The Washington Wizards had an opportunity last weekend. There was reason to believe that the team was moving towards solid footing after winning three in a row and it looked like they might follow in the footsteps of the 2016-17 Wizards. That team started 2-8, but became one of the hotter teams in the NBA over the next few months en route to a 49-win season and Eastern Conference Semifinals appearance.
The Wizards couldn’t get out of their own way however, playing lethargically on defense and selfishly on offense in back-to-back losses to the Nets and Blazers. Very quickly all of the negativity which surrounded them after their 2-9 start caught back up to them. It wasn’t the losses alone, it was how they played in what were largely non-competitive games; one against a team still reeling from the loss of Caris LeVert, and the other seeking revenge after an intense loss in Portland in October. In those two games, the four starters from that 2016-17 team that are still in Washington shot 39 percent from the field.
Markieff Morris was wildly inconsistent in those two games, but that’s nothing new, so let’s instead focus on the other three starters, who are making a combined $70.6 million this season and set to make $92.1 million next season.
The Wizards have built a team centered around these players, their version of a Big 3. Each player was drafted and developed by this organization with the expectation that as they grew and LeBron James either got older or moved on from the Eastern Conference, that they would be next in line to push for the Eastern Conference crown. That time has finally come, and the Wizards are nowhere to be found among the East’s elite.
The Wizards’ front office deserves a lot of the blame for their miscues, miscues that have resulted in wasted cap space and wasted draft picks — resources that should have given them a much better chance to contend. There’s plenty to say about the culture the team has allowed, the 2011 draft, allowing Trevor Ariza to leave via free agency, botching free agency in 2016, and the pilfering of draft picks which has left a rotating cast of mediocre veterans around the Big 3. But I’m not here today to talk about that.
I’m talking about John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Otto Porter – the team’s broken Big 3. Regardless of everyone’s opinion of Ernie Grunfeld and the front office, a team with these three players are too talented to be 6-11. They’ve been outscored by 51 points when they’ve shared the floor this season, that’s -5.8 net rating over 380 minutes together.
The idea behind what Washington built made sense. The Wizards landed John Wall, a dynamic player at the point guard position and were able to use the third overall selection in the 2012 draft to pair him with a draft prospect many compared to future Hall of Famer Ray Allen. Washington then got a little lucky in the 2013 draft and moved up into the top 3 where they were able to land the reigning Big East Player of the Year, Otto Porter. They had a homegrown point guard, shooting guard, and small forward and their skill set seemed to complement each other.
Wall’s lack of a consistent jump shot was mitigated by his ability to collapse a defense and kick the ball out to two shooters. Beal looked like he could be the go-to scorer and closer any great team would need. Otto Porter seemed like the perfect glue guy to support the backcourt — a player capable of filling up the stat sheet as he ran the floor, knocked down open jumpers, and did all the dirty work without the ball.
It all worked two years ago. Each player excelled and the franchise seemed like it might be on the cusp of achieving their goal. Since then, however, things have fallen apart and the Wizards are 49-49 in their last 98 regular season games. The problem? As the team has evolved, the weaknesses of each member of the Big 3 has led to the detriment of the trio.
John Wall was hurt much of last season but even this year is not the same player we saw in his All-NBA season. The highs are still high but the lows are low to the point where it feels like a roller coaster. Brad’s shooting continues to go in reverse — he’s shooting a career-low 33.1 percent from deep this season — and he hasn’t developed into the consistent go-to scorer and closer many projected. Otto Porter still plays the glue guy role, but his jump shot hasn’t been falling this season — he’s only shooting 35.6 percent from deep, down nearly nine percent from last season — and he seems to have taken a step back in activity level, which has resulted in him routinely not seeing the floor in the fourth quarter of games.
The fit that seemed so natural no longer works. With three max players under contract, the prevailing theory is that if one is having an off night that the other two can pick up the slack. We’re not seeing that here, largely due to what each player lacks. After four years together as starters, isn’t it fair to conclude that the Wizards Big 3 is what it is? Wall will remain inconsistent, Brad will continue to be a notch below the league’s top scorers, and Otto still won’t be a guy you can give the ball to and say “pick up the slack”.
What’s been particularly frustrating with this trio is that their poor habits are filtering to the defensive side of the floor and when the wheels fall off, there’s no leader amongst the group to keep the ship afloat. If it’s not “everybody eats” its “agendas” or “just guard your damn man.” The lack of accountability and sense of urgency on the court from the max contract trio is emblematic of the poor culture they have succumbed to in D.C.
Jared Dudley, who saw the trio when they were starting to blossom in 2015-16, gave Ben Standig of NBC Sports Washington a very sober assessment when he was in town last week.
I’m seeing a team that’s been together too long. They haven’t made program so it’s time to change things over there.
The Wizards, led by their iteration of a Big 3 lacks the chemistry, cohesion, and energy that fans want to see. Your eyes should tell you that; not all of the noise we’ve heard over the past few days. One half of good basketball versus the Clippers doesn’t change that. They seem tired of playing with each other and the fans have every right to be tired of watching them take the court. While you can’t pin the blame on any one player for why things haven’t worked, it’s become clear keeping them together won’t be the solution.