The Washington Wizards have taken small steps to try and end their long run at the bottom of the NBA. President Ernie Grunfeld finally gave up on knuckleheads Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee and Nick Young, and retooled the roster with players who practice even harder than Blatche partied.
In a nice change for frustrated Wizards fans (is there another kind?), they’ll be able to root for hard workers. But once again, the Wizards probably won’t be winners.
Even when they’re eventually at full strength — point guard John Wall and center Nene are sidelined because of injuries — the Wizards still are among the NBA’s least talented teams. And after the Wizards stockpiled all those first-round picks during four consecutive trips to the draft lottery, it’s now fair to ask: Will they ever transition from rebuilding to actually winning?
At the starting line of a new season, they’ve already broken down.
Wall — by far the most skilled player in this below-average bunch — is expected to be sidelined another month because of a knee injury. Nene, second to Wall in both ability and importance to the franchise, is out indefinitely because of a foot problem. You don’t have to understand pick-and-roll defense to know that the Wizards needed Wall and Nene in Tuesday’s 94-84 season-opening loss in Cleveland.
Without Wall to direct them, the Wizards were painful to watch on offense. Shooting 35.6 percent from the field and 25 percent from beyond the three-point arc (Washington missed 24 of 32) is not a formula for sustained success at any level of the game, let alone the world’s highest. Missing Nene near the basket, the Wizards were pushed around for much of the game.
“From a rebounding standpoint, we were just getting totally destroyed on the inside,” Coach Randy Wittman said.
Center Emeka Okafor deserves a big slice of blame for that.
The Wizards acquired Okafor and forward Trevor Ariza in the offseason in exchange for forward Rashard Lewis and a draft pick. Okafor, who has averaged 12.7 points and 10.1 rebounds in his career, is grossly overpaid; he’s guaranteed more than $28 million the next two seasons. But the Wizards are counting on Okafor, Nene and third-year post player Kevin Seraphin, who sat out the first game because of a calf injury, to provide toughness, rebounding and interior scoring.
Okafor was so ineffective that Wittman left him on the bench in the fourth quarter. In the most important stretch of the game, journeyman center Earl Barron played in place of Okafor. Obviously, one game won’t define Okafor’s season, but owner Ted Leonsis isn’t paying Okafor big bucks to sit and watch Barron play during crunch time.
Despite Okafor’s marshmallow effort, the Wizards rallied late against the Cavaliers. They just didn’t have a go-to scorer to help them finish.
When the defense tightens and pressure rises late in games, winning teams turn to players who consistently make shots. Playoff clubs generally have at least two productive late-game scorers. Three or more? That’s Miami Heat territory. On the Wizards’ active roster no one is a proven scorer.
“There was no question that was a concern of mine with Nene and John out of the lineup,” Wittman said. “We just don’t have a guy that I can pencil in for 20 [points] a night.”
Twenty? Wittman should be happy to get 15 per game from anyone on this roster.
Ideally, rookie guard Bradley Beal would have been eased in behind a productive veteran. The Wizards don’t have anyone to fill that type of role.
Most NBA observers are high on Beal. “He could be a poor man’s Ray Allen,” one Western Conference general manager told me, referring to the Miami Heat’s sharp-shooting future Hall of Famer.
At only 19, though, Beal is being put in a difficult position. He’ll have to grow up quickly without Wall and Nene in the lineup to share the scoring load. Wittman realizes he’s asking Beal to shoulder a lot. The last thing Wittman would want is for the kid’s confidence to be ruined, “but thus far, I don’t worry about that,” Wittman said. “He hasn’t given me any indication of being intimidated or being scared. Can that change? Absolutely.”
Okay. I know what you’re probably thinking: Won’t the return of Wall and Nene help Beal and the entire team?
The answer is yes. Just not enough to make a major difference in the Wizards’ record.
Although Wall has shown the ability to take command of games in stretches, he still has a lot to prove. Can Wall become an elite scorer after he averaged 16.3 points in his first two seasons? Will his bad three-point shooting — he has a 23.6-percent career mark — improve? Does Wall possess that take-charge trait (call it the Jordan gene) needed to lead the Wizards out of the basement?
The Wizards are counting on Wall to make the leap from good player to superstar leader this season. It’s hard to make that jump when you’re injured.
There are also questions about Nene. Undoubtedly, the Wizards benefited from his roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-dirty approach last season. Nene has credibility around the league because he has produced on winning teams (he played in 44 playoff games with the Denver Nuggets).
But Nene missed 14 of 25 games after the Wizards acquired him from the Nuggets last season and is injured again. The Nuggets were willing to trade Nene just a few months after signing him to a $67 million extension, of which the Wizards are on the hook for $52 million. Did Denver know something the Wizards didn’t? Let’s put it this way: That contract sure could become an albatross over the next four seasons.
Losing Nene for prolonged stretches would be easier for the Wizards to handle if second-year power forward Jan Vesely, the sixth overall pick in the 2011 draft, emerged as a big-time player. Vesely is fast and athletic, but we don’t know whether he can actually play. Still, that’s better than what can be said about most of the Wizards’ players.
The Wizards want fans to believe they’re getting closer. And perhaps they are. But only as close as Charlie Brown comes to kicking Lucy’s football.
For previous columns by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.