Bradley Beal stood in a hallway inside Capital One Arena for a private conversation with a companion. Otto Porter Jr. dressed and exited before reporters entered the locker room. John Wall knelt over the scooter he now uses for mobility and dodged camera wires on his way to the garage elevator.
The three cornerstones of the Washington Wizards shuttled out the door Monday night, yet they will stay put after Thursday’s NBA trade deadline. Beal, Porter and Wall have been deemed untouchable, or so it seems after majority owner Ted Leonsis recently declared the Wizards are “not trading” the trio.
But while the franchise remains tied to the core three, losses such as Monday night’s — a 137-129 defensive collapse against the Atlanta Hawks — reveal that Washington should remain active at the deadline.
As constructed, the Wizards (22-31) can’t rebound when they play big, and the problem is only amplified when they go small. Their defenders struggle to keep up with the modern NBA, in which teams are more likely to jack up 41 three-pointers — as the Hawks did Monday night — rather than show modesty around the perimeter. Coach Scott Brooks is having to get creative in choosing matchups, and Washington’s lineups are faltering against both the best in the East and some of the worst teams.
Though the Wizards stumbled in an expected loss to the conference-leading Milwaukee Bucks (39-13) on Saturday night, they have also spent the past week dropping games to the Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers. Those teams have 10 fewer wins than the Bucks combined. And yet the Wizards, still soaring over the luxury tax line with a bloated team salary, cannot find the consistent formula to compete against such teams. One deal won’t save a sinking season, but something must be done to stop the Wizards from conceding truths like this one:
“Every night you’ve got 48 minutes to prove who’s the better team regardless of what their record is, and tonight [the Hawks] proved in 48 minutes that they were a better team than us,” Brooks said. “We got to bounce back and regroup and stay together and play much better.”
Before the game, Brooks indicated that the looming trade deadline will not affect the way the Wizards play. He was right. The Wizards returned to their usual style of defense in which they don’t guard the arc and players mismanage switches and assignments.
“We just have to lock in better on defense,” said Jordan McRae, who earned 25 minutes and scored a season-high 20 points. “[The Hawks] had a lot of threes late — just closing out short on shooters. We have to do a better job of getting all the way up.”
Rookie Kevin Huerter and second-year wing player Taurean Prince formed their version of the Southern Splash Brothers by combining to hit 10 of 14 threes. Even the Hawks reserves made the rim look like an ocean. Big man Omari Spellman and 42-year-old veteran Vince Carter each made four triples off the bench, and Atlanta connected on 20 of 41 attempts total.
“We’ve got to be better. The league is shooting threes beyond the three-point line, and you can’t just close to the line anymore. You’ve got to close to the body,” Brooks said. “It’s something we’ve been trying to figure out all year. We’ve been an inconsistent defensive team.”
Teams such as Atlanta also expose one of the Wizards’ greatest weaknesses in their lack of a true rebounder. As the Hawks teed off from beyond the arc, their offense forced Brooks to sit centers Thomas Bryant and Ian Mahinmi and counter with a small lineup that featured the 6-foot-9 Jeff Green at the five. Although Green scored 26 points in 36 minutes, he grabbed only five rebounds — fewer than Beal (six) and point guard Tomas Satoransky (seven). The center who was brought in to patrol the glass, Dwight Howard, appeared in nine games and hasn’t played since Nov. 18, but Bryant has grabbed double-digit rebounds only seven times. Porter, who led the team Monday night with eight, has eclipsed 10 rebounds in just six games.
The Wizards closed the affair with a lineup consisting of four wings and Green. Though the group of talented scorers lit up the scoreboard with Beal going for 18 of his team’s 40 points, it finished a mere plus-2 against the Hawks in the final quarter.
“They made tough shots, a lot of tough shots,” Green said. “We have to be more aggressive putting them off the line. We have to give credit where credit is due. They made some tough shots.”
In the fourth quarter, Porter missed three free throws and finished the game with just 13 points on 5-for-13 shooting. Like Beal, Porter did not hang around the locker room long enough to speak to reporters. Wall, lost for the season after having surgery on his left heel, does not have to give an account for his team’s performances while he’s injured.
The three untouchables left the arena knowing that the next time they step foot here, Thursday night against the Cavaliers, they will still be Wizards. This comfort, however, may not extend throughout the locker room.
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