Time to break up the Wiz? Washington has won 11 of its last 18 and has ranked first in defensive efficiency since John Wall returned. Could they sneak into the playoffs as the team no one wants to face in the first round?
-- Adam T., Washington D.C.
They're not going to make the playoffs, Adam! But I do think they might have been competing for the last spot if they'd been healthy all season. The Wizards were 4-28 before they beat Oklahoma City on Jan. 7; Wall returned for the ensuing game against Atlanta and they've gone 9-7 since.
You're right about their improved defense in the last month. In Wall's first 16 games they've been No. 3 in points allowed (91.3) and tied for No. 2 in opponent's shooting (43.1 percent). But they weren't bad defensively over the first couple of months without Wall, which is why they were able to play so many competitive games before losing in the final minutes due to the absence of firepower. The team makes more sense now that they have an offensive leader in Wall, now that Nene is back on the floor with him and now that players like Trevor Ariza and A.J. Price can resume their normal roles instead of having to play out of character.
Their top three scorers -- Wall, Jordan Crawford and Bradley Beal -- are 24 or younger, and Kevin Seraphin is a promising big man at 23. Their oldest players, Nene and Emeka Okafor, are 30. Okafor and Ariza come off the books after next season, giving the Wizards abundant cap space in 2014 to entice a star to play alongside Wall, who by then could be a highly attractive recruiter.
Wall has much to prove and he hasn't been afraid to admit it. He wants to show that he should be ranked among the elite young point guards -- and he clearly recognizes that winning is the only way to make his case. His impact has been devastating, in absence and in presence, and how amazing is this to say about a team that started 0-12: The Wizards actually look like they're on the right track.
The scout in your Game of the Week really took Rajon Rondo to task. The Celtics went on a 7-game win streak when he went down, so is it fair to wonder whether the team is better off without his assist-hogging play?
-- Nick, Portland, Maine
The results speak for themselves, Nick. It couldn't be more obvious that the Celtics are running more and passing the ball from side to side more fluidly, and that many of their players -- including Jason Terry, Jeff Green and Courtney Lee -- appear to be liberated by the absence of Rondo.
Does that mean the Celtics are a better team without Rondo? The same scout who criticized Rondo for hoarding assists also pointed out that the Celtics should not seek to trade him. This needs to be emphasized: Rondo is too talented to be surrendered. The Celtics are playing better without him, absolutely, but it's also true that every NBA contender needs efficiency as well as talent. It was Rondo's talent that enabled Boston to upset the top-seeded Cavaliers in the 2010 playoffs and to steal a 3-2 lead in the conference finals against Miami last year.
THOMSEN: Celtics' triple-OT thriller the game of the season so far
Chemistry is unpredictable in this league. Many fans will be surprised that John Wall's return could have such a positive impact on the Wizards -- and that Rondo's departure could help the Celtics play their best basketball of the season.
Will these results convince Rondo to stop dominating the ball next year when he returns from ACL surgery? He has to notice that his team has been playing better without him. But the Celtics also need to keep in mind that Rondo is a 26-year-old who was being asked to truly lead an NBA team for the first time. His approach was wrong over the first half of the season, but that doesn't mean he'll keep making the same mistakes. It's a good bet that he is too smart and wants to win too badly to compound his errors. No one can know for sure until he's back in uniform next season, but this lesson may turn out to make a positive difference in his career.
Which teams still have the ability to use the amnesty clause? Can teams exercise the clause in-season or do they have to wait until the offseason?
-- Barry C., Nashville, Tenn.
Fifteen franchises -- half of the league -- have yet to use amnesty, Barry. The following teams will be permitted to exercise the option during a brief window in July:
If the Pistons or Bobcats wanted to gain additional cap space this summer, they could put the salary of Charlie Villanueva (worth $8.6 million next season) or Tyrus Thomas ($8.7 million) out to amnesty in July. The Heat (Mike Miller) and Lakers (Metta World Peace) could reduce their luxury taxes by making difficult choices. The Bucks (perhaps Drew Gooden) and Kings (John Salmons) may also consider the amnesty clause this summer.
Rudy Gay has been on a tear since arriving in Toronto. Of the players on the block, which ones could benefit most from a change of scenery?
-- Alex Broder, Charlotte
I wonder if Josh Smith believes he would benefit from a new team, as he has never been an All-Star and might be wondering what he needs to do in order to earn more acclaim. I would point out that his teams in Atlanta have made the playoffs and won three series over the previous five years, so it's not as if he has been punished by playing for a losing organization.
A few other trade candidates stand out, Alex. Ben Gordon of the Bobcats is one lost soul who needs to contribute to a winning organization. He was an explosive young star who averaged more than 20 points per game in 2008-09 when the Bulls pushed the Celtics to a seventh game in the opening round of the playoffs, but his ensuing move to Detroit backfired on him. Unless he is dealt by the Bobcats, this will make four straight years of 30 or fewer wins for Gordon, who is 29.
Jared Dudley (Suns) could instantly help a winning team, as could J.J. Redick (Magic). Timofey Mozgov (Nuggets) could also start at center for several NBA teams.