In what has become something of an annual tradition, the Wizards will have to start training camp with a roster that’s already shorthanded due to injury.
Markieff Morris is expected to at least miss training camp, which starts in less than a week, thanks to sports hernia surgery which he’ll undergo on Friday. The team hasn’t given a timetable for his return, but for the sake of planning, let’s go with the timetable the New York Giants used when they announced Jason Pierre-Paul would miss six weeks after undergoing sports hernia surgery last December. If that’s the case, Morris would return November 3. In that scenario he’d miss all of training camp, all of the preseason, and the first seven games of the regular season.
As we saw throughout last season, the Wizards weren’t the same team whenever one of their starters was not available. Though he isn’t a big stat-stuffer, his versatility on both ends helps him fill important gaps in the starting lineup’s skillset that no one else was equipped to replace last season.
If there’s a silver lining, it’s that Washington has experience dealing with injuries to start a season. In 2012, the Wizards announced in late September that John Wall would miss time due to a stress injury in his knee. The next season, they announced before training camp that Chris Singleton would be out several weeks with a foot injury and Emeka Okafor was out indefinitely with a neck injury on the same day. In 2014, Martell Webster had to miss the start of the season after undergoing back surgery. Then, the year after that, Washington went into training camp shorthanded because Webster dealing with more issues, while Alan Anderson and Jared Dudley were recovering from offseason surgeries. Then last season, Ian Mahinmi faced knee issues which foreshadowed an injury-plagued start to his Wizards career.
Still, the stakes are higher this season than they were in past years because they’re trying to improve on last season’s success, and there are plenty of questions regarding the team’s bench after a woeful showing last season.
That all said, if there’s one starter the team can manage without, it’s Morris. Last season, when the team’s starters were on the floor without Morris, they outscored opponents by 2.3 points per 100 possessions - not an overwhelming amount, but enough to keep their heads above water.
Those numbers are skewed thanks to some bad lineups early in the season with Andrew Nicholson, Tomas Satoransky, or Marcus Thornton. They're also hurt by Jason Smith's surprisingly ineffective minutes with the starters. Although the team was more effective on the offensive end, they were still outscored by 14.7 points per 100 possessions because their defense was just that bad Smith taking Morris’ spot.
The numbers without Morris last season are buoyed on the other end thanks to their success going small with Kelly Oubre at the 3 and Porter at 4. That unit outscored opponents by 17.4 points per 100 possessions, making it their most effective lineup that played at least 100 minutes last season, even more effective than the starters themselves.
But the thing to keep in mind with that lineup is that the sample size is still incredibly small. Their 200 minutes of playing time were spread out over 35 games, which works out to a little under six minutes per game. And while those six minutes per game usually came in high-leverage, late-game situations, it was still just a situational lineup. Scott Brooks had the luxury of only having to use the small unit only in situations that worked in their favor. That naturally makes those numbers look good and doesn’t necessarily reflect their overall potency. In other words, a big part of the unit’s effectiveness was due to their selectiveness.
Hopefully, Kelly Oubre can take the next step in his development and make the lineup viable for more scenarios this season, but either way the team will need help from some of their new additions to help fill the void. If Mike Scott can get back to his form from the 2015-16 season, he could bring a lot of the valuable spacing Smith brought last season and hopefully be a little more useful on the defensive end, especially around the perimeter. They could also go small with Wall, Meeks, Beal, and Porter for a different look for certain situations that gives them lots of shooting and ballhandling options.
The Wizards won’t be able to replace Markieff Morris with one player or one lineup adjustment. It will require an aggregated effort from several players Washington already needed to step up to improve the team’s depth this season. Kelly Oubre, Mike Scott, and Jodie Meeks ability to manage bigger burdens with Morris out will serve as an early referendum on how well the Wizards addressed their depth issues this summer.
If they can hold up during the early part of the season without Morris, it sets them up much better to do well once he returns. Likewise, if they struggle to replace his production while he’s out, it likely means Washington is in for another season with serious questions about how to stay competitive when their starters need rest.