Here is how long the NBA season is: Long enough for the Washington Wizards to have gone from a bad team with a good starting five and an atrocious bench, to a good team with a great starting five and an atrocious bench, to a dark-horse Finals pick with a great starting five and a good bench, to a struggling team with a fatigued starting five and a good bench. That’s too long! Particularly if you are a Wizards fan. Life is too long if you’re a Wizards fan.
Coming into last night, the Wizards’ starting five (John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, Markieff Morris, and Marcin Gortat) had played over 300 more minutes than any other five-man lineup in the NBA. No other team has more than two players in the league’s top 25 in total minutes played; the Wizards have four (Wall, Beal, Porter, and Gortat). If that’s partly due to good luck with injuries—the Wizards’ starting five is the only five-man group to have logged minutes in more than 54 games, and it has done so in 62—that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a lotta fuggin’ work.
For the first half of Wednesday’s game against the Hawks, the toll of that workload showed itself in a seemingly endless succession of shots clanging off the front of the rim, sloppy turnovers, and cheap reaching fouls. Atlanta’s Tim Hardaway Jr., an unexceptional generic wing dude, looked like a straight-up superstar simply by virtue of having a lot more bounce in his legs than the guys defending him did in theirs.
It turned out okay for the home team: Washington’s bench kept things competitive, Wall found some energy to burn, and that turned out to be enough to manufacture a win over a team utterly lacking players of genuine consequence. But it also fit a pattern—worse defense, worse shooting, shitty defensive rebounding, sluggish starts leading to frantic second-half pushes—that has emerged since the All-Star break, and points to the possibility that Washington’s starters are just worn out.
Even if there are explanations less depressing than “Their least horrendous backups for like three months were Trey Burke and Jason Smith” for why the Wizards have leaned on their starters so heavily—the need to adjust to a new coach, say—this is not ideal! There’s a reason the league’s controversy of the moment concerns its most successful teams giving their best players whole nights off, after all. However fervently anyone may wish to believe that Every Game Counts, the Warriors would rather have a fresh Steph Curry in May than a road win over San Antonio in March. A sexy playoff seed doesn’t mean much if you have to kill your best players to get it.
(And it certainly doesn’t mean anything if those star players wither like old bananas from exhaustion with three weeks left to go in the regular season and you wind up in friggin’ fifth—an outcome that seems depressingly plausible for the Wizards of late.)
In any event, D.C.’s best players needed more rest back in December and January, when that rest could still do some good in portions measured in minutes; they definitely need it now, when those chunks will have to be game-sized to make any difference at all. Which makes smarmy bullshit like the following, from an interview Wall himself gave to CNS Mid-Atlantic a few days ago, particularly dumb:
“I’m not the type of guy who wants to sit down and rest. I think you owe it to the fans,” Wall said. “They paid money to come see us play. That’s how a professional goes out there and competes. If nothing is hurt, you can play go play.”
Of course, if you’re looking for a reason other than standard tough-guy self-congratulation why a pro athlete might take to the media to say actually no I don’t need rest, playing through fatigue is good and smart, maybe it’s because he knew his boss, hare-brained tech-dingus team owner Ted Leonsis, is the type of unhelpful boob who will go on CNBC to mewl passive-aggressively about his team’s absence from national broadcasts and offer to trade his players’ health for more attention:
“I responded immediately to [Commissioner Adam Silver’s memo to team owners discouraging them from letting their teams rest star players for national-broadcast games] and said just put the Washington Wizards on national television and I’ll make sure our players show up.”
Ha ha! Funny joke from the guy who controls their livelihood! But Leonsis is only half-joking, if that:
“I was chairman of the media committee for the NBA and the networks paid a lot of money for the programming and they want to drive ratings and they deserve to have our best product out there and the best players, and so I empathize and support where our commissioner took a stand here.”
Note to Ted Leonsis: Your team’s “best product” does not involve Otto Porter pounding open shots off the front of the rim because his legs are dead. Maybe you should have cared this much about how personnel decisions regarding the workload of star players would affect the quality of the product last summer, when your doofus general manager was giving a multi-year contract to Andrew fucking Nicholson!
Oh well. At least now the Wizards have distinguished themselves philosophically from those lazy star-resting derelicts in Golden State, San Antonio, and Cleveland, the winners of the NBA’s last three championships.