The Washington Wizards didn’t have enough to deliver.
Many favored them to win their second-round NBA playoff series against the Boston Celtics. The Wizards couldn’t rely enough on a single scorer (Isaiah Thomas for Boston) and were not exposed on the glass the way Boston was in the first round. (The first two games of that Chicago series weren’t pretty for the Celtics.) None of that matters now, though. The Wizards’ flaws caught up with them as they fell to the Celtics, 115-105, in Game 7 on Monday night. Many of us underestimated the weight these flaws would carry in this series.
First and foremost, Washington severely lacked depth.
The Wizards may not be top-heavy in the same manner as the Celtics (with Thomas), but they are top-heavy enough to the extent that they couldn’t get meaningful production beyond their starting five. When trying to score without John Wall and Bradley Beal, or defend the Celtics with Brandon Jennings and Bojan Bogdanovic on the floor, the Wizards fell apart.
As the Celtics pulled away late in the third quarter of Game 7 and led throughout the fourth, the minutes of Beal (45), Wall (44), Otto Porter (39) and Markieff Morris (41) climbed ever higher. The workload proved to be unsustainable, and the Wizards ran out of gas. Unsurprisingly, fatigue played a key part in Wall recording zero points and 0-of-11 shooting (0-of-7 from three) in the final 19 minutes.
The ultimate, telling Game 7 stat, though?
Washington’s bench: 34 minutes and 5 points.
Boston’s bench: 80 minutes and 48 points.
On top of the offense, the Wizards’ starters also had a 99.3 defensive rating in their series against the Celtics, a terrific mark against a team with Isaiah Thomas and a bunch of playmaking, shooting role players under Brad Stevens’ guidance. However, the Wizards’ bench made the team finish with an absurdly generous 112.4 defensive rating for the series.
Marcin Gortat is guilty, too. He was frequently shown up by the Celtics’ guards on the perimeter in Game 7 and couldn’t keep up with the pace of a small, three-point-heavy team with shooting center Al Horford (who had a brilliant two-way series, by the way).
At this point, it doesn’t even matter that the Wizards’ starting five had a net rating of +18 for the playoffs, fourth-best among five-man lineups with at least 50 minutes played. It’s hard to imagine that level of dominance not being enough to carry a team. Their bench is just that bad.
The Wizards’ stars can’t be blamed for being gassed. When Scott Brooks is forced to play seven men and ride his stars for high minutes every night to have a chance against a locked-in Celtics team that has been getting big contributions from its bench (13 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists and a bunch of energized plays for Marcus Smart, and 26 points on 10-of-14 shooting for Kelly Olynyk in Game 7!), it’s going to be hard to maintain for a seven-game series.
Seven or eight knackered players won’t beat a deep team. The Wizards wouldn’t have even been close in Game 7 without Beal taking control with a playoff career-high 38 points, including 24 on 9-of-14 shooting in the second half after his slow start.
So, as we look at the Wizards’ season, their playoff shortcomings and what lies ahead, let’s look into the question marks around the team.
Not enough depth, not enough money
As I’ve already mentioned, the Wizards just didn’t have enough to overcome the Celtics and their shining role players. The next problem is that it won’t be easy to correct things, either.
The Wizards have a lot of salary to account for next season. They have $91.9 million set in guaranteed salary right off the bat, per Basketball Insiders, with the $16.6 million owed to Ian Mahinmi looking particularly unsightly after his injury-shortened regular season and meager 12.6-minutes-per-game average in just five playoff appearances. There isn’t much cap space for new talent, and that’s before considering one of the NBA’s bigger free agency questions Washington has to answer:
Should Otto Porter be re-signed?
Otto Porter had a great regular season. Despite his three-point shooting cooling off significantly after the All-Star break (34.1 percent) and the playoffs (a measly 28.2 percent), he still shot 43.4 percent from three for the season (fourth in the NBA). With other career-highs in field goal percentage (51.6), rebounds (6.4), steals (1.5), blocks (0.5) and points (13.4) per game, Porter continued his trend of gradual, annual improvement since entering the league. With a far better reputation as a shooter and so many career-highs in the bag at age 23, Porter is set for a lot of money when he hits the market as a restricted free agent this summer.
That said, there are obvious drawbacks to the Wizards re-signing Porter, mainly for the simple reason that he’ll cost so much — a max deal is very possible. To give a major contract to Porter, who is likely set for a drop in three-point percentage (it’s fair to question his sustainability after his post-All-Star-break decline); can’t create for himself or others; and makes more mistakes on defense than you’d like for a max player, isn’t ideal.
The Wizards limit their cap flexibility if they do re-sign Porter. That won’t help them address their biggest flaw (the bench) whatsoever. To become even more top-heavy for a deficient defensive player isn’t a great idea. It makes more sense for a team like the Brooklyn Nets to fill their roster with more young talent.
The Wizards can see how the value of other free-agent wings comes into focus. Non-star players such as Joe Ingles and James Johnson, who should be due for big raises, still won’t come cheaply, though.
What’s left for Washington?
Hoping Kelly Oubre takes a major step forward is an important component of the Wizards’ 2017-18 campaign. Without much cap space and in light of the potential departure of Porter, the Wizards need a wing that can accompany the rest of their team.
Can Oubre make that leap, to the extent that he can average more than 20.3 minutes per game and start more often? I’m not convinced yet. There’s quite a bit to like about Oubre, whether it’s energy, solid rebounding, promising defensive moments and athleticism, but he’s a poor shooter (28.7 percent from three this season), still has more to learn on defense, and can’t create off the dribble. The Wizards need him to take a far bigger jump than Porter did this year to address their weaknesses.
Short-term pickup or a piece for the future?
After the decision with Porter, the Wizards also have to deal with Bojan Bogdanovic, the complimentary backup scorer they acquired for this year’s first-round draft pick. Bogdanovic earned $3.73 million for 2016-17 and will obviously be in search of a raise, which only makes things more stressful for the Wizards. Bogdanovic will be a costly sixth man, but it’s going to hurt if they lose him after trading away their first-round pick for him for only 39 total games.
Try to keep Porter and forget about the bench? Try to re-sign Bogdanovic so the trade wasn’t for nothing after going all-in on the playoffs? Fill in any other budget pieces around Bogdanovic as best as possible? We’ll have to just wait and see what the Wizards decide to do.
To avoid sounding too negative, this season was still a success for Washington. The Wizards won eight more games and went from 10th in the East (in 2015-16) to fourth. Despite falling to the Celtics, they still made the second round and made significant improvements. Beal and Wall both taking another step towards their peaks is only encouraging for the future, too.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to place the team’s ceiling just as high next season, let alone much higher. If they lose Porter and (likely) struggle to add talented depth, their starting lineup should take a hit, and their biggest flaw won’t be easy to overcome at all.
Sustained winning in the NBA is tough.