A Reflection of the Washington Wizards Season: Game Seven Failure Exposed Deeper Issues

BOSTON, MA - MAY 15: John Wall #2 and Scott Brooks of the Washington Wizards react against the Boston Celtics during Game Seven of the NBA Eastern Conference Semi-Finals at TD Garden on May 15, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - MAY 15: John Wall #2 and Scott Brooks of the Washington Wizards react against the Boston Celtics during Game Seven of the NBA Eastern Conference Semi-Finals at TD Garden on May 15, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images) /

Washington Wizards’ front office has a lot of issues to fix this offseason, and not a lot of resources to do so. The game seven failure against the Boston Celtics exposed deeper issues that the team must prioritize this offseason.

Now that the 2016-17 season has officially ended, it is a great time to look at an expanded reflection of one of the most exciting, but ultimately disappointing seasons of my life as a Wizards fan.

Last  summer came with hope and ended in extreme disappointment. The season began with uncertainty, quickly descended into disaster, and then just as quickly ascended into hope. The regular season ended in uncertainty, but cautious optimism. The Washington Wizards’ playoff run followed a similar up-and-down pattern. The postseason, however, ended all too predictably.

The Wizards, who ended the year 49-33 after a dreadful 2-8 start, lost in the second round to a number one seed without LeBron James for the third time in four seasons. Not only did the team build high levels of confidence within its fan base before losing, but all of the issues that had seemingly held the team back during the regular season came back to haunt them in game seven of their second round series with the Boston Celtics.

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This was not only a repetition of previous seasons of Wizards’ postseason failures, but also served as a microcosm for all the issues that plagued Washington throughout the season.

After Washington announced early in the offseason that they would hire former Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Scott Brooks to replace the recently fired Randy Wittman, I penned a piece for Wiz of Awes criticizing the move for being rushed and uninspired. I openly acknowledged then, and still do now, that Brooks is among the NBA’s best at developing players, but I feared that his stubbornness and lack of in-game adjustments and innovation would be difficult to overcome.

While in Oklahoma City, Brooks had stuck with Kendrick Perkins in his starting lineup even though his days as a useful NBA player were far behind him. In the playoffs, his teams relied on large doses of isolation basketball from his stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

For most of the season, I was ready to eat my words. Brooks developed the Wizards’ young core as well as could be imagined. John Wall and Bradley Beal both put together career years and solidified themselves as one of the league’s best backcourt duos, while small forward duo Otto Porter Jr. and Kelly Oubre Jr. showed significant improvement from previous years.

Wall demonstrated an ability to dominate the game in a variety of ways, whether it be attacking the rim and forcing the issue, or letting the game come to him and picking apart defenses with his passing. His combination of athleticism and vision is unmatched in the NBA. Although not quite yet a complete product, Wall also continued to show improvement with his shooting, both from midrange and downtown.

In the postseason, Wall took his game, and especially his scoring to another level. Wall upped his aggressiveness, looking for his own shot more. He showed that for long spurts of time, he can be virtually impossible to stop. Although he struggled down the stretch in the final game of the season, no player increased their star more than Wall in the NBA playoffs.

Beal entered the season with increased pressure, given that the Wizards had just given him a max contract extension, which was an enormous vote of confidence since the former number three overall pick had never before been to all-star game or averaged more than 17 points per game. He was a shooting guard who had shown flashes of tantalizing potential, but had been unable to avoid injuries and put all of the pieces of the puzzle together.

Prior to this season, Beal had been seen mostly as a catch and shoot threat, and under Wittman, he seemed to eschew three-pointers for less efficient long twos. This season, Beal took his offensive game to the next level, shooting more three-pointers, making them at a better clip, and abandoning the long two for more shots in and around the paint. He also got to the free throw line better than ever.

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All in all, Beal’s ability to score from all three levels led to him averaging over 23 points per game and putting himself into the conversation for best shooting guards in the league. It appears as though the sky is the limit for the Florida product, and he will look to complement his scoring ability with improved playmaking and defense in the coming seasons.

Porter also added new components to his game in 2016-17. Coming into the final year of his rookie deal, Porter had seemingly found an NBA niche as a strong slasher who played solid defense and was an ideal transition partner for the lightning-quick Wall. He was also an above-average mid range jump-shooter and a somewhat reliable three point shooter.

This season, without compromising any of his slashing ability, Porter became one of the league’s most accurate three-point marksmen, evolving his game to fit seamlessly into Washington’s offensive schemes. Playing in an offense next to a ball-dominant guard like Wall, having a guy who ran hard in transition, knocked down open catch-and-shoot looks and cut smartly was a nice complement. Porter was the NBA leader in three-point percentage for much of the season, until a post all-star game slump saw him finish the season as the league’s fourth most accurate shooter from three.

Oubre had played very few meaningful minutes in his rookie season, but knew that he would see a significant increase in playing time as a sophomore. What he may not have expected is that he would arguably become the Wizards’ most important bench player. Although Oubre did not fit the typical sixth man mold, meaning that he was not able to create his own shot or put up points in a hurry, he still provided a much needed energy boost off the bench.

Oubre’s energy came mostly on the defensive side of the ball, where he constantly keeps his hands active to rack up steals and deflections. He also found ways to score, whether it be via crashing the offensive glass or through his improved but not yet reliable outside stroke.

Like the rest of Washington’s reserves, Oubre’s numbers are underwhelming, but his impact was evident and he showed flashes of potential that indicate that he could be a piece around which the Wizards can eventually build, although he presently remains very far from being a finished product. Oubre’s decision making, especially when it comes to when to gamble for steals, or what constitutes a good shot, leaves much to be desired.

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Brooks also deserves credit for coaxing strong stretches of play from other key rotation players like Marcin Gortat, Markieff Morris, Jason Smith, and Bojan Bogdanovic.

Now, back to the playoffs. Washington’s run to game seven of the second round was undoubtedly exciting, but ultimately unsatisfying, and unfortunately many of Brooks’ past issues came back at the worst possible time.

In the first round, against a much less talented Atlanta Hawks squad, Washington relied on the brilliance of their backcourt to win the series in six games, although it probably should have been over quicker. Although many players put together at least one solid game, no one but Wall could be entirely pleased with their performance over the course of the series.

Washington struggled to adjust as Hawks point guard Dennis Schroder went against the scouting report and caught fire from behind the arc as numerous Wizards defenders went under screen after screen. In the end, Wall showed that he was clearly the best player on the court, which was enough to close out the series and mask over deficiencies that would plague the team in the next round.

In their intense seven-game series, and specifically in the seventh game, many of these problems likely cost the Wizards’ a chance to prolong their season and face James’ Cleveland Cavaliers in the conference finals. Much like he had done with Westbrook and Durant for the Thunder, Brooks understandably rode Beal and Wall in the playoffs, and especially in game seven. However, he also made a number of head scratching coaching decisions that arguably hindered the team’s ability to stop Boston’s attack from scoring.

As mentioned earlier, Oubre had become a key part of Washington’s bench this season. Over the first eight games of the playoffs, prior to his ejection from game three against Boston and subsequent suspension for the following game, Oubre averaged about 19 minutes per game. He then played five minutes before getting thrown out of game three, 20 in game five and only seven in the Wizards’ dramatic game six victory. In the final game, however, Oubre was inexplicably on the court for only 10 seconds, coming in for a defensive stand right before halftime.

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Even as the Wizards struggled to stop a heating up Isaiah Thomas late in the third and early in the fourth quarter, Brooks refused to bring the player who had arguably done the best job in slowing down Boston’s diminutive star.

It may be normal to not want to play a young player, and especially a young player who was likely to get booed by a hostile away crowd, in a game seven. It is understandable that Brooks entered the game hoping that it would play out in such a way that he would not have to play his young, emotional reserve.

What is not understandable is why he would continue to refuse to play him as the game began to slip away and it was clear that a change might be needed to provide a spark. All season long, Oubre had provided a spark off the bench. Yet, when a spark was most needed, Brooks, seemingly out of conventional wisdom and not real-life context, elected against playing him.

It is also true that Otto Porter had put together his strongest half of the postseason in the first half of game seven, and given that Oubre usually spells him, there may not have been much room for him in the rotation. However, there was a lineup wrinkle, that, given the specific context of the game, Brooks should have considered trotting out during crunch time.

Over the course of the season, the Wizards rarely played small ball. With centers Gortat, Ian Mahinmi and Smith on the roster, there was never really a need for Washington to downsize.

Boston, though, was a terrible matchup for Washington’s bigs. Boston’s two most employed centers–Al Horford and unlikely game seven hero Kelly Olynyk, make their living mostly on the perimeter. Horford occasionally brings the ball up the court and the Celtics often run their offense through him. Olynyk is mostly a threat as a catch-and-shoot three point shooter. Neither of them are back to the basket threats, and it was therefore unnecessary for Washington to go big against them.

Both Gortat and Mahinmi experienced their fair share of struggles throughout the series, and particularly in game seven. Although Gortat enjoyed a significant size advantage and used it to dominate on both the offensive and defensive glass, he consistently left Horford and Olynyk open from three on pick and pops with Isaiah Thomas.

Although Mahinmi showed more of a willingness to hedge the screen and challenge Thomas and then close out hard on the perimeter, his lack of lateral quickness made it easy for either of Boston’s bigs to pump fake and take the slow-footed Frenchman to the rim off the dribble.

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Given the Celtics’ centers skill sets, it was clear that old-school big men like Gortat and Mahinmi were not the answer. Against modern-day centers like Horford, you need to be able to do one of two things: Score from the perimeter or stop your opponent from doing so. The Wizards’ bigs could do neither.

The way to get around this could have been by inserting the aforementioned Oubre as a small-ball power forward alongside center Markieff Morris, and a backcourt of Beal, and Wall. With Porter at small forward, the team still would have had its four best scorers in the game, Oubre could have continued to guard Thomas for stretches, and Horford and Olynyk’s biggest advantages would have been negated by Morris.

Instead, late in the third quarter, Brooks elected to trot out Mahinmi and Jason Smith at the same time. This instantly looked like a bad idea, and a three point Washington lead was quickly erased and turned into a six point deficit behind three Celtics three pointers via three pick and pop actions between Thomas and Horford. Neither Smith nor Mahinmi had the foot speed to get around the picks, and they gave Boston consistently clean looks in the final minute plus of the third quarter.

The Wizards’ lack of depth also came back to bite them in other ways. While Brooks, and the rest of the basketball world, clearly understood that the Wizards bench could not be depended on and that the team would therefore have to ride their starters if they were to have any hope of winning a road game seven, Washington’s execution down the stretch proved that the answer was not so simple. Both Wall and Beal had been used to a heavy dose of minutes in the postseason, as they both averaged almost 38 minutes per game over the course of the playoffs.

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However, in the last game, this number ballooned to 45 and 46 minutes, respectively, and these minutes added up very quickly. This was especially evident for Wall, who missed his last 11 shots of game seven. Perhaps even more importantly than that, seven of those eleven attempts were three point field goals. For a player like Wall, whose outside stroke has been by far his biggest weakness since he arrived in the league, the issue was more one of shot selection rather than of ability.

As Marcus Smart pointed out after the conclusion of the contest and Wall himself confirmed a few weeks later, the four-time all-star point guard was absolutely gassed in the most crucial moments of the most crucial game in his career thus far. Wall will never go down without a fight, and more than an attack on his heart or his stamina, this is more intended to be an attack on the team’s front office, which was wholly unable to find an adequate backup point guard. Wall simply seemed incapable of penetrating into the teeth of the defense and create chances for himself and others, which is usually the biggest strength of his game.

Beal, for his part, had a brilliant fourth quarter of game seven. Coming off the back of a 33 point game six, which included a variety of tough, clutch, layups that were eventually overshadowed by Wall’s late-game heroics, Beal exploded for 38 in game seven. With the offense rather stagnant, Washington relied on Beal to make big shot after big shot to keep his team in the game, until he too eventually ran out of gas.

Although the Wizards are blessed to have two guards who can easily create their own shot, the lack of shotmaking depth was painfully obvious down the stretch throughout the series. The problem of Washington’s depth was even more magnified by the fact that the Celtics’ reserves, led by Smart, Olynyk and Terry Rozier, were quite productive throughout the series, and were capable of consistently exposing their Wizards’ counterparts.

Beyond depth, which is clearly the team’s most glaring issue, two other problems that harmed the Wizards’ over the course of the season reared their ugly heads in a big way come playoff time.

First is an issue that came to light during the Wizards’ post all-star break mini-slump. During a five-game road trip against five of the Western Conference’s worst teams, the Wizards went what seemed to be a very respectable, if not impressive 4-1. Looking closer at each of the games, however, the Wizards consistently fell into early holes only to fight back and eke out victories. During the five games, Washington gave up an average of 121 points per contest. Every Wizards opponent seemed to repeatedly be taking–and making–wide open three point attempts.

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In these games, against clearly inferior opposition, Washington’s offensive firepower, which was firing on absolutely all cylinders at the time, was enough to carry them to victory. When they came face to face with Boston– a team loaded with solid but unspectacular outside marksmen–the number of wide open looks eventually translated to a team that made a large number of threes, particularly at home, where their role players were more comfortable.  

The reasons for Washington’s struggles guarding the three are varied and difficult to pinpoint. Among them, though, are the big men’s inability to defend the perimeter and Wall’s tendency to gamble for steals that he does not get, leaving his four teammates scrambling to cover five men.

Although the Wizards’ aggressive brand of defense, headlined by Wall and Oubre, can often pay dividends, it too often it yielded a confused defense that ended with an open outside shot for the opposition. The aggressive defense worked on occasion, as exemplified by their large runs against Oklahoma City in the regular season and the Celtics in game three of their series, in which they turned turnover after turnover into fast break opportunity after fast break opportunity, but in the end was part of their downfall. Next season, Washington will need more defensive discipline so that they can minimize the number of good looks that they give up.

The final issue that hurt the Wizards in a big way is one that may only improve with more experience. During their successful regular season, the team went 30-11 at home, including a mid-season 17 game win streak at the Phone Booth that was only halted by a miraculous bank three by LeBron James. In the playoffs, Washington went a step better, staying unbeaten for all six playoff games at the Verizon Center.

However, the slow start to the regular season resigned Washington to the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference, meaning that they would not have home court advantage beyond the first round. Against the Celtics, each team held serve at home, and when all the dust settled, Boston emerged as 4-3 winners.

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Prior to this season, Washington had been a surprisingly solid road team given its standing within the league, and the team will need to win back some of that ability moving forward, especially considering that it may be difficult to claim the top seed in the East.

Washington’s season may have been successful, but the team ultimately fell short of its goal of reaching the Eastern Conference Finals. They came closer than they have in any year since their last final four berth in 1979, but they could not close the deal in game seven.

For a season filled with so many ups and downs, so many twists and turns and so many dreams that were ultimately crushed, the end of the season fell exactly in line with what we had seen from them all season. They had some great players and a high quality offense, but at the end of the day they didn’t have the elements–a bench, a strong in-game coach, a lockdown defense, or a an ability to win games on the road–that make a true NBA championship contender, and all of these issues are to blame for Washington falling short in game seven, and in the season as a whole.

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Washington has a lot of areas to improve in this offseason, but not a lot of resources with which to do so, putting a lot of the pressure squarely on the players and coach moving.