Are the Washington Wizards a Threat to the Cavs?

Posted: 02/19/2017 by levcohen in Basketball
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Since the New Year, the Golden State Warriors have the best record in the NBA at 18-4. That’s no surprise. But guess who’s in second place? Hint: it’s not the Spurs (16-7), the Rockets (14-9), or the Cavs (14-9). It’s not the slumping Raptors (11-14), although I still think the Raps are the second best team in the Eastern Conference, especially after they traded for Serge Ibaka. It’s the Washington Wizards, who are 18-5 since the New Year and 18-3 since they dropped their first two games in January. And right behind the Wizards are the Boston Celtics, who are 17-6 since the calendar flipped to January and 11-2 in their last 13 games, even after they lost to the Bulls on Thursday by a point on a soft foul call on Marcus Smart at the buzzer. The Celtics are now 37-20, three games behind the Cavaliers, while the Wizards, who started the year 7-13, are now 34-21, two games ahead of the Raptors in third place in the East. The two teams also have the exact same point differential (+2.8) and are powered by All-Star point guards (Isaiah Thomas and John Wall). They’re having very similar seasons, which begs a few questions: which team is more likely to keep it up? How do they match up against each other? How do they match up against Cleveland and Toronto? It’s worth noting that the four teams I’ve mentioned are the only four in the Eastern Conference with a point differential of better than +.3. Two other EC teams have positive point differentials, but both Milwaukee (25-30, +.3) and Charlotte (24-32, +.2) are currently outside the playoff picture. In a largely mediocre conference, it’s going to be up to Cleveland, Toronto, Washington, and Boston to provide playoff drama.

The Wizards have a very strong starting lineup. There’s never been any doubt that, when healthy, John Wall and Bradley Beal form a frightening backcourt. And they’re finally (knock on wood) both healthy. Wall is dynamic, extremely fast, a tenacious defender, and an excellent passer. He can get to the rim, and his jump shot is slowly improving. He’s shooting a career high 45% from the field this year. Beal, meanwhile, is a knockdown (40% from three) shooter who should really have been Kevin Love’s All-Star replacement (it ended up being Carmelo Anthony). He’s also a sneaky-good passer (3.7 assists per game, top-five among shooting guards). Then there’s Otto Porter Jr., who also maybe should have been an All-Star, both because of his solid defensive work and because he’s continued his trend of getting significantly better in each of his (now four) years in the NBA. Offensively, Porter’s exploded, especially from beyond the arc. He’s shooting 53.4% from the field, putting him behind just KD and LeBron among small forwards. He’s the best three-point shooter in the NBA at 46.5%, and he’s taking more than 4.5 threes per game. He’s up at 48% on catch-and-shoot threes, tops in the NBA. He’s actually shooting above 50% from 25+ feet, also obviously best in the NBA. His true shooting % (which is Total points / [(FGA + (0.44 x FTA)] is 65.3%, tops among non-big men and .1% above Kevin Durant’s. I could go on and on about his offense, and he’s only averaging 14.6 points per game because he’s such a low-usage player who rarely drives or posts up. I can’t overstate how important Porter is to the Wizards’ starting lineup. If they wanted or needed him to score 20 points per game, he easily could. But they have two guards putting up a combined 45 points and 35 shots per game, so that’s obviously not what they need. They need an efficient small forward who is good defensively and has the rebounding ability to compensate for the team’s lack of big man depth. Porter was immediately labelled a bust — he barely played in his first year after being drafted #3 overall — but he’s become one of the more versatile and valuable small forwards in the league.

Then there’s Markieff Morris, a power forward who can create his own shot and who has been on fire since the New Year (49% from the field, 42% from three, 18/8/2 per game). Morris, too, fits in perfectly. He is a really solid defensive player, and the team is much better defensively with him on the court (102.6 points allowed per 100 possessions) than with him off the court (109.2). And it’s no coincidence that Washington’s hot streak has coincided with Morris’s offensive explosion, because he gives them a fourth dynamic offensive weapon who can create his own shot. When the Wizards want, they can also throw the ball down low to Marcin Gortat and let him demolish small-ball centers. He’s shooting a career-best 60% from the field, ranking seventh in the NBA in points per game from the post (6.3). Just as importantly, he vacuums up 11.4 rebounds per game and has almost single-handedly kept Washington above water rebounding-wise even with backup center Ian Mahinmi missing almost the entire year.

Washington’s starting lineup makes a whole lot of sense, and it’s also worked (unlike many lineups that make sense on paper). Put two lethal shooters on the wings in Beal and Porter, add a power forward who can create his own shot and shoot from beyond the arc in Morris, add a rim-runner in Gortat and top it off with a point guard who will take advantage of any space he’s given in Wall and you have a well-oiled offensive machine. The lineup has played 965 minutes together this season and has a +13 net rating in those minutes. First of all, playing 965 minutes together through 55 games is an extraordinary feat that requires a whole lot of luck. The five starters have missed a combined eight games, which is notable considering the expansive injury histories that both Beal and Wall have. Those 965 minutes are easily the most by a single lineup. Minnesota’s starting lineup ranks second at 880, although they’re quickly falling behind after the Zach LaVine season-ending injury. Oklahoma City’s starters rank third at 601 minutes, and Golden State’s are fourth at 508. I said that this lineup makes a lot of sense; coach Scotty Brooks clearly agrees. As for that +13 net rating, it ranks fourth among the 30 lineups that have played at least 200 minutes. First, of course, is the new Death Lineup (last year’s Death Lineup of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala, and Draymond Green but with Kevin Durant instead of Barnes) at +25. Then come Golden State’s starters (+23) and the Clippers’ oft-injured starters (+16.2). Then the Wizards’ starters are the only other group with a net rating above +10. And remember, this is for lineups that have played as few as 200 minutes. Washington’s has played 965. This is no small sample size fluke. Boston’s starting lineup, by the way, is +7.3 points per 100 possessions. Cleveland’s is +9.3, Houston’s is +9.7, and San Antonio’s is +10.

Looking forward, I don’t see any reason that the starting lineup will slow down (barring injury, of course). It might be a bit too much to assume health going forward, but let’s not kid ourselves: neither the Wizards nor the Celtics have a chance of upsetting the Cavaliers if they’re not at full health. And in the playoffs, I’d expect the starting lineup to play together even more than it is now. Wall’s at 36.6 minutes per game, while the rest of the starters are between 32.1 and 34.5. There’s some wiggle room there. But still, you realistically need at least three quality bench players in order to grind for four playoff rounds. And that’s the problem: they definitely don’t have three quality bench players, at least not at this point. I mentioned that backup Ian Mahinmi has missed most of the year. Well, he’s played between 12 and 15 minutes in the last four games, and he’s expected to play more after the All-Star break. You may not realize it now, but Mahinmi is really important. As I’ve alluded to, Washington has a short bench. They also handed Mahinmi a four year, $64 million deal this offseason after he played very well for the Pacers last season, ranking fifth in defensive Real Plus-Minus. Adding a big man will also be huge for a team that’s struggled to keep teams off the offensive glass (they’re tied for 25th in defensive rebounding at 75.4%). It remains to be seen whether Mahinmi can regain the form that allowed him to sign a $64 million paycheck. One thing’s for sure, though: the Wizards should look to add another bench piece via trade. They fall off a cliff whenever Beal or Wall is off the court, let alone both of them. Trey Burke just isn’t going to get it done as a backup point guard. Ditto for Tomas Satoransky at shooting guard. They should dangle their first round pick, and maybe even young Kelly Oubre, who’s getting 20 minutes per game off the bench and hasn’t been terrible. I think Oubre’s going to end up being a good player, and the Wizards should try to avoid moving him, but they’re really close to having a great chance of winning the Eastern Conference, and if moving Oubre can get them a guard who is locked up for a few seasons and can play 20+ good minutes per game in the playoffs, I think it’s worth it. It looks like the Wizards understand that they must be buyers. Options could include Will Barton and Lou Williams, both guys who are experienced bucket-makers off the bench. I wouldn’t move Oubre in a Williams deal or both Oubre and a first round pick for Barton, but one or the other could get it done and would end up really helping the second unit.

Bottom line: John Wall is a legit top-10 NBA player. He also has a huge amount of talent around him, and the starting lineup fits together really well. But for the Wizards to be really taken seriously as a threat to the Cavaliers, they need to improve their bench. Mahinmi might be an in-house improvement, but even a small trade deadline move would be huge in a potential close second round series against Toronto or Boston.

Tomorrow: the Celtics
Monday: how they match up against each other, Cleveland, and Toronto

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