It turns out that NBA preseason games, when the win-loss record fades away like an Etch-A-Sketch drawing, can be meaningful for a veteran team like the Washington Wizards.
They matter for star guard John Wall, who’s pacing himself into “game shape” before his ninth season.
They’re even more significant for forward Markieff Morris, who refuses to ease up in exhibition games after missing all of camp and preseason a year ago and realizing his body needs a good run before the real grind starts.
Early October also holds purpose for backup center Ian Mahinmi, who hadn’t known what it’s like to be healthy in the fall during his time in Washington but now feels like a new man.
As they compile work loads and get into a rhythm, one Wizard player who could most benefit from this time is still rehabilitating from a back injury.
Since the Wizards opened training camp on Sept. 25, new starting center Dwight Howard has yet to participate in a team practice.
Although Howard has progressed — a word often used by Coach Scott Brooks when he’s asked daily about his injured big man — to shooting on the court with Wizards assistant coaches, these drills offer only light impact. He has not absorbed contact in any of his workouts observed by reporters, and before Howard appears in a game, he will need to have banged through a physical practice with teammates.
It would appear unlikely for Howard to make his debut Monday against the New York Knicks during the Wizards' third preseason game. Howard will, however, travel with the team for the two-game road trip to New York and Detroit, according to Brooks.
There’s truth in Brooks’s reminders about the long season ahead, and sense in not rushing Howard back to the court when 82 regular-season games await. Even so, Howard’s back soreness has disrupted his individual preparation for his 15th season as well as his acclimation to his new team.
While speaking solely about themselves, Washington’s veterans shed light on what Howard could be missing while he recuperates.
After the Wizards' Friday night victory over the Miami Heat, players explained their personal vision for the preseason. When Wall was asked how he balances getting into a rhythm with not overexerting himself before the regular season, he shared a goal to achieve better on-court conditioning.
“Just trying to push myself to get in more shape. I mean, game shape. I’m in shape but just more game shape,” Wall said, going on to explain the extent of game shape.
“Take shots when you’re tired, figure out how to play through that and make your adjustments,” Wall said. “But like trying to attack the basket and do all those things super hard, that’s not really what I’m focusing on right now.”
Morris, who’s entering his eighth season as well as a contract year before becoming a free agent next summer, has a different mind-set. Unlike Wall, Morris is “going hard as I’d go in a real game” because he feels that’s the only way to prepare for the season. On Friday, Morris scored 13 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. A year ago, ahead of the Wizards’ preseason, Morris was standing trial on aggravated assault charges in Phoenix and rehabbing from surgery to repair a sports hernia. Morris, who was acquitted, missed out on getting himself into shape. When asked about competing in the preseason now, Morris did not hesitate to describe the advantages.
“For sure, I think at least two to three games during the preseason and training camp has been super important,” Morris said. “Just to get your feet under you, just to get that feel back again playing real basketball under the whistle, you know what I mean? Getting your heart rate up so you can be ready for the season.”
Since signing a four-year, $64 million contract with Washington, the 6-foot-11 Mahinmi has undergone several knee procedures. Each recovery took a toll and Mahinmi had to spend the early parts of the last two seasons slowly getting back into form. Finally healthy, and lighter, Mahinmi has provided solid contributions in the two preseason games in place of Howard in the starting lineup.
“For once, I didn’t have to rehab at all. Coming into the summer I was healthy,” Mahinmi said. “The past two years I had to battle through some injuries, it’s never easy. We have a short training camp, a short preseason, so it doesn’t give you a whole lot of time to get yourself going. These last two years, I had to wait till the second part of the season to kind of get my rhythm. I feel like this year, having a healthy summer, I’m ready now.”
Howard also enjoyed a healthy summer until his back stiffened up toward its end, causing the results of that hard work to be shelved for rehab.
Conceivably, the Wizards and Howard had anticipated October as a time to get on the same page. These backstage moments should have allowed Wall and Howard to plot out the angles in their 1-5 pick-and-roll plays and enabled Morris to learn just where Howard likes to attack the boards so they’re not competing for the same rebounds. The new Wizards starting lineup needed time to make mistakes then fix them. After Monday night, though, only two exhibition games remain.
The preseason won’t make or break Howard. The rest may turn out to be beneficial for a 32-year-old who has spent his entire adult life getting hacked and harassed by double-team defenses. But listening to the older Wizards, there is a purpose behind the preseason.