonsis in the coming weeks and months. First off, they’ll find out whether he’ll run the franchise intelligently as a hiring manager. The Wiz have a gaping hole in the basketball operations office now that Grunfeld is gone. Can Leonsis fill it while leaving enough time for pre-draft scouting, the draft, and then free agency?
Hiring employees at the right time isn’t just about basketball; it’s good business practice.
Wiz fans will also find out what Leonsis values. Plenty of future general managers come from cutthroat organizations willing to trade, tank, salary dump, sign, and tank again if it means getting closer to a title. Rich Gotham of the Boston Celtics comes to mind. Hell, Sam Hinkie is available.
On the other hand, there are internal candidates and plenty of qualified folks from more conservative organizations. Pursuing those options would signal that Leonsis wants to stay the course with the Wall-Beal core, even though Wall looks likely to miss all of next season and Beal has just one year left on his contract. Those options would also indicate that ownership wants playoff contention (and playoff revenues), regardless of how competitive those postseason series may be. Hopefully, that’s not the case.
Beal’s All-NBA honors will lead to a standoff
I was going to predict that Wall won’t play at all next year while he’s recovering from his torn achilles tendon, and will return a shell of himself in 2020. Then I decided that prediction wasn’t deflating enough.
Beal should make an All-NBA team this season. If he does, he’ll qualify for the designated veteran extension, which will pay him more than $190 million over the course of four years beginning in 2020-21.
Grunfeld would’ve paid him – his track record, giving Wall the DVE and Porter a max deal, says as much. The next regime may not be so generous.
Beal is amazing, but paying he and Wall a combined 70 percent of the salary cap between 2020 and 2022 will be crippling. The two-time All-Star has teetered between commitment to DC and general obliviousness about his next move. It looks like he’s posturing, as he should, for the best deal possible.
I wouldn’t be shocked if Washington scoffs at offering him the full supermax. I also wouldn’t be shocked if Beal takes the front office’s stinginess as an invitation to force his way out.