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Not much has gone according to plan for the Washington Wizards.
Through 11 games, the team sits in 13th place in the Eastern Conference with a 3-8 record. Russell Westbrook, brought in for his veteran presence and energy, hasn’t played with the same explosiveness he’s known for and on Monday, the team announced that the former league MVP will miss at least a week with a quadriceps injury.
A day earlier, the team learned that starting center Thomas Bryant, a young and promising player on his way to a breakout season, will miss the remainder of the season with a torn ACL. The Wizards continue to struggle on defense under coach Scott Brooks with a defensive rating of 114.4, which ranks 27th in league.
“It’s our defense. I don’t know why it’s our defense. At this point, we can’t guard a parked car,” Bradley Beal said after the team lost to the Boston Celtics, 116-107, on Jan. 8.
On top of the injuries, the Wizards canceled practice Tuesday after two players, later revealed to be Rui Hachimura and Moritz Wagner, entered the NBA’s Health and Safety Protocols due to their potential exposure to COVID-19. That led to the Wizards postponing their Wednesday night game against the Utah Jazz because they do not have the league-required eight available players.
Any early optimism for this year team has slowly chipped away. In the latest installment of the Wizards Misery Report, started in 2012 by former staff writer Will Sommer, I chatted with Albert Lee, the site manager for the Wizards fan blog Bullets Forever, to get a sense of how Wizards fans are feeling 11 games into the season.
“I’m going to say I’m very disappointed,” he tells me of his feelings about this year’s team. “We all knew the expectations the Wizards said they had coming in. When you’re trading John Wall away to the Houston Rockets for Westbrook, you’re doing so in the hopes that what you’re gonna get out of Westbrook is better than John Wall right now. We were expecting the Wizards closer to .500 at this point.”
Westbrook opened the season with four straight triple doubles, but has struggled with his shooting, averaging only 37.8 percent from the field, while also sitting out the second night of back-to-back games. He has only played in one Wizards victory this season, a 123-122 win over the Brooklyn Nets on Jan. 3.
Teammates have consistently emphasized how invaluable Westbrook’s energy and leadership has been for the team—even when he is sidelined—but that has yet to translate into a consistent defense from a team that struggles to contain its opponents. Despite having an offense that scores the second most in the league with an average of 120.5 points per game, the Wizards won’t pick up many more wins playing defense like they have through their first 11 games.
“The Wizards must have a fallacy that since our offense is one of the best in the league that our offense is going to be our defense,” Lee says. “Even past Warriors teams with a supersonic offense, their defense was still adequate enough to win championships. You can’t have top five offense like Wizards did much of last season but have the worst defense. That’s going to be that balance that the Wizards need to do. I also think it’s personnel. I don’t think the Wizards have really brought on players who have been known for being good defenders at the NBA level, at least.”
For Lee, part of the problem lies with Brooks, who has been the head coach for the Wizards since the 2016-17 season. Even before the season began, Brooks was the odds-on betting favorite to be the first NBA coach fired, Lee reported, and according to a recent Ringer article, Brooks is “sitting firmly on the hot seat.”
“The No. 1 reason I think it’s time for him to go is that … he was brought in to get the Wizards to contend for Southeast division titles and go on playoff runs,” Lee says. “To his credit, they did get close in 2017. Right now, this Wizards team, if anything went right, they could do it again this year … but at the same time, this team looks like it needs that cultural reboot. It’s not just firing Ernie Grunfeld. It’s not just changing who the franchise star is. You also have to change who the coach is and what the philosophy is … You have to have a major reboot.”
Washington showed that it can play a full game on both sides of the court in its dominant 128-107 win over the Phoenix Suns on Monday, a performance that Brooks described as its “best complete game of the season.”
Afterward, Beal, who is currently the league’s leading scorer at 34.9 points per game, praised the team’s defense.
“Tonight was the first time I’d say we guarded the right way, with intensity, with focus, with some IQ,” he said. “Maybe we can move up from the parked cars now.”
Before the season, Lee predicted that the Wizards would reach the second round of the playoffs. Without Bryant, that prediction feels increasingly optimistic, but Lee is sticking with it.
“I like being a man of my word,” he says. “I think the Wizards will still have the talent to get there, but it’s highly dependent on how the team defense evolves over the next 10, 20 games … All of my predictions is assuming coronavirus doesn’t ravage the Wizards, assuming Beal doesn’t get traded or someone else doesn’t get a severe injury, so I would say the Wizards still make the playoffs, but it’s going to be a lot longer road.”