Success in the NBA is a simple formula. First, it takes at least three of the following ingredients: star talent, a good defense, health, and a scarcity of drama. Next, and arguably the key ingredient in each of the four components, success must have a date with Lady Luck. Otherwise, a derailment may occur at a deeply consequential point in time.
Meanwhile, the Wizards’ defense places among the worst in the NBA, and their starting point guard, Russell Westbrook, and center, Thomas Bryant, are out with injuries. Suddenly, they are out of the four-square formulaic hunt. Arguably due to a lack of luck. That leaves the matter of drama to evaluate.
In November, longtime franchise-cornerstone John Wall was acquired by the Houston Rockets in exchange for Westbrook and a first-round draft pick. Following leaked exploratory talks, the events leading up to the trade were predictable and awkward. In the weeks since the blockbuster deal, the outside noise has been mild. Especially in relation to the James Harden fallout in Houston.
Washington remains a Beal trade demand from being forced to punt their season. Recent history suggests that superstar trades rarely involve an equal exchange of talent. Take yesterday’s Harden package as proof. It took a motherload of Brooklyn draft equity to acquire the 2018 MVP. Although it might be best for the future, a potential Beal trade will not improve the team overnight.
At the end of the day, improving defense and team health will put the Wizards derailment back on the right track.
How Bryant’s Injury May Fortify the Defense
The Wizards offense is humming towards the top of the league. Through 11 games, they rank sixth in efficiency despite Westbrook shooting the lowest percentages of his career. They are among the best teams in the league at taking care of the ball, and the play at the fastest pace of any team. Make no mistake, with Beal at the helm, Washington is capable of scoring with the best of the best.
If only they were able to maintain a league-average defense. Right now, they rank 28th in efficiency, just ahead of the Chicago Bulls and Sacramento Kings.
How does this happen? A lack of rim protection and activity, for one. Washington ranks second-to-last in blocks per game, and in the bottom half of steals. This came with Bryant anchoring the backline defense. For all his strengths on offense, the Wizards center is undersized compared to other starting men in the middle. And his jumpy, pogo-stick pursuit for blocks left the offensive glass unattended for potential follow-ups. As a team, Washington has allowed their opponents to make nearly half of their field goal attempts (49.1 percent).
On Sunday, unfortunate news broke that Bryant will miss the remainder of the season after partially tearing his left ACL. This shifts Robin Lopez into the starting lineup, and shoves, Moritz Wagner, into the rotation. Both are bigger presences than Bryant, thus posing a more optimal deterrent at the rim. Wagner is among the league’s best at drawing charges.
Replacing Bryant presents an unintended opportunity for improvement on defense. Nonetheless, if Washington is able to creep into mediocrity, it will pay dividends in the standings.
Unlucky Breaks With Health and Safety Protocols
The NBA still has to decide on allowing the Wizards to play Sunday/Monday games in DC vs. Cleveland, but the chances of those games withstanding a postponement are fading. https://t.co/XrRe6saO9r— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) January 14, 2021
After defeating the Phoenix Suns handily on Monday 128-107, Washington saw their Wednesday matchup against the Utah Jazz, and a Friday game against Detroit postponed due to multiple COVID-19 risks on the team. Today, Adrian Wojnarowski reported a third member of the team returned a positive result. Thus jeopardizing a doubleheader against Cleveland this coming Sunday and Monday.
Just last week, while Beal was detonating for 60 points against the Philadelphia Sixers, Seth Curry was a day away from a positive test, and subsequent mandatory quarantine. Following that contest, Washington played the Boston Celtics, who were a day away from losing Jayson Tatum to similar health and safety protocols. Because Tatum and Beal were matched up most of the game and embraced after the buzzer, this forced Beal to miss Sunday’s game against the Miami Heat.
What could the Wizards have done to prevent this quagmire? Perhaps they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Maybe they did not adhere to the strict health standards. As a result of these postponements and positive tests, their season is possibly on the brink of failure. Washington is missing game reps and practice time to fix the kinks in their roster. This was already a team in desperate need of time to gel into a solidified unit.
In an organization, they say, you fail for two reasons: being undermanned or underprepared. Following another derailment, Washington, unfortunately, checks both of these boxes. Luckily, there is still time to turn things around.