Despite Wizards’ nightmarish start, this isn’t the season to rush to judgment
Meanwhile, Bradley Beal’s league-leading scoring exploits are going to waste, prompting NBA Twitter to launch into its 3,876th round of trade rumors after his career-high 60 points were squandered in a loss to Philadelphia. Beal even quipped that the Wizards, who entered Tuesday’s action a half-game out of the Eastern Conference basement, “can’t guard a parked car” after a loss to Boston.
But Washington’s surprising 128-107 win over the Phoenix Suns on Monday was a reminder that this season, of all seasons, requires maximum patience. The Suns entered with the West’s second-best record but managed only 15 points in the first quarter against the Wizards, who were without Bryant and Westbrook. Beal continued his effortless scoring surge, finishing with 34 points and nine assists to lead six Wizards in double figures. At a moment when the shorthanded Wizards had plenty of reasons to crack, they turned in what Coach Scott Brooks called “our best and most complete game of the season.”
Davis Bertans, who caught fire with six three-pointers against the Suns after a slow start to the season, said the unexpected win “definitely boosted the morale.” It should also help clarify the Wizards’ lot in life after a frustrating start: Beal’s presence gives them a chance to be competitive most nights, Bertans hasn’t yet hit his stride, and there are enough complementary scoring threats to take advantage when a superior opponent comes out flat.
What’s more, the addition of a play-in round for the ninth and 10th seeds in each conference means the Wizards will have something to play for in the coming months despite their early health woes. There are plenty of other bad teams in the East’s lottery mix, and most of them lack a star of Beal’s caliber.
Taking the long view is especially appropriate in a season that has seen stars miss extended time because of positive coronavirus tests and contact tracing. Beal was held out of a loss to the Miami Heat on Saturday amid contact tracing, but he said after he returned Monday that he has continued to test negative.
“You just have to stay positive,” he said when asked about the impact of the coronavirus protocols. “It can get annoying. We’re trying to keep the game safe. It’s kind of overwhelming at times. I was a little [angry about] not playing last game.”
Given the night-to-night unpredictability tied to the virus protocols, which have led to five postponed games since Sunday, all 30 teams should feel as though they are still in the playoff mix after nearly three weeks of action. Brooks lamented the limited practice time amid the condensed 72-game schedule, and it might take another three weeks, or even longer, for the standings to start shaking out.
But staying alive isn’t the same thing as building momentum, and the Wizards still have plenty of work to do. For starters, they have to fix their atrocious defense. Brooks’s rotation is filled with minus defenders who lack physicality, experience or both, and Washington must develop better discipline and togetherness. Robin Lopez steps in for Bryant at center, which should provide added defensive stability to open games, but Brooks will be forced to deploy small-ball second units that will struggle to defend the paint and rebound.
For Washington to move up the standings, Westbrook must play better as he gets more accustomed to his new teammates. The nine-time all-star’s most productive stretches for the Houston Rockets last season came when he played in center-less lineups, and Bryant’s injury could create opportunities to surround Westbrook with unconventional looks that create better attacking opportunities and driving lanes. If Westbrook continues to take more than half of his shot attempts from outside 16 feet, Washington’s offense will never reach its full potential.
The Wizards must also trust their ability to execute when Westbrook is out, as they did Monday. Westbrook, the 2017 MVP, remains a triple-double machine, but his absences shouldn’t be viewed as dealbreakers. Houston was 8-7 without him last season, and the Oklahoma City Thunder went 5-4 without him in 2018-19. Every night that Westbrook is out is an opportunity for Hachimura, Raul Neto, Deni Avdija and Garrison Mathews to be more involved in the offense. Westbrook’s DNPs also give Beal, who is a far more efficient offensive threat than his new backcourt partner, a chance to enjoy as many touches and shots as he can handle.
Make no mistake: If this season ends with another forgettable lottery trip, there could be major consequences, given Beal’s desirability as a trade target and Brooks’s lame-duck contract status. But rushing to judgment on either front would do more harm than good with so much basketball left to play and so many health-related hurdles left for the NBA to climb.
“Tonight was the first time we guarded the right way, with intensity, focus and some IQ,” Beal said Monday, choosing to focus on short-term improvement rather than longer-term questions. “Maybe we can move up from the parked cars now.”