God, the Wizards suck so bad. They are almost certainly the sorriest team that has not been eliminated from the playoffs: by win percentage (.525 as of Saturday morning) they’re behind the Western Conference’s 10th seed; they’ve lost four in a row and eight of 10; four of those losses have come to teams who’ve already been eliminated; last night they lost at home to the Atlanta Hawks—albeit without John Wall—in a result that is deeply unfortunate for both teams.
The Wizards are now the East’s 8th seed. The reward for finishing 8th will be an opening round series against the Toronto Raptors, owners of the best home record in the conference and the second-best home record in the NBA. The conference 7th seed will instead face a terribly depleted Celtics team in a series in which the lower seed will almost certainly be betting favorites. The two teams duking it out for the third seed—Cleveland and Philadelphia—met last night, in an excellent seesaw battle, and it would probably be a good idea for any team to prefer the 7th seed to the 6th. But if you thought for a moment that the Wizards, who rested John Wall Friday night on the second leg of a back-to-back, were tanking, think again: Bradley Beal, in the third-to-last game of the season, with a playoff berth clinched, played 40 minutes against the Hawks.
Thursday night the Wizards, with John Wall in the lineup, had a 17-point lead in the fourth quarter against the Cavs, before LeBron James reminded them that they still are, in fact, the fucking Wizards, and he still is, in fact, LeBron James:
Scott Brooks, who may or may not consider himself powerless to influence what his players do on a basketball court, spent the fourth quarter of that game riding a dismal and predictably terrible Markieff Morris-Mike Scott front-court tandem that, heading into the game, had amassed a putrid minus-13.7 net rating in 134 total minutes of burn. 63 two-man combinations of Wizards players have played at least 80 minutes together; of those, the Morris-Scott duo has achieved a 118.2 defensive rating, the second-worst mark on the team. Not coincidentally, the Cavs went on a 32-11 run in the final 7:35 of the fourth quarter, to win by four points in regulation. Brooks looked like he wanted to die.
Friday night’s loss was somehow worse. The Hawks came in with the third-worst record in the NBA, with a diminishing shot at the worst record, but still very much incentivized to lose, especially on the road, where paying home fans will not be tortured by deliberately non-competitive basketball. They may be a couple games behind the Suns in the race for that worst record in the league, but the Suns play a double-tank game against the Mavericks to close the season, and anyway the Hawks need to worry about those Mavericks passing them and nabbing one of the three worst records in basketball. Hey, while we’re here, tanking sucks!
Speaking of things that suck, Markieff Morris got himself ejected less than eight minutes into the game Friday night, forcing Scott Brooks to give minutes to the energetic and well-meaning Jason Smith; and the Wizards, whose “everybody eats” boasting during Wall’s extended absence was at least backed up by impressively high pass and assist totals, finished with just 18 assists against Atlanta, as their second-half offense devolved into Bradley Beal hurtling himself at various fresh-faced Hawks defenders, mostly in vain. Washington was held to 97 total points, the third time in their last six games in which a lottery team has held them below 100 points.
Afterwards, Brooks was not super happy. From a Candace Buckner report for the Washington Post:
“Selfish basketball is no fun to coach, it’s no fun to play with, and it’s no fun to watch,” Brooks said, “and we’re a selfish basketball team right now.”
“We got to start guarding somebody, and we got to start moving the basketball the way we’re capable of doing it. If we’re not going to do that, I’ll find five guys to do that. I don’t care how small we are or how big we are.”
“To me, it’s not an embarrassing loss to lose to Atlanta with their guys out. It’s embarrassing that we don’t play with the passion that we need to play at.”
A couple of things, here: first of all, it’s impossible to read the “selfish” comments as directed at anyone other than Beal and Morris. Beal took 24 shots Friday night; no other Wizards player took more than 13; no other Wizards starter took more than nine. There were times, in the second half, where it seemed like Beal took offense at some miscellaneous Hawks guy making a nice play at the other end, and responded with a ball-stopping isolation. Still, it’s extremely hard to know, as an outsider, how Beal is supposed to moderate his aggression in games when the team is without Wall, and therefore terribly starved for playmaking and shot-creation. Wall, for all his faults, is capable of supplying all the aggression (and more) that an otherwise non-dynamic group needs in order to cause a little defensive chaos; when he’s out of the lineup, Beal and Otto Porter and even Kelly Oubre and Tomas Satoransky have to figure out on the fly what percentage of that aggression ought to fall to them, and then how to claim it and deploy it. That is almost certainly easier said than done.
Second of all, though it is appropriate to call out the Wizards for bullcrap defense—and hoo boy do they go through stretches of totally bullcrap defense—it’s also a little rich coming from a guy who rode Mike friggin’ Scott—a fine shooter and offensive pressure valve for struggling bench units, but nobody’s idea of a defensive presence—and an interior duo with a track record of defensive helplessness against the very best playmaker on earth just the night before! It feels sometimes like Scott Brooks thinks his job is to empower his players and then stand by and hope they do good things during NBA games. Reasonable people might prefer this approach to Tom Thibodeau’s hoarse and constant sideline barking, but there is perhaps nothing more disheartening, for a fan, than a look of disappointed helplessness on the face of the head coach as the team goes down in flames. There is cathartic pleasure in hearing the Wizards get publicly reamed by their coach; on the other hand, where was all this forceful basketball know-how when the game was on the line?
At any rate, the post-game misery did not stop with Scott Brooks. I’ve been in the Wizards post-game locker room after one or two bad losses, but this is a special level of tension:
This is for sure a great time for a playoff-bound team to be falling apart, but with the Wizards, it doesn’t take much—earlier this season they melted down over winning too much with Wall out. At least now they’re melting down over losing. I very much look forward to the Wizards “turning it on in the playoffs” just enough for them to take yet another humiliating moral victory from a series loss.