Here's a brief summary of what Washington's wing rotation has gone through over the past five months:
- Management held firm on a deal with Trevor Ariza that wouldn't exceed $9 million per season in free agency, leading to their best perimeter defender and best shooter bolting to Houston on a four-year/$32 million contract.
- Paul Pierce agreed to terms with Washington a day later by use of their mid-level exception, which vaulted them into contenders in the Eastern Conference. But the fit is still a tricky one, and with no proven perimeter defender in-house and with Pierce blossoming as Brooklyn's stretch-4 during the second half of last season, doubts still linger.
- Otto Porter and Glen Rice Jr prove their worth in Las Vegas as both were selected to the All-NBA Summer League first team. Rice took home MVP honors after absolutely wrecking the competition. He looked a lot more prudent as a ball handler, using an array of advanced dribbles to beat help defenders in the pick and roll, and was much more decisive with his reads once he got into the second and third layers of the defense. But equally as important was his play away from the ball. He was just as comfortable coming off screens, and was dramatically better at drifting to the open areas of the floor to provide an outlet for the ball handler.
- But despite all of that, the consensus was that Otto Porter would take on a more pronounced role with the team once training camp rolled around. For him, Summer League was all about getting back to his Georgetown roots and gaining some confidence on the court. He did the majority of his work from the mid-range area -- bending the defense by coming off pin downs screens towards the free throw line -- and opening up opportunities for Rice to penetrate and get to the basket. But he also showed an ability to hit the three, as he connected on 39-percent of his attempts. Still, some of the same issues that plagued him as a rookie persisted, namely an inability to finish through contact at the rim.
Which leads us to the news that Bradley Beal will miss the next 6-8 weeks after fracturing his left wrist in a preseason game against the Hornets on Friday night. If there's any sort of silver lining in this, it's that it's not to his shooting hand and that he should be able to stay in shape (though not game-shape) as he works his way back.
But this still takes the Wizards likely into late-November and early-December, when they face a tough stretch that includes two bouts against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the span of five days, as well as the Mavericks, Hawks, Pelicans, and Heat.
Spacing the floor -- which has already been a nightmare so far in the preseason -- becomes infinitely tougher after removing the most threatening shooter on the roster. This has been the underlying issue all throughout the offseason. Washington chose to bolster its frontcourt, but it came at the expense of balancing out the rest of the team. The flexibility isn't totally there in the lineup and Randy Wittman faces the reality of pigeonholing Paul Pierce at the three despite last year's evidence suggesting he's effective at the four.
This is the price you pay for putting all your eggs in the frontcourt. You can commend the front office for finally sticking their necks out for their two most recent draft picks, but you have to wonder just how much of that was blind optimism vs. simply misjudging the roster. If Porter and Rice succeed, it's a win for everyone involved, but if even one of them stumble, they could be staring down the barrel of another slow start to the season in what should be a highly-competitive division.
This shouldn't be a death sentence for Washington. Their starters were more efficient without Beal last season, and according to NBAwowy.com, John Wall assisted on a higher number of three-pointers per-100 possessions without his backcourt mate. But there's a lot of variables at play, most of which were out of Beal's hands completely. He took on more ball handling responsibilities, and in that offense, it meant running dribble handoffs with a big man that more often than not resulted in a turnover or a midrange jumper clanking off the side of the rim.
Scrapping those plays will help, but it's worth questioning just how much floor spacing a team with Wall, Rice, Pierce, Nene, and Gortat can manufacture.
And subbing Beal out meant Wall was spending a lot of time with two low-usage players that relied on his ability to create. It isn't clear whether Rice trends more toward Beal than Martell Webster. He didn't play a ton of meaningful minutes last season, and while some of his magic from Summer League has transferred over to the preseason, he still seems more comfortable taking an off-the-dribble three than one spotting up. Playing him with the starters would be like fitting a square peg in a round hole. Give him the reins with the second unit and see what he can do.
Small-ball is the easy fix here, and the injury to Kris Humphries should only strengthen that argument. But there's two problems with it. 1.) it requires a dramatic shift in their defensive scheme and 2.) it means you're starting two second-year players with very little experience. The injury to Webster looms large here, and I think Wittman would be a lot more receptive to this if he had more players he could trust.
Porter may come out of all this the big winner. There was always a real possibility that Beal's workload as a pick and roll player would lessen with Pierce coming in, and would thus be able to do more off-ball. This is what Porter can replicate better than anyone else on the roster. He won't break the offense, and he'd instantly profit from having Wall set him up for clean looks. If the coaching staff truly believes the two wing positions are interchangeable, then Porter should get the nod to start on opening night.
None of this is ideal. Beal's injury puts a major dent in Washington's plans, and his chance to build on his playoff run a few months ago is now put on hold. But another former no. 3 pick is waiting in the wings now. It's time to see what he can do.