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.