WASHINGTON, D.C. — John Wall shuffled out of the Wizards locker room last week, leaned up against the wall and tried to stifle a yawn. “I’m sorry,” Wall said quickly, though his fatigue was completely understandable. Less than 24 hours earlier Wall had played 35 minutes in a grueling, last second win over San Antonio. For the season Wall is averaging a team-high 34.8 minutes per game playing in Washington’s freshly installed up-tempo system, playing a style that Wall and the rest of the Wizards will admit they are not yet in the kind of shape they need to be in to play.
“I think we’re still getting there, to be honest,” Wall said. “We’re not even in the top tier shape.”
If there was a team that needed an offensive overhaul after last season, it was Washington. The Wizards are led by a pair of thoroughbred guards (Wall, Bradley Beal), yet inexplicably played at a snails pace. They took a ridiculous amount of midrange jump shots and clogged potential driving lanes with two paint-oriented big men (Nene, Marcin Gortat). The team was good—Washington has advanced to the second round of the playoffs in each of the last two seasons—yet there was a strong feeling internally that things needed to change. When the Wizards converged on Washington in mid-September, the message from the coaching staff was simple: Be ready to play fast.
“I wish I knew sooner so I could have been even more prepared,” says Wall with a laugh. “But we’re excited for this style. We knew there was going to be be some ups and downs where things go. There are going to be times when it looks great, sometimes it’s going to look bad.”
Indeed. First the good: Washington is playing faster. The Wizards are third in the NBA in pace and are second in the league in fast break points. Wall has struggled with his shot (41.5% from the field, 28.6% from three) but is getting to the free throw line more (6.3 attempts) and his scoring has ticked up (19.2 points) from last season. Beal has been even better: He’s averaging a career-best 22.7 points while shooting nearly 50% from the floor (48.6%) and from three (47.1%). And by playing smaller, Washington can mix and match the three players alongside Wall and Beal.
“Gary [Neal] could be in there, Otto Porter could be in there, Jared Dudley, Kris [Humphries], Drew [Gooden], Nene or Marcin, anybody could be in there and they could help us close our games,” says Wall. “That’s one thing about our team is we always want everybody to excel and we all care about winning.”
Now the bad: The faster pace has not translated to a more efficient offense; the Wizards are 23rd in the NBA in efficiency, right around where they were last season. And Washington is averaging a god-awful 19 turnovers per game, more than any team in the league, while routinely jacking up contested shots. In the Wizards offense, everyone is a potential three-point shooter including some (Humphries, Gooden) who don’t usually take many. “We’ve struggled with taking contested shots instead of getting great shots, and that’s what we’ve got to learn,” says Dudley. “Brad and John have to do better in that because they’re going to have the ball [a lot]. I told Brad his next step is that now that he’s such a good scorer and people are on you, now have to make people better in this offense and trust that. It takes time. They are great young players. They will get there.”
For Wall, as important as it is to run the team on the floor, it’s equally as important for him to lead them off of it. Wizards officials will tell you: Paul Pierce had an impact. Though a Wizard for just one season, the lessons learned from the veteran forward resonate with Wall to this day.
“I kind of knew how to be a leader but he taught me the steps to get over,” says Wall. “Whether it’s talking to guys certain ways or just leading them by your play. He’s a veteran of this game but he still is approaching it like he used to early on in his career. He would tell me to want to step into those big moments and lead your team, take shots, believing that God is running the show, and always, every time you step out there, think you’re the best player on the court.”
Evidence of Wall’s leadership is everywhere. Last summer, Wall organized a three-day minicamp in Los Angeles. They worked out together. They lifted weights together. They ate together. “Just to try and build a little camaraderie,” says Wall. This season teammates and coaches say Wall has been more vocal in practice, particularly about the Wizards defense. The Wizards rank in the bottom third in the NBA in defensive efficiency, a problem Wall says the team must address. “The most important thing with us is defense,” says Wall. “If we can play at this pace and play defense, we’re great.”
Asked if he thinks the Wizards should have played at a faster pace before this season, Wall shakes his head. “I think this organization is doing a great job of developing me, one, as a person and player,” says Wall. "But also them acquiring some good pieces for our team, adding veterans and making trades, getting guys here that can play to the tempo that we really need. I think early on we could not have played at this tempo and that certain guys we had wouldn’t have worked. Now we have the kind of team that can play at that pace, play at that speed but still defend and hold teams down.”
C.J. McCollum seizes opportunity
As Detroit’s Andre Drummond makes his case for the NBA’s Most Improved Player in the Eastern Conference, the West has a strong candidate of its own: C.J. McCollum, the third-year guard out of Lehigh, who is averaging 20.9 points (up from 6.8 last season), 4.1 rebounds (up from 1.5) and 3.1 assists (up from one). Just as important: The Blazers, gutted by the defections of LaMarcus Aldridge and Wesley Matthews and the trade of Nicolas Batum last summer, are 4–3 this season, a far cry from the train wreck many expected them to be. Through Sunday, McCollum and backcourt mate Damian Lillard have combined to average 48.7 points per game. The only duo more prolific: Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
McCollum will admit: His numbers, obviously, have a lot to do with opportunity. The off-season defections of Matthews and Arron Afflalo opened up playing time in Portland. But, McCollum says, when that playing time looked like it was going to be available in July, he spent the rest of the summer making sure he would earn it. He changed his eating habits; gone, well mostly, were the cheeseburgers and French fries, staples of the diet of a recent college grad. His mother, Kathy, regularly consulted with a nutritionist and made sure only approved foods made the shopping list. McCollum went to sleep earlier, slept longer and made massages a part of his routine. “Making these changes was a no-brainer,” says McCollum. “I just figured I do it at a young age, and take advantage of it so when I get older it will be easier to eat well.”
McCollum is quick to credit someone else: Steve Nash. Blazers assistant coach Jay Triano is the head coach of the Canadian national team; Portland assistant coach David Vanterpool is his assistant. Nash is GM. So last summer McCollum traveled to Toronto to work with Nash. They drilled on pick-and-roll. Nash encouraged McCollum to focus on improving his balance and strengthening his core. They worked on the floater, a shot McCollum developed in high school and one that has become one of his go-to moves in the NBA.
“I’m extremely comfortable with that shot,” says McCollum. It saves your body, it enhances your efficiency. Those big centers, guys like Drummond and [Rudy] Gobert, they can’t get it. It’s crucial to have to be a guard in the NBA. All the great guards have a floater. Steph [Curry] has an underhand floater. It’s a shot I’ve really worked hard on for a long time.”
And Nash? “I’m indebted to him,” says McCollum. “I’m going to work with him until he gets tired of me.”
Like everyone, McCollum read the predictions for the Blazers season. “Yeah, it was discussed,” says McCollum. “A lot of people expect us to finish last in the West. We saw all of it.” Thus far, the Blazers have exceeded most expectations. The perimeter shooting has been sharp (36.9% from three) while Portland has received solid contributions from newcomers Mason Plumlee and Ed Davis and fourth-year center Meyers Leonard. McCollum isn’t ready to make any predictions, save for perhaps that Portland will be relevant in the Western Conference playoff chase for a lot longer than people think.
“I think we can be a team people are talking about after Christmas,” says McCollum. “We can be really good.”
Five Questions with... Khris Middleton
The Bucks guard signed a five-year, $70 million deal last summer. This season, Middleton is averaging 14.6 points on a career-high 43.3% three-point shooting.
Chris Mannix: You were a second-round pick. How stressful was draft night?
KM: It was a little stressful. Knowing you could fall anywhere from the late first round to the late second round to undrafted, yeah, it was stressful. I went back and forth, watching TV, turning away from it and hanging out with my family. There were times I had to get away from it. But when I got drafted I looked at it like a team wanted me and I had an opportunity to play my way into the league.
CM: First year with Detroit, you didn’t get a lot of playing time. How tough was it?
KM: It was tough because that was my first time really not playing. I just tried to learn. We had great vets there like Tayshaun Prince and Corey Maggette. Tayshaun, he told me to play my game, know my role and don’t try to go outside of it. He said to find your niche in the league and find what is going to keep you in the game and work on it. The beginning of the year I wasn’t playing, so I was working out a lot, playing one on one with guys like Kim English, Maggette, Kyle Singler, Dee Brown. I knew if I kept working on my game good things would happen.
CM: Did Dee Brown have to remind you that he once won the dunk contest?
KM: I did remember. He tried to hustle us a couple of times. He tried to bet me that he could do certain dunks, but I wasn’t going for it. He got a couple of guys with that, but it wasn’t going to be me.
CM: What’s something you have learned from Jason Kidd?
KM: Play the game the right way. If you do that, if you share the ball, everything will take care of itself. When you win everybody is happy, everybody gets paid, everybody makes the playoffs. He’s been great. The first season was tough. We were terrible. I got a great opportunity to play but losing is hard and you don’t want to be known as the guy that starts on a bad team. As a team we have gotten so much better.
CM: Second round pick. You’re making less than a million dollars. Last summer your agent tells you the offer is $70 million. What was that like for you?
KM: It was a blessing. I was extremely happy. The whole season before, I never wanted to talk about it. When they finally threw that number out there to me, it was pretty crazy. I went out with my family, took everybody out to eat, just to have a good time. I didn’t buy anything extravagant. The house, the car, the things that you need. I didn’t go too crazy.
The Fine Fifteen
1. Golden State Warriors: Dating back to last season, Golden State is an absurd 75–15 in its last 90 regular season games. In the Warriors last 46 games at home, the team is 44–2.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers: Still no timetable for Kyrie Irving’s return, but don’t expect the suddenly streaking Cavaliers to rush him. Over the last four games, Mo Williams, Irving’s replacement, is averaging 17.3 points on .500 shooting.
3. San Antonio Spurs: After connecting on a career-best 35.2% of his three’s last season, LaMarcus Aldridge has yet to make one this season. How good will the Spurs be when Aldridge eventually gets into a groove offensively?
4. Atlanta Hawks: The Hawks' seven-game winning streak was snapped in Minnesota on Monday, with the ‘Wolves holding off a 65-point Atlanta outburst in the second half. Over the last four games the Hawks have averaged 65 points in the final two quarters.
5. Los Angeles Clippers: How good has Blake Griffin been to start the season? His 176 points through L.A.’s first six games were the most by any Clipper—ever—in the team’s Los Angeles era.
6. Houston Rockets: Breathe deep, Houston; the Rockets seemed to have righted the ship. Houston is averaging 113.5 points over the last four games after not totaling more than 92 points in the first three games of the season. Of course, Houston has surrendered 100-plus points in all seven games this season.
7. Utah Jazz: If you had Raul Neto being the player to stabilize the point guard position after Utah lost Dante Exum to a season-ending knee injury, well, you’re a smarter man than I.
8. Toronto Raptors: Back-to-back losses brought the Raptors back to earth after a 5–0 start, but Dwane Casey’s team is still playing top-ten level defense.
9. Oklahoma City Thunder: The Thunder snapped a three-game losing streak with a blowout of Phoenix on Sunday, just in time for Kevin Durant’s homecoming in D.C. on Wednesday. Think anyone will be interested in that?
10. Chicago Bulls: Derrick Rose teased us with a 29-point outburst against Oklahoma City, only to follow it up with an 11-point (on 23.1% shooting) stinker against Minnesota. More concerning: Rose has only made one three-pointer on the season.
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11. Detroit Pistons: Nothing like a trip to Golden State to provide a reality check for Detroit. Still, Monday’s loss to the Warriors aside, Detroit is still 2–1 on this West Coast trip with a chance to go 4–2 before returning home for a showdown with Cleveland.
12. Miami Heat: All quiet on the Gerald Green front, with people both inside the Heat organization and out of it refusing to answer any questions on Green’s condition. Very strange indeed.
13. Indiana Pacers: The Pacers have won four out of five after an 0–3 start and Paul George is playing like an MVP candidate. If Monta Ellis can get his shooting percentage up, Indiana could start to look like a playoff team again.
14. Washington Wizards: The Wizards breathed a deep sigh of relief when further examination of the shoulder Bradley Beal dinged up against Atlanta on Saturday revealed just a bruise. Beal and John Wall make up the third highest scoring backcourt in the NBA.
15. Portland Trail Blazers: Back-to-back losses to Detroit and Denver take some of the shine off the Blazers, but no one expected a gutted Portland team to be .500 eight games into the season.
Quote of the Week
"[It] was kind of disrespectful, in my opinion, because you've got a great team there already that deserves your full, 100% support. I wouldn't like that if I was on that team. I didn't like that, but it comes with it nowadays. Me, I feel you should focus on who you have on your team. It's easy to get your hopes up and expect a guy to come to your team or whatever. And I'm not talking about myself, I'm just talking about free agency in the past years and in the future. You get your hopes up as a fan, and then they let you down and you end up not liking the player. There's a little bit too much emphasis on that type of stuff, but it's part of the game."
Kevin Durant, expressing his opinion on the Wizards fans' open courtship of him in advance of his return to his native D.C.-area on Wednesday night. Durant’s right—Wizards guard Bradley Beal later agreed with him—but that won’t stop Washington fans for showing up in Durant emblazoned T-shirts, or something even more creative.
Tweet of the Week
Clippers coach Doc Rivers responding to a tweet sent out from the Clippers official account after a narrow loss to Golden State on Wednesday that included the hashtag #didntloseby50, a reference to Memphis’s lopsided loss to the Warriors on November 2nd. The tweet has since been deleted and the Clippers say the team employee who posted it has been disciplined. Should he or she have been? It was a low blow, for sure, but it certainly adds a little spice to a budding rivalry.
14. I like Drew Gooden, most people in the NBA do, but if you told me two years ago that Gooden, 34, would be getting meaningful minutes on a playoff contender, I probably wouldn’t have believed you. I told Gooden as much after bumping into him in the locker room in Washington’s locker room recently and asked him if he could explain his surprising longevity.
“I’m like a tunnel rat,” Gooden said. “Every situation I’m in I have to reinvent myself, have to do what I can do to fit in. I came [to Washington] on a 10-day contract and I made the best of it. But the league has changed, in a good way for me. When I came in the league, the biggest knock was that I was a tweener, that I couldn’t play the three or the four. Now there is value in that. It’s made its way full circle.”
13. Nets GM Billy King said on Monday that Lionel Hollins's job is safe—for now. But Hollins's unwillingness to feature Brook Lopez more prominently in the Nets offense has to grate on some people in the organization.
12. Byron Scott has to figure out what to do with Kobe Bryant. I watched Bryant play in New York over the weekend and the shot just isn’t there, despite Kobe’s attempts to will his game back. The Lakers are going to be bad, regardless, but being bad with Kobe chucking up 20 shots a game is different than being bad when D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle are getting those touches. Scary for the Lakers: They are 1–7 and have not played a single team that is considered a lock to make the playoffs.
11. Lakers-Sixers in Philadelphia on December 1. Philly, of course, gets L.A.’s pick if it falls outside the top-three. I’m expecting GM Sam Hinkie to hold Invincible-style tryouts for this one.
10. Speaking of Bryant, I’d absolutely give him a spot on the U.S. Olympic team next summer. Does he deserve it? No, but who cares? Team USA will romp over an inferior field and 20 years of NBA service and two tours with the national team has earned him the spot. It will be a fitting farewell to one of the greatest shooting guards the league has ever seen.
9. Jared Sullinger took a beating for coming to camp in less than stellar shape after promising to improve his conditioning last summer, but give him credit: Sullinger has been arguably Boston’s most consistent big and is the only Celtic shooting better than 40% from three-point range (46.2%).
8. Welcome back, Jabari Parker.
7. The NBA is a long season, but the Pelicans can’t afford to lose too many more games if they hope to get back in the playoff mix in the west. That defense has been brutally bad, and the injuries have piled up so high that the Pels brought back Jimmer Fredette to plug a hole.
6. I don’t know if the ‘Wolves 4–2 start is sustainable, but man, is Minnesota fun to watch. Can’t underestimate the positive impact Kevin Garnett is having on those young players. KG is a shell of his former self, but his presence in practice is powerful.
5. Rajon Rondo: 11.8 points, 7.8 assists, 18.8% from three.
Darren Collison: 15.8 points, 5.2 assists, 42.1% from three.
In no way is the Kings sluggish start on Rondo, but if Sacramento continues to struggle and Rondo continues to be outplayed by Collison, who missed Monday’s game with a hamstring injury, you have to wonder if George Karl will make a change.
4. The refereeing at the end of the Grizzlies-Clippers game was horrendous. Just horrendous. A phantom foul call on Tony Allen late in the fourth quarter was followed by an equally awful call on Chris Paul on the other end. Nearly ruined a great game. Crushing loss for Memphis, though. Now they head home for a showdown with Golden State, which hung a 50-point loss on the Grizz earlier this month.
3. Non-Paul George positive in Indiana: George Hill is connecting on 43.6% of his threes. For context, Hill has never cracked 40% from three in his previous seven seasons.
2. Here’s a question a few league-types have raised about Kevin Durant: With Washington expected to be among the handful of teams Durant will seriously consider this off-season, will the Wizards give Durant the power to decide Randy Wittmann’s future? An early exit from the postseason could spell the end for Wittmann anyway, but if he is still on the job July 1, would Washington give Durant that type of authority? Would Durant want it? There will be several top coaches on the market after this season, a list that could include Tom Thibodeau, Jeff Van Gundy and even Durant’s former coach in OKC, Scott Brooks. Several people around the league have wondered if the Wizards would dangle that kind of carrot in front of Durant.
1. Got a great new podcast this week. The New York Post’s Tim Bontemps stops by to discuss Lionel Hollins' future and what he saw from Kobe Bryant in Brooklyn last weekend. And USA Today’s Sam Amick checks in from Oklahoma City and will talk some Thunder as well as what is going on in Sacramento. Subscribe on iTunes or listen on Soundcloud and Stitcher.