We’re far enough along in the NBA season to start figuring out some trends and deciding who’s actually good and who isn’t. Stubbornly, I still want to hold out hope for two Eastern Conference playoff representatives from a year ago that I expected big things out of, but who have not delivered at all. Of course I’m talking about the Milwaukee Bucks and Washington Wizards. Actually, the Wizards and Bucks are the only two teams in the East that you can call disappointing through 20 or so games. I mean, were Philly and Brooklyn fans really expecting much? I hope not. As I covered yesterday, teams like the Magic, Hornets, Pacers and Pistons have made the Central and Southeast Divisions suddenly deep. The Celtics are about what we expected, and the New York Knickerbockers are riding the giant Latvian rookie Kristaps Porzignis to a surprisingly positive start. All three divisions in the East are more competitive and overall better than expected.
But there’s always a flip side to that coin. If most of the East is coming up Heads, then the Wiz and Bucks are left chasing their Tails. Let’s try to figure out what’s wrong, and whether either situation is salvageable.
What’s up with the Wiz?
Washington, fresh off an inspiring postseason run and sporting a shiny backcourt, has stumbled to a 7-9 start. Fans actually booed franchise point guard John Wall the other night after he missed free throws in a terrible loss to the Lakers. Shooting guard Bradley Beal has continued to struggle with minor injuries, Nene is banged up and now Marcin Gortat is away from the team for a personal matter. The frustration last season from NBA viewers was that coach Randy Wittman seemed unaware of the fact that his dynamic backcourt plays best when they are attacking on the fast break and pushing the pace. Wall, in particular, is a unique weapon that runs circles around opponents and creates opportunities on defense with his quick hands. Wittman did a 180 in the playoffs, finally playing a smaller lineup and revving up the engines on offense – the result was a first round spanking of Toronto in four games. They then took the 60-win Hawks to six games, losing the final two by a combined four points. It seemed Wittman had finally figured out what he had in his roster. And they have mostly continued the pace and space strategy in 2015-16 (they’re currently 3rd in pace), but the wins haven’t followed. So what’s wrong?
For one, Wall hasn’t been good. The fanciest Tesla that Elon Musk can build won’t work without a charge, and Wall is the battery that Washington runs on. He’s more than two assists per game below is career-high 10 per game last season, and his field goal percentage is slightly down. He’s shooting more threes and making them at an OK rate (33%) but teams will concede a long range shot to Wall all day long over a drive to the rack. In Washington’s 3-1 start, Wall was great (21 and 8 per game). They’ve been 4-8 since and maddeningly inconsistent, following their star’s lead. Wall had 35 and 10 in a fantastic 97-85 win over Cleveland on Dec. 1. The next night they lost to the Lakers at home. To be fair, Wall had great numbers against L.A. but he did miss the key free throws that led to the booing.
Second issue has been Bradley Beal, who was expected to make another leap in a contract year. He leads the team in scoring but remains in and out of the lineup with nagging injuries. In general his shooting numbers are good but I guess the leap hasn’t been as great as I expected, especially for a guy who will be looking for a max contract after the season.
The third issue I see is a fundamental one that many teams are facing in the “We want to emulate the Warriors” era. I covered this before with the Bulls, and the Wizards are an even better example of this struggle. That being, if you’re going to play fast that equals more possessions, and more possessions equals more shots. YOU NEED TO HAVE GUYS THAT CAN MAKE SHOTS IN ORDER TO MAKE THIS A SUCCESSFUL PLAN. Sorry for yelling. But outside of Beal, who are the shotmakers on this team? Otto Porter has made 15 threes on 57 attempts. Jared Dudley is always solid and is shooting 50 percent from the field but he’s a bit player. Gary Neal can knock down shots but he’s not going to win you many games. In theory Kris Humphries stretches the floor and he’s done well this year at 36 percent from beyond the arc, but he’s basically a seventh man. They really need another guy or two on the wing that scares defenses – Porter was supposed to be that guy, but he hasn’t flourished in a bigger role.
Are the Wizards salvageable?
I really, really want to say yes, and I’m not going to count out Wall and Beal just yet, but let’s reexamine in a month. The Wizards are entering a murderous stretch in their schedule, as 15 of their next 20 opponents currently have winning records. They are dead last in the Southeast and every other team in their division has a winning record. The East is back from a 15 year hiatus (at least so far this season) and it won’t be easy to dig out of their current hole, God forbid they dig any deeper in the tough month ahead. It’s amazing to consider, but the Wizards could be a lottery team by mid-January, unless they quickly right the ship.
What’s up with the Bucks?
Milwaukee was a great story last year, riding a bunch of fresh faces with long wingspans and bouncy legs to a surprise playoff spot. They punched the heavily-favored Bulls in the mouth in the first round before bowing out in six games. This created hope, that ever-fragile and sometimes dangerous thing that gets fanbases fired up and GMs occasionally fired. Why not be hopeful? Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker are two legitimate stars in the making, with fingers crossed for good health (Parker) and proper development (Giannis). Jason Kidd seems a natural at this NBA coaching thing and he’s a former point guard that fixed his broken shot, creating more hope still that he can fix the Bucks’ point guard Michael Carter-Williams’ broken shot. So the Bucks decided they were ready to go for it, signing big-time free agent Greg Monroe and extending promising wing Khris Middleton. In the meantime they let veterans like Jared Dudley, Zaza Pachulia and Ersan Ilyasova walk. They unveiled shiny new uniforms (very nice actually) and a new court design and prepared to continue their ascendance up the Eastern Conference ladder.
So what’s happened? The shiny toys (Giannis!, Parker!, Middleton!, Monroe!, playoff excitement!, rebranding!) drove “hope” and “potential” but distracted them from some of the core reasons behind last year’s success. Less sexy things like veteran leadership and toughness were sacrificed to bring in Monroe. The former Pistons big man has not panned out thus far, to put it nicely. Not to say Monroe isn’t a good player, but it’s a square peg in a round hole situation. He doesn’t fit the rangy, bouncy, tenacious D profile that drove the Bucks last season. The team thought guys like Giannis and Jon Henson could make up for Monroe’s deficiencies on defense and the loss of Zaza, but the drop has been precipitous. Defense was key to this team’s identity last season, and they currently are the second-worst defense in the league. MCW is also not great on defense, and his shot is still broken. Methinks Milwaukee regrets jettisoning Brandon Knight to Phoenix last year. They just don’t have enough punch on offense to overcome bad defense. The Bucks should be grinding teams down and winning slugfests in the low 90s. Right now they allow 103 points per game.
That’s how a great deal of hope turns into a 7-12 start.
Are the Bucks salvageable?
In any other year, probably. But with the way the East is playing out this season, sadly the answer has to be no. That’s right, I’m writing off one of my NBA Risers from the preseason in December.
Long-term, yes, they are salvageable. But they currently sit last in the Central and 13th in the East. They are headed for the lottery. There will be some tough choices to make, but a core of Giannis, Parker and Middleton can still be special. I think MCW needs to go, more shooting will need to be acquired and somehow they need to fit Monroe into the mix or trade him if it really goes bad.
It’s sad because a season ago this team had a real identity – they thrived on creating chaos, forcing turnovers and brought attitude to the table, thanks mostly to Zaza. I’m always amazed when NBA teams add more talent and get worse on the court. Chemistry, identity, hope – it’s all very fragile in the NBA.