The NBA and Wizards fans are searching for reasons for the team’s recent 10-2 run, which included eight straight wins and a nationally televised domination (tell the grandkids it really happened) of the LeBron James-less Los Angeles Lakers. Even when they lose, such as Saturday in Dallas, it’s by one point, playing on back-to-back days, against a good team.
As usual, there are multiple reasons, including what Bradley Beal calls the “Fire and Ice” combination he has forged with Russell Westbrook. But here is one solid, factual explanation that perhaps even the Wizards haven’t totally figured out.
Every NBA team loves the idea of three stars, helped by role players. Just three weeks ago, the Wizards, then 19-33, had two stars in Beal and Westbrook and little hope of even the lowest playoff spot. The idea of another star who could, for instance, average 24.5 points with 13.3 rebounds and three blocked shots, seemed utterly nuts.
Then that player appeared out of nowhere. Or rather three obscure NBA centers united to form that player.
The Wizards traded for 22-year-old, 6-foot-10 Daniel Gafford, who was buried on the Chicago Bulls’ bench. He joined with 7-foot ex-Maryland Terrapin Alex Len, released by the Raptors in January, then picked up by the Wizards, and 7-foot, 283-pound Robin Lopez, a 14.5-minute-a-game backup last season.
In the NBA, the idea of splitting time equally three ways at a position — 16 minutes each — is almost an insult. And it seldom works. How do you mesh all those skill sets with various combinations of teammates? But to these three men, it was an upgrade, a chance and lemme-at-it.
In the past 12 Wizards games, this trio — assembled at minimal cost in salary, draft picks or traded players — provided the stats noted above as well as a combined effective shooting percentage (. 674) that would rank second in the NBA if it belonged to one player.
They make few turnovers, don’t foul too much and are so different in styles that Coach Scott Brooks has many matchup choices. They take turns with one or two having the big night, seldom all three. Yet they laid 34 points and 16 rebounds on the Lakers and made posters of Anthony Davis and Andre Drummond.
Because this trio have combined 46 minutes a night in the past dozen Wizards games — more than any one NBA player — you want to know who the truly comparable player would be to “Alex Lopez-Gafford,” if everybody were normalized to 36 minutes per game.
I can’t unearth a true stat clone. But the closest I can find (a high compliment) is Rudy Gobert, center on the Utah Jazz, the NBA’s top team. Except Utah only gets Gobert for 31 minutes a night. The Wizards get a player with that stat profile for 46 minutes a night.
Yes, say hello to the Wizards’ version of two-time all-star Gobert — the 7-1, 258 pound “Stifle Tower.”
Per 36 minutes, the Wizards’ trio average 19.9 points, 10.4 rebounds, 2.4 blocks on .674 eFG percentage shooting. Gobert doesn’t score quite as much (16.7 per 36 minutes) but is a bigger interior presence with 15.5 rebounds, 3.3 blocks and a .678 eFG percentage, which leads the NBA.
The Wizards’ trio do have one dominant collective trait. The 20-foot 8-inch, 765-pound creature they create has a sole purpose in basketball to play as if it is still the Era of the Big Man, with dunks, layups, baby hooks, brutal picks, blocked shots and foes knocked to the floor.
The NBA is obsessed with the three. So are the trio of Wizards centers: the three feet near the hoop. They own it.
Suddenly, with 18 fouls to give and thus no fear of foul trouble, with limited minutes so max effort is always given and with a pair of guards in Westbrook (especially) and Beal who love to assist on lob dunks or penetrate to create interior pocket passes for layups, these three have needed only 15.3 shots to get those 24.5 points. Westbrook has needed 19.1 shots for his 22 points.
The Wizards’ schedule has been soft lately. The Lakers didn’t have James. And it’s easy to get too excited too soon about an unconventional pound-it-inside center rotation in a three-obsessed era. If it’s so smart, if your centers can amass an effective field goal percentage of .674, why don’t lots of teams do it?
Also, the Bulls gave up on the gifted Gafford at 22. He is playing so well largely because he is playing so simply. Without a single practice session with his new team, he just defends, fights for rebounding position, sets high picks and then rolls, fills a lane on the break or flashes to the hoop to make himself available for a pass. Yet, in theory per 36 minutes, he would be averaging 20.9 points, 11.9 rebounds and a second-in-NBA 3.8 blocks.
The Wizards are the 250-pound Len’s fourth team in the past three years, while Lopez has played for seven teams. All three combined make less than $10 million in a league in which reserve three-point specialist Davis Bertans makes $16 million. Len and Lopez have been solid journeymen so long, it’s hard to reimagine them.
Len, Lopez and Gafford get recognition after good individual nights but aren’t discussed in NBA circles as a unit, not even the night they had 39 points with no turnovers or when they had 34 points and 16 rebounds against the Lakers or the games when they went a combined 16 for 18 and 11 for 13 from the field.
That’s okay. Just keep the secret. By the time the Wizards, now the 10th seed in the East, inch into the play-in tournament, this magic melding moment may pass. If the Wizards advance, they will need more than a hidden strength to be competitive.
Next year, center Thomas Bryant, 23, whose injury in January made the Len and Gafford acquisitions necessary, should return from a torn ACL. If the 6-10, 248-pounder who averaged 14.3 points before getting hurt is healthy, he would be an upgrade on 13-year vet Lopez.
But right now, as long as it lasts, take your eyes off Beal and Westbrook for just a while. Simply watch the Wizards’ centers. Be patient because it doesn’t always look like much. They battle. They keep rebounds alive. They influence shots. Opposing big men might get smacked by an elbow to the head or end up on the floor. They catch fine (Westbrook) passes and do what any giant could do — put it in the basket from point-blank range. They shoot free throws like us — not too well.
Sharing minutes is seen as an extreme hardship demand in the NBA. But Lopez was already a backup, Gafford was a bench afterthought, and Len had been released. Guys like that do not complain. Just to have a role: That’s heaven.
Who knew that, together, the “role” they would play was just what the Wizards needed: a third star.
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