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“OnlyFans, but with you and Beal guarding people. OléFans!”
“It’s a masterstroke of heartache, brutality, and redemption.”
“YOU DIDN’T READ THE BOOK, DID YOU?”
I let out a hearty snorkle (snark and chortle? snort and chuckle?) every time that car ad comes on. We all know that guy, the one who comes to class, the book club, or the big meeting, and does his best attempt at Winging It, in hopes of not making it obvious he showed up wholly unprepared?
Few creatures do a better job at Winging It than hawks. But under the unrelenting scrutiny of the National Basketball Association, Atlanta’s young Hawks have a hard time getting away with it, not without getting exposed on the regular.
Such was the case on Monday night at The Funny Farm, as brave onlookers endured the Hawks shooting 32 percent from the field on the same nets they used over the weekend, while a visiting Grizzlies club had randos walking into the arena and piling up double-digit scores with ease.
John Konchar, professional basketball player or State Farm Agent? Josh Jackson, redemptive lottery pick or lost member of New Edition? (text your uncles, if you don’t know who they were.) Tyus Jones, steady NBA backup or one-armed blues legend? Think fast, De’Andre Hunter, John Collins, Brandon Goodwin. Y’all didn’t read the playbook, did you?
After a promising weekend, our Hawks took off from their homestand finale with a bad taste in their beaks. The palate cleanser as they hit the road? None other than our good friend Bradley Beal and the Washington Wizards (7 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Washington).
I trust that Trae Young knows Brad’s lady friend’s name without prompting. Can we say the same about Shabazz Napier? Recent Wizard arrival, or the late Malcolm X’s pet cat? If you need to call a friend, Trae, check with former T’Wolf Jeff Teague. That sure might’ve helped the Hawks on Monday with Anthony Tolliver, who didn’t even have a jersey for Memphis’ shootaround that morning.
“You can’t teach effort,” was about all a terse Lloyd Pierce would share with postgame reporters who, I can only assume, stayed awake for the entirety of Monday’s 127-88 flop. I can kind of disagree with the Hawks’ head honcho. NBA coaching and development staffs are charged with having their players adequately prepared to compete. How players prepare, as much as how they perform, is a reflection on the gentlemen in suit-and-tie on the sideline.
They’ve got uber-talented kids who are inured to being up the night before playing Mario Go-Kart or whatever, then throwing on jerseys the next day to face some St. Ignatius Prep team that’s petrified of being on these guys’ Overtime and Ballislife highlight videos. If you’re not instilling into 22-year olds’ noggins the adequate level of discipline and preparedness for the highest level of this sport, then what are you instructing?
I can’t forget that Lloyd Pierce is a newbie head coach as well, liable to be outwitted, hoodwinked, bamboozled (come on home, Spike) by even other neophytes on occasion. He’s learning what works and doesn’t work with his charges, even 145 NBA games into his tenure. He’s also fairly secure with his position for the next 145 games or so. It’s the rank and file below LL Cool P who should approach every game as if they’re walking with a panther.
I’ve long been fond of Chairman Mel. While Melvin Hunt could use less bodily threatening tactics to snap Hawks players to attention, I can understand the desperation with which he resorts to a Bad Cop role. It’s not Pierce’s job that’s on the line in 2020 when the Hawks play poorly. It’s Hunt’s, Greg Foster’s, Matt Hill’s, Chris Jent’s, Marlon Garnett’s. Somebody within that quintet has to prove themselves capable of providing Pierce the feedback that keeps a 12-point deficit from careening to, say, 41.
For example, what did Sidney Lowe, Chad Iske, and Maz Trakh once have in common? They were all assistants for Scotty Brooks on his 49-33 Wizards, the ones who paid back the Hawks in the 2017 playoffs’ first round before falling in seven games to the Celtics. That season’s run was the high-water mark of the Wizards’ history over the past four decades.
Things have fallen apart a good deal for Washington (22-39, 2-6 since the All-Star Break, 9th-by-default in NBA East) since then, but Brooks is still standing strong, with the unwavering support of owner Ted Leonsis, as is lead assistant Tony Brown. A slide in the standings can be blamed on injuries and scheduling and stuff. But on teams that find it tough to woo top-notch talent in free agency, if people can’t point to players developing to become steady standouts, a recession in on-court performance can be Iske business.
John Wall returning next season to hopefully recreate an offensively potent backcourt with Beal (NBA-high 38.0 post-Break PPG) is enticing. But Wizards fans have the right to wonder, with the emergence of division-rival bigs like Collins and Bam Adebayo, is it reasonable to expect a meaningful growth spurt from Thomas Bryant (last 3 games: 80.0 FG%, but 2.7 RPG)? Is Rui Hachimura (1st game vs. ATL) a core starter going forward, or will his lack of stretchiness (28.6 3FG%) and defensive chops hinder his development?
A similar question can be asked regarding second-year pro Troy Brown (last 15 games: 1.4 SPG, but 41.7 FG% and 64.7 FT%), who has seen a subsidence in playing time from Brooks over the past month-plus. Taken a few spots before Atlanta selected Kevin Huerter, is Brown part of Washington’s starting core by this time next year, at the very least a valuable sixth-man waiting in the wings behind the backcourt stars? Speaking of underutilized mid-tier first-rounders, will the formerly stashed Clipper guard Jerome Robinson (5-for-7 3FGs vs. ATL on Nov. 16), starting in place of the injured Ish Smith, become the future answer behind Wall?
Davis Bertans has provided some great offensive patchwork in Wall’s absence. Assuming he departs in free agency, who will pick up all those great perimeter looks in Bertans’ place? I said *great* looks, so surely, it’s not Wall. Will it be the mystery 2020 lottery pick? Is it someone the Wizards, who traded vets Isaiah Thomas and Jordan McRae away, are cultivating to be that guy? If so, is he hiding out on the Capital City Go-Go somewhere?
The Hawks have at least enough viable young options, going forward, to start printing up Beatles-style T-shirts. If we look up at next year’s Wizards roster and see “John, Brad and ???”, the wannabe All-Star returnees will be screaming, “Help!”, at anyone who’ll listen.
Even in the meantime, the Wiz cannot afford to be serving up one-fifty-burgers to opponents like the Hawks, who can hardly be bothered to know whether Moe Wagner is Wizards’ starting center tonight or the King of Pops guy in the State Farm Arena stands. When they visited Atlanta back on January 26, Beal scored 40 points (1-for-5 3FGs), only to be outdone by Trae’s cherry-picking 45 (6-for-11 3FGs), while a balanced home squad played more like a team that bothered to do its homework in Atlanta’s 152-133 win.
Pierce will have Dewayne Dedmon (elbow) and Cam Reddish (probable, back pain) returning to the fold for the season’s penultimate road back-to-back series, which concludes tomorrow evening in the Grizzlies’ den. Trae is questionable with “just a flu”-like symptoms, as is DeAndre’ Bembry (abs pain). But if Young can tough it out, he can help Atlanta shake off the rust exhibited earlier in the week.
One thing aiding Atlanta (19-44), heading toward the close of the season, is that they sauntered out of the loss to the Grizzlies with anywhere from 1 to 4 games in hand on their lottery-level competitors in the East. That was erased somewhat in the days that followed. But, as the Wizards return from a 125-104 loss, in Portland on Wednesday, to face their third opponent in four nights for the second-straight time, Atlanta had several days to go literally back to the drawing board in Brookhaven, even taking time out for a spades tournament in between (Kevin’s still on the hunt for the elusive Draw Four card).
Atlanta is 3-2 when they’ve managed to have three or more preceding off-days, road losses at Milwaukee and Boston as Collins worked his way back into the swing of things being the setbacks. It’s in these interims where staff should be quick to remind the players that they have to gameplan for every possible opposing team, every opposing player. Atlanta would likely be 2-0 against the Wizards this season, entering today, if they had bothered to find out who McRae was (29-8-and-6 vs. ATL on Jan. 10) before he skipped town.
Transition defense (7th-worst in NBA, based on points per possession; 2nd-most PPG allowed), exposed most recently in media reviews of plays ensuing Trae’s long-distance trey attempts, has to be an item of heightened focus for the Hawks. Young doing a better job hindering direct pathways to the rim is one challenge, but so it is for Young’s courtmates getting back, not only to help inside but to seal off the corners from dangerous-shooting personnel. Only James Harden’s Rockets and the Cavs are more subject to transition (17.5 percent of all opponent plays), successful or otherwise, by their foes.
Washington, still somewhat new to this heightened pace of play under Brooks’ watch, is just about as bad (1.13 transition PPP allowed, to the Hawks’ 1.14), but they at least manage to stub runouts by forcing turnovers more effectively (14.1 opponent TO% on transition, 4th-most in NBA). A sloppy game that features the Hawks compounding unfortunate shooting with miscues, poor finishes, and lazy recoveries works well in Washington’s favor.
After January’s embarrassing loss in Atlanta, the Wizards’ assistants will be eager to show what they’ve been working on in the intervening month. Rest assured, Brooks’ job won’t be on the line anytime soon, but their slots could be up-for-grabs, unless someone among the younger supporting cast steps it up soon.
Similarly, the Hawks must begin demonstrating the more consistent composure and maturity that their coaching staff harps upon them, especially away from Atlanta, the city that hosted eight of their last nine victories. Coming off Monday’s loss, after nearly a full week of tutelage, the Hawks’ assistants are in no mood this weekend to field a team that looks like a dog ate their homework. The fans are right there with them. We want less heartache and brutality, and more redemption!
Let’s Go Hawks!
“Y’all would really rather see Tacko Fall, huh?”
Once the first All-Star ballot returns rolled in, and it became obvious Trae Young had a great shot of earning a People’s Choice Award, Atlanta Hawks fans went into overdrive, and for good reason. If Young was able to get into the Game on the fan vote, then he wouldn’t be among the many players in the Eastern Conference going for the Oscar, waging an uphill fight this month for one of seven precious reserve spots.
Neither the Washington Wizards nor the Atlanta Hawks come into action today (6 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Washington) in the running for Best Ensemble. But some Best Supporting Actor trophies remain up for grabs. Players like the Wizards’ Bradley Beal intend to spend this week using Young and the restless Hawks (11-35) to bolster their merits. Some help from coaches won’t hurt.
“Jimmy Butler should be a starter in the All-Star game,” asserted Erik Spoelstra, Miami’s coach and noted comedy connoisseur, who was also miffed in his Friday commentary that Butler’s candidacy was limited by his ballot classification as a forward. “It’s a joke that he’s not.” Assuming his ire isn’t directed at Kemba Walker or any of the East forwards, Young and the Hawks’ losing ways seem to be Coach Spo’s bone of contention.
Even if the Hawks lose the next ten games, dropping to 11-45, Young won’t be the All-Star starter on a team with the worst-ever pre-Break record. As noted by Phil Watson of HoopsHabit, that ignominious honor would remain with Dwyane Wade, a flashy fifth-year pro and fourth-time All-Star whose team was 9-43 at the 2007-08 All-Star Break, 6-25 afterwards. Dang, Erik… who’d he play for? I’m just “joking”, you already know.
Coincidentally, Butler was classified as a forward three years ago, on a losing team in Chicago. His Bulls, a team far more talented and experienced than Young has yet enjoyed, had just lost to Dennis Schröder’s Hawks to drop to 21-23. Even the fan vote had him in 5th place, on the outside looking in. But the newly installed “Zaza Rule,” allowing player and media input into the voting results, catapulted Butler over LeBron’s teammate Kevin Love for the East’s final frontcourt starting spot.
Jimmy Buckets joined two other sub-.500 starters, Giannis and Anthony Davis, at the time 2017’s All-Star selections were announced. There was precious little consternation, no think pieces complaining about “antiquated” position voting, no homers banging their keyboards. Davis, of the 23-34 Pelicans, scored 52 points in The Big Game, and he was handed an MVP trophy for his troubles. Somehow, the world managed to continue spinning on its axis. No “joke,” Spo!
Spoelstra and Butler will have to wait until the first game after the Break to sink their gnashing teeth into Atlanta. Say, didn’t you two have to get through most of the first third of the season without your ascendant frontcourt star, Bam Adebayo? Ah. I must have y’all confused with somebody else.
Toronto hosts the Hawks on Tuesday, and Kyle Lowry will be waiting. The defending NBA champs lost their Finals MVP, yet they’re still tied with Miami for 2nd in the NBA East. Bidding for his 6th-straight appearance in the midseason classic, Lowry has bounced back from a broken thumb to log the second-most minutes per game and the third-highest scoring average of his career.
If Ben Simmons cared what fans thought, he’d take more open threes, fix his free throw shooting, and dodge the Karkrashian Kurse like the coronavirus. Alas, the 2019 first-time All-Star found himself behind Derrick Rose, Zach LaVine, Lowry and Jaylen Brown in the fan balloting. Simmons does hope coaches will value all the things he does bring to the table, which will be on display when the 76ers visit Atlanta on Thursday, one day before the reserves get announced.
NBA players made their minds up that, yes, a defensive liability who stars for a losing team can be worthy of an All-Star starting spot. Only more of those voters felt that star player should be Beal, who finished second to Walker in the internal player-vote tally and just ahead of Young.
Even if that star, 11-26 on the floor with Washington (4-3 without him), is only now scrambling to make a season hampered by knee and shoulder ailments (career-high 27.8 PPG, career-low 31.6 3FG%; career-best 6.4 APG, career-worst 3.3 TOs/game), without John Wall (out for season, Achilles) by his side, one of his (offensive) best.
Wiz coach Scott Brooks is trying as best he can to untangle himself from contradictions, squaring Beal’s once-lagging quantitative performances with the shooting guard’s qualitative leadership value. “He hasn’t shot the ball well, but he’s not going to end up being a 30-percent shooter. The guy is money,” Brooks sorta-explained to the Washington Post, after Beal’s ninth consecutive game of 35+ points and 5+ assists helped their Wizards overwhelm the Cavs in Cleveland on Thursday.
“You’re an All-Star for a reason, and he keeps leading us… None of us expected this season to end up with the situation that we’ve had, but he’s led us and battled for us and puts us in positions to compete every night.” Brooks also backed Beal this month after his star guard frustratingly questioned the progress of the team purportedly “changing (their) culture” to a winning one.
“He’s a part of our culture and he’s a big part of it,” Brooks said of Beal. “When you lose, everybody feels bad about it, and that’s a good thing.” The Wiz (15-29) fizzed in three straight games after defeating the Hawks on the 10th of January. They’ve beaten two lottery squads since, and nearly knocked off the heat in Miami before succumbing in overtime on Wednesday.
Beal has been money, from the free throw line, where his career-highs of 7.1 FTAs/game and 84.0 FT% have kept his elevated usage from becoming an all-around efficiency disaster. He is the sole NBA player below Trae in Defensive RPM and PIPM rankings, best understood by his need to carry a roster loaded with spare parts and next-to-the-next-men-up on one side of the floor with limited defensive support to cover for him.
The next-worst player above age 21 in those plus/minus categories is Beal’s Wizard teammate and former small-wonder All-Star, Isaiah Thomas (2-for-16 FGs vs. ATL on Jan. 10; 41.2 3FG%). I.T.’s persistent threat to hit jumpers from outside keeps him in Brooks’ starting unit as Beal (31.9 usage%, 6th in NBA, two places behind Young) dominates the ballhandling from the wing.
There’s at least one other Wizard seeking to make it to Chi-town in a couple weeks. Rookie Rui Hachimura has been out since mid-December with a groin injury, but he has been cleared for basketball activities. The Rising Stars challenge will be an easier bar to clear this year if you’re on the World Team, but the Japanese forward must show he’s healthy and productive enough to make the cut. Rui could be joined by fellow Wizards Moe Wagner (out, ankle) and Anzejs Pasecniks, especially if last-minute injury replacements are needed.
Making the USA Team is tougher, but it’s not too late for Atlanta’s Cam Reddish (9 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocks @ WAS on Jan. 10) to grab an invite. Coming off the bench in the Hawks’ Friday night loss at OKC to score 20 points, Cam (last 7 games: 2.4 3FGs per game on 50.0% shooting, 1.9 SPG) is unearthing to demonstrate not only why he could be more than a one-way player, but also why a plurality of preseason-surveyed rookies felt he could eventually wind up with the best NBA career, Zion Williamson and current Marvin-Williams-warmed-over archetype DeAndre’ Hunter included.
Up-and-down Troy Brown (18 points, 10 rebounds in 35 bench minutes vs. ATL on Jan. 10) wouldn’t mind a call, either, especially if he gets the chance to spend his All-Star Saturday Night on Trae and Zion’s USA Team. The eventual returns of Hachimura (out, groin) and Wagner (out, ankle sprain) will bring the high-scoring Wizards to nine players averaging double-digits, including Jordan McRae, who has cooled lately after dropping 29 points on the Hawks (4-for-5 3FGs), plus eight boards and six dimes, in the 111-101 win at Capital One Arena.
To the All-Stars go the spoils. For Young, that means being granted a delayed return to Georgia from Oklahoma City, after taking his bows at a Sooners game on Saturday afternoon. He’ll return to action hoping to make amends for one of his worst games of the season in D.C. a couple weeks ago, going bagel-for-7 from downtown while offsetting his 7 assists with 6 turnovers.
Hawks backup Brandon Goodwin keyed the near-erasure of a 13-point second-quarter deficit before halftime in Washington, then scored eight points and dished an assist to Reddish to forge a 91-86 lead with just over seven minutes to play. But his fourth-quarter pairing with Young was unable to thwart a series of layups by Ish Smith, followed by point-blank scores from McRae and Ian Mahinmi that put the game away for the Wizards, who were missing both Beal and big-man Thomas Bryant.
Atlanta could have used forward Jabari Parker (out, shoulder rehab) to match the Wizards’ late-game firepower. Brooks will likely keep Beal at small forward and maintain a guard-heavy lineup that gave the Hawks fits in OKC, who used penetration and kickouts to bigs Danilo Gallinari and Mike Muscala to surge to a 36-21 fourth-quarter advantage on Friday.
To keep yet another “too little, too late” fate from befalling Young and the Hawks, it will help to have Jeff Teague around to cool off Smith, his former Wake Forest teammate. Atlanta has Reddish and Kevin Huerter to spend their energies shielding Beal, but must avoid over-aggressive fouls that make scoring easy for the Wizards star.
Hunter needs to be busy latching himself onto Washington’s stretchiest threat, the fully healthy Davis Bertans (42.6 3FG%), leaving John Collins to do the dirty work of showing on screens for guards and getting back in position to beat Wizard bigs to the glass. Amid all of that defensive activity, Young and the Atlanta point guards must be more effective in disrupting and intercepting Washington’s halfcourt passes.
Every loss by the Hawks will be portrayed as a referendum on the value of Young’s first All-Star accolade by his de-Trae-ctors. Every victory will induce the converse effect from supporters. Neither Young himself, nor the Hawks, need to be caught up in all of that. The focus needs to be on becoming 48-minute fullcourt competitors, particularly at home versus Lottery peers. Hawks fans have no choice but to forgive the upcoming slate of opposing stars, when their minds are fixated on a Game other than the one they’re supposed to be playing.
Let’s Go Hawks!
“I’ll be re-evaluated in 4-to-6 weeks. Just glad it’s not my wand-waving hand!”
The Guru of… Go-Go?
For assistant coach Corey Gaines, watching his Washington Wizards on pace to become the first NBA team to allow 120 points per contest for a season since 1990-91 must feel familiar. Perhaps, it’s because he had a cup of tea on the last NBA team to allow more than 130.
Gaines was a disciple of legendary coach Paul Westhead, who once called the point guard, as reported by the LA Times, “one of the fastest, quickest players,” he had seen. Westhead oversaw a lot of quick, and Gaines was the quickest.
The California kid was also a quick study of “The System,” and soon quarterbacked Bo Kimble and the late Hank Gathers into stardom at once-unknown Loyola Marymount University, following Westhead’s principles of super-soaking, run-and-gun offense, at all costs to everything else. In the ensuing years, and decades, wherever Westhead popped up, Gaines would not be far behind.
After a couple NBA stops, Gaines came to Denver as a free agent preseason pickup twice. He was cut one day before the 1989 season opener by their soon-departing GM Pete Babcock. He returned in 1990, just days after Westhead was hired in hopes of supercharging the low-altitude offense made famous by Doug Moe.
Playing under his college coach, Corey was sure he would finally stick on an NBA roster, until a November game when Kevin Johnson’s Phoenix Suns scored 107 points on the Nuggets. In the first half! Yes, that’s still a record.
The 173-143 loss that dropped Denver to 0-6 should not have been laid at Gaines’ feet; he wasn’t a starter, and you rely on ex-Hawk Blair Rasmussen and Todd Lichti to hold it down in the paint and see what that does for you. But Corey, averaging over nine assists per game, was the fall guy. Westhead’s run as an NBA head coach wouldn’t last much longer, either.
After being waived, Gaines weaved in brief NBA stints with CBA, European and Asian leagues, ABA2000, and summer pro-am action until he retired. Westhead was about to coach Gaines (and Dennis Rodman and a young Matt Barnes) in 2003 with the latter-day ABA’s Long Beach Jam until the NBA Magic called him looking for an assistant. He and Gaines would re-connect in 2006, when Westhead got the lead job with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury and asked Gaines, who took over for Tiny Archibald midway through the 2004 ABA season at Long Beach, to become his assistant there.
The move paid off for Gaines as Westhead guided the Merc, running and gunning “Paul Ball” and leading the league in scoring behind Diana Taurasi, to the 2007 WNBA title. Westhead left for to be an assistant with the NBA Sonics, and Gaines took over. Two seasons later, another WNBA title, and Gaines would get promoted to GM two years after that.
Jumping over to the men’s side of the pros for the first time, Gaines would work as a player development/assistant coach in ensuing seasons, with the Suns and the Knicks. He was a Pistons coaching consultant when the Wizards came calling.
Ted Leonsis likes to tinker, but not in conventional ways. Loyal to a fault, the Wizards owner hung on to GM Ernie Grunfeld way too long, and continues to defy fan sentiment to cut loose head coach Scott Brooks. After star point guard John Wall was lost for the rest of the 2018-19 season and the Wizards missed the playoffs, Leonsis replaced Grunfeld with Tommy Sheppard. While he kept Brooks and promoted Tony Brown to a lead assistant role, Leonsis and Sheppard overhauled some of the assistant gigs.
Longtime assistant Mike Longabardi joined the club, as did analytics guru Dean Oliver and Capital City Go-Go coach Jarell Christian, who nurtured Troy Brown and Thomas Bryant on development league assignments and helped Jordan McRae earn a spot on the 1st-Team All-G-League team. But the most impactful strategic addition to the bench is probably Gaines.
A 103.5 pace (4th in NBA) and 110.8 O-Rating (8th in NBA) aren’t groundbreaking figures, not in this new-age league. But the offensive tempo resembles nothing Brooks has put out while coaching the star-studded Thunder or Wizards before, or anything this franchise has seen since the winning Washington/Baltimore Bullets clubs of the 1970s. Defense? Bah, Who cares about that right now? Worry about defensive personnel when it’s time to really win something.
The Wiz haven’t won 50 games in any season since the 1979 NBA Finalists, and it’s a safe bet that they won’t this season (12-25), a well-established assumption with Wall (Achilles, out for season) and, lately, fellow All-Star Bradley Beal (27.8 PPG; questionable for tonight, lower leg soreness) on the mend. But fans at Capital One Arena, where the Wizards and Atlanta Hawks play tonight (7 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Washington), haven’t been this excited about the future in a while.
Long recognized as the fastest end-to-end player in the NBA, Wall in his peak seasons would fly up the court in transition, hunting for layups, dunks, and foul-shot chances. Failing that, he’d have to wait several more seconds for the likes of Marcin Gortat and Nene to come lumbering into position, and then a couple more to pry Beal open along the perimeter. It was a formula that had grown stale.
Now, Leonsis’ big bet is that Washington can implement a system better suited to the skillset of Wall (age 30 and a $40 millionaire for the first time next season, locked down on extension through probably 2022-23), and to the potential of his youthful teammates, including Brown and lotto-rookie Rui Hachimura, once Wall returns next season. In the meantime, they’ve got Isaiah Thomas (41.2 3FG%, best since his heralded Celtics years) and Ish Smith to help demonstrate Gaines’ version of “Paul Ball” while taking their predictable lumps on the defensive end.
Nobody snookers the Spurs easily, but Sheppard’s Wizards pulled a fast one by relieving them of Davis Bertans this past summer, as San Antonio tried in vain to make room for Marcus Morris. Bertans (43.4 3FG%, 9th in NBA) has become part of a trio of Killer Bs (Beal and Bryant, with Brown and Isaac Bonga needing more time to join the hive) that makes it easier for Brooks to promote a free-wheeling yet egalitarian offense. Especially when they’re healthy together, which has been rare.
Smith and Thomas can bring up the ball, look for a quick shot, then give it to Beal to create for the rest of the shot clock, Bertans, Hachimura (NBA-low 5.8 TO%, as per bball-ref), and Brown hardly have to touch the ball unless it’s time to get a shot off. Everyone is allowed to play to their offensive strengths, such as they are, so long as whatever you do as a Wizard, you do it fast (304.6 passes per game, 6th-most in NBA; 28.8 catch-and-shoot PPG, 8th in NBA).
I’d be tempted to promote Brooks for honorable-mention Coach of the Year votes, but for the fact that running Wall (36+ MPG for four seasons, pre-injuries) and Beal (36.5 MPG, 5th in NBA) into the ground is a big part of the reason the Wizards find themselves in this holding-pattern situation. Beal has only been able to appear in one of Washington’s last seven games, while Bertans (quad), returning tonight, missed the past nine.
Trade sharks are circling for Bertans, and Brooks will be obliged to keep him on the floor as much as possible to raise the value of the sharpshooter with an expiring contract. Injuries for Hachimura (groin), Bryant (foot), and Moe Wagner (ankle), has had the Wizards going deep in the grab bag of their depth chart, and with the way their offense is going, you never know who’s turn it is to go for 30. The player themselves may not know until they’re doing it.
In comes Garrison Mathews, the two-way no-name guard who paired up with McRae off the bench (57 combined bench points vs. MIA) and left Jimmy Butler muttering to himself in a 123-105 win over the heat on December 30, without Bertans, Beal or Bryant. Out goes Mathews a few games later, victim of a bad ankle injury. In comes forward Johnathan Williams on an injury hardship, starting five games after Christmas and averaging 20 MPG through last week, including 12-and-8 in a 128-114 win over the Nuggets. Out goes Williams, on waivers the next day.
The Wizards have finally been blowing gaskets offensively, including Wednesday’s 123-89 defeat in Orlando. But that hasn’t come without random contributors popping up like Whack-a-Moles off the bench. While the five default starters could muster only 28 points between them, the bench brigade against the Magic was led by Brown, portly second-rounder Admiral Schofield (18 points apiece) and Anzejs “Scrabble” Pasecniks (16 points). Getting at least one of the Triple Bs suited up will be sure to put the buzz back in Brooks’ new run-and-gun “system”.
The Hawks (VIII-XXX) have plenty of their own defensive issues to work through, and it will be tougher tonight to identify and attend to the opposing player likely to take shots, as they tried to do during valiant comebacks against James Harden’s Rockets on Wednesday. But the Wizards hope, in turn, they can be as successful in nullifying Atlanta’s star scorer as they were all last season.
As noted by NBC Sports Washington’s Mike DePrisco yesterday, no other team in the Eastern Conference held Trae Young below both 16 PPG and 30 FG% (12.0 PPG, 28.9 FG% in 4 games vs. WAS) during his rookie season. With or without Wall, Brooks deployed either of Tomas Satoransky, Austin Rivers or Chasson Randle to help cover Young while using a guy like Trevor Ariza as a free safety for incoming passes toward the paint.
None of those personnel are in D.C. now. Perhaps saving his energies, Beal has the lowest Defensive Real Plus/Minus (-4.70) in the league, with Thomas (-4.11) and Hachimura (-3.85, below Trae’s -3.75) not all that far behind him. Coach Scotty will turn to The Mitten (Gary Payton II) and Brown to help limit Young’s penetration.
In any case, Thomas or Smith will likely have to switch onto someone, and hopefully Kevin Huerter will have a big game exploiting that matchup. Having reached double figures in each of his last five games (50.0 FG%, 47.1 FG%, 19.0 PPG, 6.6 RPG and 3.8 APG), all single-margin outcomes for the Hawks, Huerter’s shooting splits are quickly approaching those from his All-Rookie season. Helping him bury notions of a sophomore slump will involve him attacking the paint more and getting to the free throw line, where he can show off his improving shot (85.0% on 1.5 FTAs/game, up from 73.2 and 0.7 last season).
Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce wedded himself to two ideas early on in this season. Insisting Alex Len is ideal in every situation coming off the bench, for one, means John Collins is left to start at center for Atlanta, given the personal leave extended to rookie Bruno Fernando and the utility of Damian Jones as an occasional rim protector and foul sponge.
The other idea is that De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish (minus -8.5 net points, and minus-3.0 assists per 100 possessions) can be at their best learning how to play together, and starting, rather than staggering the rooks in differing lineups. Collins at center and Jabari Parker (shoulder) remaining sidelined due to injury leaves Pierce little choice but to field De’Andre Hunter at power forward.
Collins will find himself busy guarding the frontcourt positions at separate times, but the fast pace expected from tonight’s action may continue to be overwhelming for Hunter, who returns to the NBA outpost nearest to his reigning NCAA champion University of Virginia.
De’Andre has been hitting his threes of late (38.7 3FG% in last seven games), but the expectations that he could also contribute as a rebounder, passer, on-ball and roving team defender, seems a bit outsized for his current skill level (last 7 games: 1.3 APG, 0.6 SPG, no blocks, 2.4 RPG). Unlike Cam, who has ample support around his position on the wing, Hunter could benefit from a downsizing of MPG, especially at the power forward spot once Parker and Fernando can return.
Fans in The DMV aren’t exactly doin’ Da Butt in celebration of this new wrinkle of Wizards basketball, but they are pleased to discover a clear change in style with an eye toward the future, even with Brooks ostensibly still in charge. There may come for the Wizards a future time when, like the gentrifiers of many D.C. wards, somebody will file a petition for Leonsis to turn all this Go-Go gadgetry off. But that won’t happen until long after Wall and Beal get to run the newfound offense together. Until that time comes, Brooks is willing to listen to his staff, and when it comes to offensive ideas, he’s more than happy to let Corey Gaines clear his throat.
Let’s Go Hawks!