Bad luck often comes at bad times, and for the Wizards this week’s Lemony Snicket-sized series of unfortunate events could not have come at a worse juncture. Losers of three straight, eight of the last 10, and with the confidence in Randy Wittman seemingly eroding by the day, Washington appeared poised to catch a break this week. On Tuesday, Golden State came to town with its best player, MVP front runner Stephen Curry, questionable with ankle soreness. Curry played and dropped 32 points in a Warriors win. The next night the Wizards traveled to Minnesota for what should have been a slump busting game against the Timberwolves. What they got was a 20-point pasting from an inspired Minnesota team kick started by Kevin Garnett’s debut.
Then, on Friday, the Wizards lost to the Sixers on the road.
So here is Washington, 33-26 after back-to-back losses to two of the worst teams in the league, a half game ahead of Milwaukee for fifth in the Eastern Conference and can anyone figure out where things went wrong? After a 22-8 start, the Wizards are an abysmal 11-18 since then. The goodwill John Wall built up in an All-Star first half has been buried under an avalanche of turnovers. Shoddy defense has been coupled with head scratching shot selection. Wittman—never one to mince words, even during a rough patch—says his team has “lost the chip on its shoulder” and was “kind of playing without a purpose.”
Said Wittman, “We’ve lost that edge of nastiness that we played with.”
But where did it go? It’s easy to point to the absence of Bradley Beal, who has been sidelined since Feb. 5 with a stress reaction in his right fibula—the third injury to the bone Beal has battled in the last three seasons. The Wizards, NBA leaders in three-point percentage in January, have tumbled to fifth and have connected on a dreadful 28.3% over the three games before the 76ers game. Beal’s injury has forced Washington to turn to Otto Porter and Garrett Temple, two players who, to this point, have been unable to fill the void.
But pinning the blame on Beal’s absence is too easy; there are too many other issues at play. Washington’s carelessness with the ball has become comical. Going into the game in Philadelphia, the Wizards were 26th in the NBA in turnovers (14.7) and this month had the third-worst turnover ratio (17.0), ahead of only bottom feeding Philadelphia and Sacramento. Against Golden State, Washington coughed the ball up 26 times; against Minnesota, it was 19. Wall committed eight of the turnovers against Golden State and is averaging 4.1 per game this month. Beal’s absence, scouts say, has given teams license to pack the paint more, clogging lanes the blurring Wall regularly barreled through earlier in the season.
Need more? The frontcourt rotation is a mess. Marcin Gortat—he of the five-year, $60 million contract last summer—has been invisible in the fourth quarter, in part because teams have looked to go small against Washington, in part because of Gortat’s sporadic periods of indifference on defense. As a team, the Wizards look lost defensively, with Paul Pierce declaring this week that there was no trust on that end of the floor. Offensively, Washington has become jump shot happy; the Wizards were attempting 19.1 free throw attempts per game this month, fourth fewest in the NBA. Wall (35.6 minutes per game) is overtaxed, the main reason Washington flipped Andre Miller for Ramon Sessions and was in the hunt for Brooklyn’s Jarrett Jack at the trade deadline. Wittman insists there is “no splintering” in the locker room but the Wizards' lack of energy in recent blowout losses suggests there are deeper issues there, too.
It’s almost an annual tradition to debate Wittman’s job security, and this season that debate is hotter than ever. Wittman did a fine job last season. He led Washington to 44 wins and into the second round of the playoffs. For the second season in a row the Wizards were a top 10 defensive team. And Wittman deserves credit for rebuilding Wall from the mess he devolved into in his second season (remember that 7.1 three-point percentage?) into a credible shooter. Wall remains loyal to Wittman, but Wittman’s rotations have been a little wacky this season and the halfcourt offense is befuddling to watch. Consider: The Wizards before the Sixers game were attempting the fourth-most mid-range shots (17.4 per game) and were 14th (41%) in making them. On the flip side the Wizards were top-five in three-point percentage (36.4%) but 27th in three-point attempts (16.3). That’s not judicious, that’s Rush Limbaugh-level conservative.
Wittman will be judged in the playoffs, and there has to be a second-round or bust mindset in DC. It’s manageable; as bad as Washington has been lately, Beal will give the Wizards a boost and, frankly, no one outside the top three is all that intimidating. But the team that once looked like a strong conference contender has vanished in the mess of a losing streak that's reached six, and it’s getting more and more difficult to see that group coming back.
Kevin Garnett returns to Minnesota
It was one of those updates that crosses your Twitter timeline and sent you scouring the Internet for video of it: Kevin Garnett, eight years removed from his last game in Minnesota, introduced before the home crowd. The Timberwolves pulled out all the stops, cutting a 1:45 second tribute video that played before Garnett was introduced on Wednesday night that was followed by a goose bump inducing ovation from a sold out Target Center crowd that has had little to cheer about in the years since Garnett left.
“This is full circle, coming back experienced,” Garnett says. “I've been back before and I've never paid attention to how much love is here still for me because I've been too busy being focused on the game. Today it was just so over the top. I didn't know the city missed me like this.”
Emotions aside, reacquiring Garnett was a smart move. On paper, Thaddeus Young, who Minnesota moved to Brooklyn in the deal, is a better player who was having a productive season. But the Timberwolves aren't winning anything this season, and in all likelihood is headed for the lottery next season, too. What Minnesota needs as much as anything right now is a locker room leader, an established veteran to show the young core of Andrew Wiggins, Ricky Rubio, Anthony Bennett and Nikola Pekovic how to win. And they don’t get much better than Garnett.
“The first thing I understand about those guys is their talent level,” says Garnett. “They have so much talent, the small things that I'm telling them to get their head up out of the dribble to see the jump shot, just certain little things that they can use in their own game. Other than that, you want them to be playing off of instincts and not so much thinking.”
Added Flip Saunders: “There’s no question that when KG looks at Wiggins and the young guys, he probably sees himself. He knows what they went through. I can remember the first time he got scored on by [Cedric] Ceballos in Los Angeles in the preseason. He got scored on, and Ceballos said to him, ‘You’re not in high school anymore.’ He remembered it every time he played against him, and he went after him like there’s no tomorrow. So I think those are things he’ll relate to those players, to take names and numbers and to always go back at them.”
Garnett will likely be long retired—and possibly in the owners box—when this T-Wolves team is strong enough to compete. But when they do, he will deserve credit for helping them get there.
Michele Roberts vs. The Media
When NBPA Executive Director Michele Roberts attacked the media in a story published by ESPNw, claiming, among other things, that reporters standing around in locker rooms during the 30 minutes teams open them before a game was an invasion of privacy, it evoked more than a few chuckles from inside the NBA office. For months, league officials, both publicly and privately, have railed that many claims Roberts made during a series of inflammatory interviews last year were not supported by fact. That Roberts was now directing ignorant, tone-deaf remarks at the press struck some league officials as funny.
No reporter—at least not any credible one—hangs around the locker room to eavesdrop or invade a players' privacy. They are there for access, which, in the case of a team coming off a back-to-back or one that canceled shootaround that day, is the only access available. In many cases, media members are not there to get anything on the record. The pre-game availability offers an opportunity to engage players in more casual conversations, to build relationships for future work. Reporters standing around aren’t lingering, either; they are waiting for players, many of whom retreat into the trainers room during the media availability period.
If Roberts wants to tweak the rules, fine. Cut the pre-game availability to 15-20 minutes but make every player on a team required to be available. I’m sure every beat writer covering the league would agree to that. If she pushed for the NBA to reconsider how many credentials they distribute, I’m sure every writer in the country would be on board with that, too.
Of course, Roberts’ words could be calculated. Players love the flame thrower language Roberts has been throwing at the NBA. Perhaps, in criticizing the media, Roberts is utilizing another approach to galvanize union membership and win over a few more players who still don’t trust the union after the pasting they took at the bargaining table in 2011. Whatever her reasons, Roberts reinforced a position the NBA has long pushed: Not afraid to speak her mind; not afraid to be wrong, either.
Five Questions: Elfrid Payton
The Magic rookie is averaging 7.9 points and 5.8 assists this season.
SI.com: You turned 21 last Sunday. Do anything interesting?
EP: Yeah, played basketball (laughs). We had a game. I just hung out with my teammates after. Even if we didn’t have to play, I wouldn’t have done much. I’m not big into going out. I just like to hang with my friends and chill.
SI.com: What’s the biggest difference in playing point guard in college and the pros?
EP: For me, it’s understanding when to get my shot or look for my teammates. You have to find a balance there. When I get in the paint, it’s important to take my time and know when to get my shot and when I should look to get someone else. The speed was a challenge. My first summer league game was really fast. I was nervous on every possession. The terminology isn’t that different. Some schemes and concepts are different but a lot of it is the same. In college I would watch NBA games and watch how other point guards got to their spots. Chris Paul is one of the best. He’s so crafty and smart. He always finds a way to get where he wants.
SI.com: Does being a mid-major guy motivate you? Do you have that extra fire to prove that you belong?
EP: A little. Every night you try to prove that you deserve to be here. You want people to see that you were one of the best. I remember trying out for the USA Basketball Under-19 team. I remember reading the articles and hearing people say I shouldn’t make the team. And I definitely had it during [pre-draft] workouts. I wanted to prove that I belonged there.
SI.com: You and Victor Oladipo are Orlando’s backcourt of the future. What have you learned about playing with him?
EP: I think our timing continues to get better. We got off to a slow start; he had a couple of injuries early. But we keep getting better. I’m learning all the time. He likes to catch the ball on the move. He’s so athletic, I like to give him a chance to make a play.
SI.com: Your perimeter shooting is probably your biggest weakness. Does your shot need an overhaul or do you think it’s just a matter of getting reps in the offseason?
EP: I think it’s just reps. I’m not surprised at [the shooting numbers]. I don’t take many jump shots. My game is about getting closer to the rim. I’m sure taking that outside shot would save me from fighting with centers all the time. But I’ll keep working on it. It will get better.
Executive’s Take: Oklahoma City.
This was a strong move. Jackson is going to put up big numbers in Detroit, but he was never going to do it in Oklahoma City. He wanted to be a starter and the Thunder just didn’t see him in that role. Brining in Dion Waiters only made things worse. To me it looked like Reggie was preoccupied with free agency all season and you could tell that was wearing on some people in that locker room.
Singler is a good backup for Durant and I think D.J. is the best backup point guard in the league. He’s really developed nicely the last two years. I like Kanter a lot. I don’t know if he can defend well enough to be a good starter but he has some offensive skills. I think he will be better in a new situation, too. And really, when was the last time they had a true post player in the frontcourt? He is going to punch up that second unit and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him playing over Steven Adams in the fourth quarter. Plus, he’s 22 and a restricted free agent this summer. As long as they don’t get cheap, they are going to have a strong core for a long time.
Quote of the Week
"I figure if LeBron can go home, then s***, why can't I?"—Kevin Garnett
Kevin Garnett, who spent his first 12 seasons in the NBA in Minnesota and now will spend his last one (or two, or three) with the Timberwolves.
Tweet of the Week
The best news of the week comes courtesy of Craig Sager Jr., who took to social media to announce that his father, longtime TNT sideline reporter Craig Sager, would return to television full-time next month. Sager, 63, has been out since last April while undergoing treatments for acute leukemia. Welcome back, Craig.
Rajon Rondo’s recent clash with Rick Carlisle didn’t come as a surprise to many people in the NBA. Carlisle can be heavy handed when it comes to play calling and Rondo can be prickly when it comes to coaching. There is no question the Mavericks offense has sputtered some since Rondo’s arrival; Dallas has dropped from first in the NBA in offensive efficiency before the trade to fifth. The situation bears watching, not just the rest of this season but over the summer, when Dallas will have to decide if Rondo is worth a five-year deal that could average around $14-15 million per season … Paul George’s incredible comeback continues. Less than eight months after a gruesome leg injury, George returned to Pacers practice this week and participated in full court drills. George is still eyeing a mid-March return … So far, so good for Isaiah Thomas in Boston. Thomas was thrust into the Celtics rotation immediately and responded with 61 points in his first three games … The Lakers have the fourth worst record in the NBA and two games remaining with Philadelphia which, through a trade with Phoenix, gets L.A.’s pick this year if it falls outside the top-five. I’m picturing 76ers GM Sam Hinkie conducting tryouts, Invincible-style, for those two games … Count me among those that thinks Michael Carter-Williams will develop nicely in Milwaukee. Carter-Williams made his debut for the Bucks on Wednesday and posted a tidy seven-point, eight-assist line in 18 minutes against Philadelphia. Brandon Knight had been terrific for Milwaukee this season, but Carter-Williams' physical tools could eventually make him even better.