LOS ANGELES — Wizards guard Austin Rivers was welcomed back to the Staples Center on Sunday with a thoughtful tribute video, and his new team repaid the gesture by playing like a “Lob City” Clippers tribute band—at their worst and most dysfunctional.
During his three-plus seasons in L.A., Rivers played a complementary role alongside a talented “Big 3” that faced numerous injury issues and chemistry questions while continuously exiting the playoffs before the conference finals. Now, in Washington after an offseason trade, the back-up guard is playing alongside a talented “Big 3” that has faced numerous injury issues and seems perpetually aggravated by never-ending personality conflicts while winning just one playoff series over the past three years.
Despite their many postseason implosions, those Clippers ultimately came undone gradually. Chris Paul forced a trade to Houston. Blake Griffin was re-signed and then shipped to Detroit. DeAndre Jordan left for Dallas. Rivers was traded to Washington for Marcin Gortat. Against the odds, Doc Rivers has survived, losing his GM title but remaining as coach following years of hot-seat talk.
These Wizards, however, appear primed for a more explosive turn, and soon.
Just days after coach Scott Brooks and star guards John Wall and Bradley Beal called out the team’s poor early-season effort, the Wizards lost to the Clippers 136-104 on Sunday. The demoralizing loss marked the franchise’s worst defeat by margin of victory in nearly a year and dropped Washington to 1-5 on the season. The 0-6 Cavaliers are the only NBA team with a worse record.
Cleveland lost LeBron James; Washington has no such excuse.
The Wizards didn’t get blown out by accident on Sunday. Rather, they came by this embarrassment honestly, losing virtually every aspect of the game. Eight L.A. players scored in double figures and all 13 active players scored at least one point. The Clippers shot 54% from the field and 55% on three-pointers, they pounded the Wizards 57-45 on the glass, and they scored a whopping 68 points in the paint. Meanwhile, Washington’s offense slogged through ugly possessions, shooting 39% from the field, hitting just 5-of-27 on threes, and registering only 18 assists.
There were red flags visible before the game and even more popped up after the rout concluded. Small forward Otto Porter, who was specifically called out by Brooks, barely interacted with his teammates when the Wizards took the court. Then Beal, who chastised his teammates for their “agendas” earlier this week, bailed from the locker room without talking to the media.
That left Wall and Rivers to offer their sober takes on the State of the Wizards’ Union.
“It’s heart and pride,” Wall said. “Guarding your man one-on-one. We’ve got to clean up the rebounding. We’re giving up too many offensive rebounds. It’s just competing. When you’re playing the game of basketball, you can’t worry about how many points you got, how many assists you got, how many steals you got. None of that matters.”
Rivers was even blunter.
“We have to [play with a sense of urgency] otherwise, like anything, s--- can get ugly,” he said. “Our defense is horrendous. Teams are literally walking into the paint getting layups. … You’ve got to have personal pride. You’ve got to get mad when someone scores on you. We’re not the Warriors.”
Indeed, the Wizards have looked like the anti-Warriors during the opening two weeks of the season. This team has all the statistical hallmarks of a group that plays with a collective misery, rather than Golden State’s signature joy: Washington ranks No. 27 in point differential, No. 23 in offensive efficiency, No. 26 in defensive efficiency, No. 26 in assist percentage and 30th in defensive rebounding.
They don’t share the ball, they don’t generate good looks, they don’t protect the glass, and they don’t get stops. On top of all of that, they look and sound like they’re getting sick of each other.
“There’s 70-something games left,” Wall said. “There’s no need to panic, but you’ve got to figure it out. You can’t keep dwelling on the same thing over and over. It gets frustrating just talking about it all over.”
Perhaps the most galling aspect of Washington’s slow start has been its lack of second-effort plays on defense. There’s little resistance on the ball, and virtually no help provided on drives. When shots go up, Washington’s attention to the glass is often half-hearted, with two and sometimes three players making no attempt at claiming the rebound. When turnovers occur on the offensive end, Washington usually favors hung heads over hustling back.
“We’ve got to get better [defensively],” Brooks said, during a noticeably flat post-game press conference. “We’ve got to be able to take some pride on that end of the court. It’s problematic right now. The last three games, the defense is not what it needs to be to win games. … It’s a little bit of everything. We’ve got to get back. We’ve got to get into a stance. We’ve got to help each other. … We’re all frustrated. It’s about staying together.”
Dwight Howard’s return from a buttocks injury could help address some of the defense and rebounding concerns, but Wizards ownership needs to explore shake-up options now. Unfortunately, their hands are tied. Wall is virtually untradeable due to the $185+ million left on his contract and his history of knee injuries. Beal, a 25-year-old All-Star guard, is the roster’s most valuable asset and shouldn’t be moved unless a perennial All-Star is in the return package. It’s unlikely that such a deal will materialize at this point in the NBA’s calendar.
But Porter, who should be sick of always being cast as the scapegoat, could generate a real trade market immediately, and the easiest method for quickly retooling this roster would be to trade the 25-year-old forward for a rotation player and a draft pick. This type of a move would amount to hitting the reset button in the locker room, and it would force the Wizards’ star guards to take greater accountability for their own two-way inconsistencies and leadership shortcomings. A Porter trade would also be a matter of convenience, as the rest of Washington’s roster is lacking in trade value.
Of course, there’s a different approach to consider: Moving on from Brooks, who has three years left on his contract and has yet to pull consistent excellence from his talented core during his two-plus seasons in Washington. Even so, a Yahoo Sports report on Sunday indicated that Brooks is still on safe footing with his bosses. Rivers, for one, strongly backed Brooks on Sunday.
“Let’s just keep it a buck,” he said. “We have a lot of talent on this team. Coach is putting us in a position to succeed. It’s not on him, I’ll tell you that right now. It’s not on coach Brooks. I’m new here and I’m looking at that right now. Everybody is saying something about coach Brooks, it’s not on him.”
There might be less cause for concern and more room for patience if this slow start was the first sign of internal strife. But Wall and Gortat spent much of last season bickering, and Porter’s performance and role has been a regular point of tension. Given the Wizards’ underwhelming postseason showings over the years, it’s unclear what would motivate Wizards ownership to cling to this core and their coach.
Washington’s schedule eases up slightly over the next two weeks, with games against multiple 2018 lottery teams: Memphis, New York, Dallas, and Orlando. Still, a team with as little energy and cohesiveness as the Wizards showed on Sunday is a threat to lose any or all of those contests.
“The road ain’t gonna get easier,” Rivers said. “Nobody is gonna feel bad for us. People are laughing at us.”
Fairly or unfairly, the “Lob City” Clippers were on the wrong end of jokes for years. So, on this specific topic, Rivers’ new teammates must understand that he is speaking from experience.