The Treadmill of Mediocrity can be loosely described as an NBA team with enough appreciable skill to vie for a playoff spot in any given year, but not enough star-power (or front office wherewithal) to really challenge for a title. The advent of Golden State paired with the persistent excellence of LeBron James has forced savvy front offices into a tank-or-title mentality. A select few organizations, though, have settled into a sort of ambivalent trot, settling for marginal success at the expense of little cap space and limited draft potential. They are the kind-of-have-nots of a make-or-miss league, and none among them is more at home in this NBA middle class than the Washington Wizards.
The Wizard’s 2017-18 season was one marked by infighting and poor health – perhaps the former coming as a direct result of the latter – and one that finally, mercifully, ended at the hands of the Toronto Raptors in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. John Wall participated in a career-low 41 contests due to a faulty knee, and his absence was the subject of great scrutiny following unsettling remarks from teammates Kelly Oubre Jr. and now ex-Wizard Marcin Gortat. The vastly more interesting – and disconcerting – subtext of Wall’s absence was that it prompted the promotion of backcourt counterpart Bradley Beal to primary playmaking duties. Beal sputtered in his newfound role, especially when the stakes were high: in clutch regular season situations, Beal managed a paltry 70.9 FT%, flanked by a 30.6% FG%, and punctuated by a 20.5 3P%.
If nothing else, these splits represent Beal’s dire dependence on Wall to facilitate his off-ball scoring. Even as key defensive assets like wings Oubre and Otto Porter Jr. continue their development into legitimate offensive threats, the Wizards are still fundamentally overdependent on Wall to create offense. Though it may seem odd to worry about a team’s reliance on its All-Star point guard to facilitate scoring, it should first be noted that Wall’s offensive numbers in half-court sets are actually not all that great. Per Synergy Sports, Wall ran the plurality of his offensive possessions (29.4%) this season as a pick-and-roll ball handler and managed only 0.704 points-per-possession. None of this should serve to insinuate that Wall is somehow a toxin to this team; a man who averaged at least 25PPG and 10APG over his last two playoff runs can only be questioned so much. It is, however, an indictment of the offense comprising two other max-deal players – Beal and Porter Jr. – being unable to produce without their de-facto leader.
Despite the Kardashian-esque drama and chronic underperformance, the Wizards did take strides in repairing their bench. Much maligned Wizards General Manager Ernie Grunfeld, for all his faults, managed to slap some band-aids on a relief core that was thoroughly outplayed by all second units in the 2016-17 season, and especially by the Boston Celtics in the 2017 Eastern Conference Semifinals. Should Kelly Oubre eventually decide to avoid inexcusable fouls in key situations, he may become the third piece to the Wizard’s puzzle that Porter Jr. inexplicably failed to. New Los Angeles resident Mike Scott’s scoring touch was a revelation, as was the defensive development of wiry guard Tomas Satoransky in lieu of disappointing offseason acquisition Tim Frazier. The anecdotal evidence was promising all season, and the numbers supported the superstition: The Wizards bench ranked 5th in 36-minute +/- (2.0) in their brief 2018 playoff run while they managed a sickening 15th ranking by the same metric (-11.3) only a season earlier.
For any team losing their last game of the season, the speculation concerning improvement begins immediately. The Wizards, having signed Wall to a $170-million supermax extension, have made good on their desire to secure the young core of Wall, Beal, and Porter Jr. However, the perennially average club has always been a big man or a bench – typically both – short of truly contending. After retaining coach Scotty Brooks and very quietly extending Grunfeld’s contract, it became clear that any organizational change would be focused squarely on the players on the court, and not the front office leadership. The Wizard’s inability to sign hometown legend Kevin Durant years ago was a considerable but understandable blow. The Wizard’s inability to even compete for ailing superstar center (and Wall-compadre) DeMarcus Cousins this offseason is mind-boggling. The front office could have easily matched or exceeded the 1-year, $5.3-million Golden State offer through a sign-and-trade with the Pelicans and even perhaps even offloaded the retrospectively troubling Porter Jr. contract in the same move. Alas, it was not meant to be.
The signing of superstar-turned-journeyman center Dwight Howard is a punch to the gut for fans who expected to be landing Cousins, but it does offer a partial – albeit short-term – solution to Wall’s desire to play with an athletic big man. Howard should be able to fill the pick-and-roll void left by Gortat’s departure while offering some isolation scoring in the low post – a sight Wizards fans aren’t at all accustomed to. It also precludes the notion that cap-nightmare and offensive travesty Ian Mahinmi might be the Wizard’s starting big man. The assimilation of Howard’s baggage into an already embattled locker room could be a ticking time bomb, but there is no reward without risk.
Adding Jeff Green for the veteran minimum through free agency and Oregon value-pick Troy Brown through the draft should bolster a still-developing bench. Though Green wasn’t much more than LeBron’s streaky third fiddle during the Cleveland Cavalier’s playoff run, he provided consistent transition athleticism and crucial perimeter shooting when he was at his best. Should Green be able to replace Scott’s production, the signing will prove to be a marked success. At 18 years old, Brown is far more of an enigma: his perimeter shooting leaves much to be desired, and his ballhandling prowess lacks the nuance required for an NBA offense. Many Wizards fans hoped that the front court could be rebooted through the draft, but no viable prospects fell drastically enough. As the 15th pick, Brown provides above-average athleticism that will fit in well with the Washington lineup while exuding solid defensive fundamentals.
The Wizards, through a myriad of low-risk offseason moves, are poised to mount another near-.500 campaign. Another season of high-floor, low-ceiling basketball looms, and the omnipresent question reverberates in the minds of all DC-area fans: how much longer will mediocrity persist until ownership rocks the boat?