In past week we have seen the Wizards win games against the Heat and Nuggets, who are both near the top of each of their respective conferences. These wins have been made even more impressive because these wins have come without their all-star shooting guard Bradley Beal.
But sprinkled in between those victories are two blowout losses to the Orlando Magic and the Portland Trail Blazers with Beal playing in one of those games, albeit injured. It’s a weird dynamic and there doesn’t seem to be a sensible pattern to it.
There are other things that don’t make sense either like why is Isaiah Thomas on this team and getting so much playing time? Why is Bradley Beal one of the NBA’s leaders in minutes per game in a season that is subsequently a rebuilding year?
Why is this team last in a number of defensive metrics even though defense has been spoken of publicly as an identity for the organization and Coach Scott Brooks, specifically when he said “We didn’t play to our identity for some reason” after an early November loss?
There are probably a lot more questions that we can come up with, but let’s unpack what is happening here. If you ask any team at the beginning of the season, their goal is to win games.
As the famous football coach Herm Edwards said, “You play to win the game!” But reality doesn’t always play out the way expectations are laid out. Teams have injuries, personnel changes and other matters that changes the course of the direction of the team throughout the season.
With the Wizards, it was known that John Wall would be out this season and that the team would have at least 2 rookies, and several young players who would play significant minutes for the first time in their careers. To say that one would expect this team to go win a championship out right, would be intellectually dishonest.
Certainly there is nothing wrong with striving towards that goal, but there are things that step in the way of that happening. So what does this mean?
Even when you are losing or struggling to reach your original goals, your team needs to have a clear direction and a clear understanding of what you want to accomplish short term and long term. Ultimately these goals should lead to winning.
When I look at the Wizards playing Isaiah Thomas playing as much as he is playing, how does Thomas’ starting role and 24 minutes per game help their short or long term goals? I know there are some who would argue that IT helps this team now, but I ask you, what does he help this team do? Does he help this team win a few extra games this year maybe?
Realistically, he’s not going to contribute much beyond this year, especially with Wall returning and Ish Smith already under contract next season. So why are the Wizards insistent on continuing to play Thomas so much?
When Thomas is on the court, he struggles to score on the same tightly-contested looks that he used to get years ago (shot 54 percent in 2016-17 compared to 25 percent this season) which accounted for more than half of his shots in his best statistically season in 2016-17, and most importantly, he struggles defensively, which has not changed since his career started.
Is the organization saying Thomas’ offense is so vital that he provides the foundation for what this team wants to do? Seems odd considering his skillset is much different than Wall’s, which is ultimately a lot closer aligned to Ish Smith’s skillset.
When it comes to Beal playing so much, how does his amount of playing time impact the team? Are the Wizards winning more games? Is Beal shooting better? Are the Wizards scoring more because of Beal’s play?
With the exception of the last question, Beal’s play hasn’t resulted in the Wizards being appreciably better than last season.So, what is the benefit of the Wizards playing their star player so much when they continue to lose with him playing so many minutes?
These questions point to one thing that has continued from the Grunfeld-Era, the Wizards don’t exactly know what type of team they are building to be. They don’t have a true long-term identity they are aiming for in the months and seasons ahead.
I am not laying blame on Tommy Sheppard, at least not yet. There are a lot of things that must change to undo 16 years of the Grunfeld-era so I don’t expect things to happen overnight, but as this process goes on, I am expecting to see some things that tangibly represents what the Wizards want to be as a franchise going forward.
The Wizards can score, but their defense is so bad to the point where they have one of the worst records in the NBA. Clearly this isn’t a formula for success. If we read between the lines, the team picked up assistant coach Mike Longabardi to be a defensive specialist, so clearly they recognize the need to improve their defense.
The Wizards have reached an agreement with Michael Longabardi to become an assistant on Scott Brooks’ staff, @NBCSWashington has learned. He comes from Cavs, defense is his specialty and he’s been part of two championship teams. The Post first reported he was interviewing.— Chase Hughes (@ChaseHughesNBCS) July 20, 2019
Picking up a player like Gary Payton II, who has the chops to be a good wing defender, is a step towards perhaps addressing some of the issues on defense, despite his deficiencies on the other end. With that said, is that going to be the path going forward or was his acquisition just simply to fill a void as a result of all the injuries that have transpired?
I think the other issue is does Brooks fit what they want to be going forward? If the Wiaards want to have a more productive defensive team, is he the answer? In his tenure in Washington, the highest ranking for defensive ratings has been 15th. That’s not awful, but where has that taken them? He has emphasized defense as being important, but have we really seen the fruits of this approach?
Going forward with this team, Tommy Sheppard will have a number of items to address. Will he trade any expiring contracts (Ian Mahinmi, Davis Bertans, Isaiah Thomas) away before the trade deadline in a few weeks to acquire future assets?
Will Brooks go into next season as a lameduck coach on the last year of his deal? Or will he receive an extension?
Will the Wizards continue to take chances on veteran players like Isaiah Thomas who are low risk, even though he may not fit what the team does? These are all questions that I wonder and I believe the decisions that are made by this front office by the beginning of next season are going to definitively answer the question, what are the Washington Wizards?
As fans and observers of the team, we simply have not been able to really point to a clear, positive identity with this team for so long, and the reality is, this team needs one.
The identity and the culture of the team going forward will shape the answers to all of the questions that I have asked here. This team needs to make some hard decisions and really move towards a clear direction and culture that leads to winning.
We can enjoy the random wins that this season’s team may get here and there. But if we go into next season with many of the same issues with this team has right now, without measurable improvement, will we really be content? Will we really believe this team is ready to improve? Or will we think that the Wizards under Sheppard are no different than under Grunfeld.
It’s time for the Wizards to take the next step. With all the front office changes that happened last summer, now is the time for the Wizards to give the fan base a clear vision of what this team is going to be going forward.