John Wall scored 52 points last night in a mostly empty arena against the Orlando Magic, who defeated the Wizards anyway, despite not being good or playing all that well. Below is the full highlight reel, if you’re into seeing one of the NBA’s most thrilling players deliver the best scoring performance of his career to the sort of smattered polite clapping you’ll recognize from the announcement during this past Monday’s staff meeting that someone you’d never heard of in a department you’ve never visited won Employee of the Month.
(What these highlights will not show, of course, is Wall’s almost total no-show at the other end of the court. In lieu of video, know that the man he spent much of the night guarding, Elfrid Payton—who came into the game averaging a robust 10 points per game and posting shooting numbers that would make Reggie Evans blanch—went for 25 on 9-for-12 shooting, including hitting all four of his three-point attempts, and dished out 9 assists to boot.)
The Wizards are 7-13 now, down near the bottom of the weak Eastern Conference, among such bozo-ass clown teams as the Nets, Heat, and Sixers. It’s where they belong. Or, well, okay, yes, in the aggregate, it’s where they belong, as a collective, the Wizards, yeah, they are bozo-ass clowns. Here, though, is a fun chart, brought to you by the NBA’s stats website:
That’s a list of the 10 most-used five-man lineups in the NBA to this point in the season. If you look at the NETRTG (net rating, a measure of a lineup’s point differential per 100 possessions) column, and ignore the Wizards, you’ll notice a tidy and completely unsurprising pattern. The Clippers’ most-used lineup has played a ton of minutes together, and has a whopping 20.7 net rating, and the Clippers are 16-6. Detroit’s most-used lineup has a less impressive but still positive 1.4 net rating, and the Pistons are a less impressive but still positive 12-11. The Timberwolves’ most-used lineup has a hideous minus-9.1 net rating, and the Timberwolves are extremely bad. Oklahoma City: positive net rating, 14-8 record. Cleveland: excellent net rating, 14-5 record. And so on.
You get the idea. It makes sense: if a team gives an especially large chunk of minutes to a given lineup, its fortunes should tend to echo that lineup’s fortunes. And there’s information in the negative space, too: If a team’s most-used lineup is winning its minutes (like, say, by a hearty 8.7 points per 100 possessions) but the team has a losing record (like, for example, 7-13), you know some shit is going badly awry when that lineup isn’t on the court.
Oh, hey, speaking of which, here is another fun chart!
This is the ass end of a list of everybody in the NBA who has played at least 10 games and averages at least 10 minutes per game, sorted in ascending order of net rating; in effect, it is a list of the worst players in the NBA so far this season. It features four—four!—members of the Wizards’ rotation in the, uh, top (?) 11: Trey Burke, Andrew Nicholson, Jason Smith, and Marcus Thornton.
Somewhat mindbogglingly, that rotation also includes two other players: Kelly Oubre Jr. and Tomas Satoransky. Oubre’s Net Rating is minus-8.7; Satoransky’s is a perfect zero. It would include a seventh player if Ian Mahinmi, the one-dimensional 30-year-old itinerant backup center upon whom the Wizards dumped a four-year, $64 million contract this past summer, had not missed all but 14 minutes of the season with injuries to both knees. (The Wizards went minus 11 in those 14 minutes.)
That’s the Wizards’ bench. To call it bad would be to heap undeserved insult upon other things that are bad. In a pinch, the shortest possible explanation for the Wizards’ 7-13 record is: “In those 20 games, Marcus Thornton and Jason Smith have played a combined total of nearly 600 minutes.”
The fact that a list of the NBA’s worst active players in 2016 would include Burke, Nicholson, Smith, and Thornton is no surprise. For that matter, that the Wizards would not only employ but actually use—depend on!—literally all four of those players isn’t all that surprising either, if you’ve paid attention to the Wizards at any point in the 13 years Ernie Grunfeld has been the team’s president of basketball operations. Hell, if you really wanna get bleak about it, that an incompetent NBA lifer like Grunfeld has kept his job all this time, despite a job performance that would need something like a three-year streak of brilliant summer and trade-deadline personnel coups to earn its way up to the descriptor “putrid,” isn’t really surprising either, if you’ve paid attention to the Wizards at any point in basically their entire history. The point, here, is not to call attention to anything surprising, but only to say this: the Wizards are purgatory.
I like to make a somewhat unfair but nevertheless illuminating contrast between the Wizards and the Golden State Warriors, because I am a lifelong Wizards fan and thus most familiar with misery and shame. Bear with me for a minute.
At the beginning of the 2014 offseason, the Warriors had made two consecutive playoff appearances for the first time in a very long time. They had a very gifted and exciting young point guard: Steph Curry. They had a sweet-shooting but kind of weird and robotic young shooting guard: Klay Thompson. They had a versatile young forward whose game was wobbly in a few places (shooting, most especially) but included some very useful guard skills: Draymond Green. They had a big macho doofus of a center for whom they’d traded some valuable stuff when they were ready to get serious about things: Andrew Bogut. And they had one of these tough-talking swinging-dick Leader of Men asshole coaches, who’d helped stabilize and professionalize the young team but who’d long since exhausted his reserve of actual basketball ideas worthy of his team’s blossoming talent: Mark Jackson.
The Warriors had a crack at adding a (putative) superstar that offseason, remember: the Timberwolves had an offer on the table that would have landed Kevin Love in Golden State in exchange for Thompson and Harrison Barnes. They were also a year away from a much-anticipated free-agency bonanza that would include two genuinely great players, Marc Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge, at the peak of their powers. But instead of piling all their eggs into some other team’s superstar’s basket, the Warriors mostly stood pat, made smart improvements to their depth and stability, replaced their dumb coach with a smart one (Steve Kerr), and here we are, a little over two years later, and they’ve been to two consecutive Finals, set the record for most wins in a season, and revolutionized the sport. (They also, not for nothing, have Kevin Durant on their team, ahem ahem.)
Now let’s look at the Wizards. At the beginning of the 2015 offseason, the Wizards had made two consecutive playoff appearances for the first time in a very long time. They had a very gifted and exciting young point guard: John Wall. They had a sweet-shooting but kind of weird and robotic young shooting guard: Bradley Beal. They had a versatile young forward whose game was wobbly in a few places (shooting, mostly) but included some very useful guard skills: Otto Porter. They had a big macho doofus of a center for whom they’d traded some valuable stuff when they were ready to get serious about things: Marcin Gortat. And they had one of these tough-talking swinging-dick Leader of Men asshole coaches, who’d helped stabilize and professionalize the young team but who’d long since exhausted his reserve of actual basketball ideas worthy of his team’s blossoming talent: Randy Wittman.
The Wizards did not have a crack at adding a (putative) superstar that offseason; no offer nearly as tantalizing as Kevin Love for some unproven young players sat on their table to tempt them away from a slow but steady climb toward stable contention (or more). But instead of calmly building around what he already had, or swapping out a dumb coach for a smart one, Grunfeld larded the bench with mercenary short-timers on one-year deals and kept Wittman around as a lame duck, all to ensure maximum flexibility in what was always an extremely unlikely shoot-the-moon bid for Kevin Durant. Predictably, because he’d made their actual team actually worse than it had been, the Wizards took exactly the kind of embarrassing step backward in the 2015-16 season—it got bad enough that Grunfeld dumped a modestly protected first-round draft pick to land Markieff Morris at the trade deadline in desperate hope of salvaging a playoff appearance—that would render them even less appealing to the caliber of free-agents who’d have the luxury of being selective (i.e. the good ones).
And thus, predictably, he struck out on Durant, and then struck out on Al Horford, and wound up giving $64 million to Ian goddamn Mahinmi, as much for Mahinmi’s willingness to take those dollars as for any other reason—when actually, Mahinmi’s willingness to take the Wizards’ money should have been the clinching evidence that he’d be useless, for anybody who didn’t already know that. The Wizards, in case you were waiting, will not be revolutionizing the sport.
Here is where you will note, rightly, that the differences between the Warriors and the Wizards go a lot deeper, and skew a lot more in the Warriors’ favor, than how their front offices handled a couple years of modest playoff success. That’s true. Nothing the Wizards could have done in the 2015 offseason or any point after it was going to make them the juggernaut the Warriors are today, because pretty much across the board, the Warriors’ players are a lot better than their Wizards counterparts. Fine. Let’s settle for agreeing that the Wizards did not have to puke the gains they’d made down the front of their shirts. They could have at least tried to be like the Warriors, instead of trying to be like the Knicks.
The bitter irony, here, is that the core building-block players on the team—Wall, Beal, and Porter—actually are doing some good shit in their first year under Brooks, the coach Grunfeld hired in a transparent and kind of hilarious* ploy to land Durant. The starting five’s healthy net rating is no illusion, after all.
*If Durant loved Brooks all that much, Brooks would still be the coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
At this point it seems pretty likely that Wall will not recapture the tenacity and focus that got him second-team All Defense honors (and a few absurdly hasty comparisons to Gary freaking Payton) a couple years ago, but his scoring and floor game are better than ever. Beal may never come close to justifying the max extension the Wizards gave him this past summer, but he’s also off to the best start of his career and sometimes looks like an actual by-God starting-caliber professional scorer. Porter’s been something of a revelation, cranking out a steady 14 points, eight rebounds, and two steals a night with an Effective Field Goal Percentage (.607) just a hair below Steph Curry’s (.610). One of the bleakly funny subplots of the season so far is that the Wizards play some of their best basketball when they shift Porter to power forward, where he makes them rangier and more athletic, but doing so makes three of their eight highest-paid players (Morris, Nicholson, and Smith, LOL) completely redundant.
What Wall, Beal, and Porter have in common—other than that when Brooks removes any of them from the game, it portends an immediate 11-2 run for the other team—is that their selections were no-brainers for Grunfeld. Wall was the obvious top pick in 2010, Beal the consensus third pick in 2012, Porter a contender for the top spot in the weak 2013 class and a local favorite out of Georgetown. Around them Grunfeld has assembled a wet pile of smelly socks, at ridiculous expense: the Wizards have the 11th-highest player payroll in the NBA this season, and more money committed to next season than all but eight other teams, even before they give Porter the max contract he’ll undoubtedly receive in the coming summer.
And so, of course, they have no flexibility to make things better in the short term. Not that Grunfeld would be up to the job, of course—you have only to look at last winter’s Morris deal to evaluate his skills in that area. Their only appealing trade chips are the very players around whom they’d be trying to salvage things, so virtually any plausible deal would be self-defeating from the jump. The closest thing to a near-term hope they’ve got is that Mahinmi might return and somehow magically transform their floridly malignant bench into a more mundanely weak one. But the real horror is this: Even the silver lining—the likelihood that Grunfeld will lose his job over this mess—is bad.
Let’s say Grunfeld finally gets the ax at some point before next season (he probably will!). Let’s say dipshit techno-triumphalist boob owner Ted Leonsis replaces him with an actual smart, qualified general manager (ha, of course he won’t). Thanks to the mess Grunfeld has made of the team and its contract commitments, that GM would take one look at the roster and realize that the most depressing, dispiriting possible move is also the most logically sound one: trading away Wall, who has two years left on a below-market deal and is both older and more valuable than the rest of what passes for the Wizards’ sexy players. This assumes Grunfeld won’t have done it already by then.
Wall, who for over half a decade has been the only reason to give a flying fuck about this trash franchise, who is one of the handful of genuinely unique spectacles in all of basketball, who has been the easiest athlete to root for in a D.C. basketball uniform since Chris Webber. He’ll have to go so that the team can dig out from the radioactive slag heap Ernie Grunfeld erected on top of him.
It’s coming. You know it is. And when it happens, I will calmly pull my own goddamn head off and punt it into the Potomac.