Kelly Oubre Jr. in 2016
Kelly Oubre Jr. in 2016 Credit: KEITH ALLISON/FLICKR

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When the Wizards headed to John F. Kennedy International Airport from Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Dec. 14, the bus ride felt unusually quiet for a normal NBA road trip, according to Wizards center Thomas Bryant. Players, coaches, and team staff have the option of riding one of two chartered buses on the road that takes players from the arena to the hotel or to the team plane. Kelly Oubre Jr. and Austin Rivers rode on the first bus out of Brooklyn. Neither knew exactly where their ultimate destinations for the evening would be.

At one point Oubre believed that he would be heading to Memphis to join the resurging Grizzlies and Rivers would be heading to the NBA badlands of Phoenix. The two players had come to find out that they were being traded directly after the Wizards suffered a fourth consecutive loss and were each still processing the news of being traded when everything had come to a screeching halt.

By the time Oubre and Rivers had already said their goodbyes to teammates and staffers, they were hit with the sobering news that both players had not been traded and technically had to get back on the plane with their Wizards teammates heading to D.C.

The two would not remain Wizards for very long because by the time the team had finished practice the following day, both Oubre and Rivers were heading to Phoenix as a part of a smaller trade between just the Wizards and Suns. Former Wizards player Trevor Ariza is set to return to D.C. as part of the deal.

In trading for Ariza, the Wizards essentially made an early decision on Oubre’s pending restricted free agency status for the summer of 2019. Ariza had a brief, but impactful stint with the Wizards from 2012-14 and has been a hot commodity in the NBA trade market because of his ability to both knock down three pointers and defend multiple positions on the defensive end at a high level.

Oubre came to D.C. via a 2015 draft night trade with the Atlanta Hawks, in which Washington traded up in the draft in order to select the small forward from the University of Kansas. The 23-year-old quickly became a favorite of Wizards fan base because of his ability to connect with a younger generation of basketball fans on social media, and his propensity for flashiness, both on and off the court.

Known for his high-flying dunks and stylish clothes, Oubre, a New Orleans native, embraced the city of Washington as a second home and the city mostly embraced him back.

The adoration for Oubre puts a spotlight on the disconnect between casual fans who love highlight reel plays and the stat enthusiasts who dominate basketball conversations with analytics and data. To the untrained eye, Oubre appeared to be a promising prospect on the cusp of NBA stardom. Advanced metrics suggests a player who was consistently inconsistent on the court.

According to ESPN’s real plus minus statistic, a metric used to estimate a players on-court impact measured in terms of their net point differential per 100 possessions, Oubre ranks as the 72nd small forward of 87 possible candidates, making him literally one of the most inefficient players at his position.

In 755 on-court minutes this season, Oubre produced a negative 7.8 net rating with the Wizards, meaning the team was outscored 7.8 net points per 100 possessions when Oubre was on the floor. Simply put, his presence in the game had been hurting the team.

And while Oubre’s points per game average rose in each one of his seasons in the NBA from a rookie who averaged only 3.7 points a game to his current average of 12.9 points per contest, the efficiency in which he was able to get those points was fleeting and he never really carved out a consistent role within the team’s rotation.

As a wing player in the current power structure of the NBA, there are two main skills that must translate to the next level: three-point shooting and defense. The moniker “3-and-D” has been established to honor those players who excel at those two categories, and Oubre was never quite able to reach his full potential in either.

Last season Oubre shot 34.1 percent beyond the three-point arc and this year had only been able to connect at 31.1 percent. The drop-off in percentage points may seem slight, but those statistics take him from mediocre to well-below average in terms of shooting from deep.

On the defensive side of the ball, he struggled to be disciplined within the construct of the Wizards team defense and often found himself susceptible to being beat by his man on backdoor cuts to the basket. A deeper dive into Oubre’s splits show a player who was not only inconsistent from year to year, but also from game to game and even home versus away.

Most NBA role players tend to play better on their home court but Oubre shot far better on the road this season than he did in Capital One Arena, boasting shooting percentages of 46 percent from the field and 36 percent from three-point range on the road, while only shooting 38 percent from the field and 23 percent from three at home. Still, Oubre gave effort and his enthusiasm is what made him endearing to Wizards fans, and teammates like Bradley Beal.

“It’s great to be able to see him develop and he’s like my younger brother. So in that aspect, I’m a little sad about it,” Beal told reporters after the team’s win over LeBron James and the Lakers. “I’m hurt by it, but it’s business at the end of the day.”

Rivers, who was acquired from the Clippers in June, had a brief stint with the Wizards. Washington expected to bring him in as the team’s primary backup at both guard positions to give Beal and John Wall necessary breaks during games.

The on-court production never materialized for Rivers who saw his minutes drastically decrease over the course of the season and his spot in the team’s rotation ultimately go to Tomáš Satoranský, whose play in recent weeks has made his Wizards teammates and coaches take notice. The Rivers experiment had failed as he was unable to adjust both on the court and with his new teammates in the locker room, making his $12 million expiring contract expendable.

The nature of the NBA is a revolving door of players coming and going, and while the Wizards will lose Oubre and Rivers, they are gaining the 33-year-old Ariza, who has established himself as one of the very best “3-and-D” players in the NBA. Ariza had his best year shooting in Washington playing with Wall and shot a career high 40 percent from 3-point range in the 2013-14 season, Washington’s first trip back to the playoffs with this current core group. Ariza is also an asset that can be moved if the Wizards are not able to turn their season around before the February trade deadline.

The Wizards season has not gone as anyone in that locker room has expected so far, but Beal is focused on what lies ahead.

“We just have to continue forward,” he said. “I get my OG back, my vet, in Trevor Ariza, so I embrace that and that’s a plus. It’s kind of a two-fold situation but just got to keep moving forward.”

Photo by Keith Allison on Flickr, used under the Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 license.