As the Washington Wizards and Cleveland Cavaliers were going blow-for-blow throughout one of the best games of this NBA regular season at Verizon Center on Monday night, it was hard to see much of a talent disparity between the two teams. The stars on both sides were playing at their best, and the result was a thrilling game Washington only didn’t win in regulation because of a Kevin Love pass to LeBron James for a game-tying three-pointer that looked, in degree of difficulty, like it was straight out of the Patriots’ rally to win the Super Bowl the night before.
But then, with 1:24 remaining in overtime, Kelly Oubre Jr. became the second Wizard to foul out after his feet got tangled with Love. With starting forward Markieff Morris having fouled out a few minutes earlier, Wizards Coach Scott Brooks was left with no other option than to call on rookie Tomas Satoransky to play the final 84 seconds of Washington’s biggest game of the season thus far.
And while Satoransky — who, to be fair, has been a useful piece off Washington’s bench this season — played no part in the final outcome, Kyrie Irving and Love powered Cleveland to its eventual 140-135 victory with several highlight-reel plays down the stretch. It underscored something anyone who was watched the Wizards this season knows all too well: They remain a player or two short of being a true contender.
The numbers back that up. Washington’s starting five of John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter Jr., Morris and Marcin Gortat has been among the best lineups in the league this season. No group of five players has played more minutes together (a combined 904 over 45 games), and the Wizards have outscored their opponents by 204 points with that group on the court. Only one lineup — the starting five of the Golden State Warriors — has outscored opponents by more this season.
Wall is on the all-star team for the fourth consecutive season, and arguably should be starting again. Beal may not have made the all-star team, but the way he’s playing has anyone watching thinking the Wizards have an all-star starting backcourt. Porter is enjoying a breakout fourth season, atop the NBA in three-point accuracy at 46.7 percent and assuredly heading for a max contract this summer. Morris has settled in nicely as the team’s starting power forward, while Gortat remains one of the best pick-and-roll bigs in the league, making him a perfect complement to Wall as the hub of Washington’s offense.
The bench, though? That’s another story. Washington is 29th in bench scoring — which showed as its backups contributed just 16 of the 135 points the Wizards scored Monday night. Through Monday’s games, only five teams’ reserves had been outscored by more than Washington’s over the season.
The biggest problem with that stat? The Wizards are 29th in bench minutes. The five teams who have been outscored by more than them all are within the top 10.
So, yes, the Wizards have a bench problem, and those within the team acknowledge it. While Cleveland remains in a league of its own atop the Eastern Conference, the path for Washington to reach the Eastern Conference finals — something it hasn’t done since 1979 — is wide open. Even with the deficiencies of their second unit, the Wizards are firmly in the conversation with the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics for the second-best team in the East; some would argue they hold that title right now after Monday’s performance.
Finding a way to upgrade that bench unit, however, would give Washington’s case a significant boost. Part of the problem has been the complete disappearance of Ian Mahinmi, who has played just one game this season because of recurring knee issues after signing a four-year, $64 million contract this summer.
There are hopeful signs from the reserves. Mahinmi should be back on the court soon, which will help. Oubre has taken a significant step forward in his second season; he was not out of place in Monday’s game, which is all the proof anyone should need he’s someone to be counted on in April and May. Even Jason Smith, who was maligned earlier this season, has been very good during Washington’s turnaround.
Still, the Wizards need more. The ideal move would be to replicate the deal Washington did last year — turning a protected first-round pick into Morris, a player in his prime (he was 26) and with three more years on his contract at an affordable price. Getting another piece like that could be the difference between Washington going home in the first or second round or making its first deep playoff run in almost 40 years.
The problem, however, is the current landscape of the league. There are 12 teams in both the East and West that are within three-and-a-half games of a playoff spot, which makes it difficult to attempt trades. Too many teams still think they have a chance to compete — and while they do, good luck getting them to be realistic about selling, even when they should.
That’s why the next nine days could be crucial. The Wizards would love nothing more than for several of those fringe playoff teams to fall off the map leading into the all-star break to loosen up the trade market and give them some realistic targets before the Feb. 23 deadline.
Monday night proved the Wizards belong in the conversation for being the team best suited to challenge James and his Cavaliers. Adding another piece between now and the Feb. 23 trade deadline, however, could be the difference between making that fanciful talk and practical reality.