The Wizards were in the headlines for all the wrong reasons last year.
Being hamstrung by injuries, most notably by John Wall who missed half the season, Washington took an egregious step back in 2018. The team still made the playoffs, and they even gave Toronto a competitive series in the first round. Alas, the headline of their story surrounding them was their inner dysfunction.
To be clear, there had already been reports of contention, specifically between Wall and Bradley Beal, prior to this season, but more and more reports of hostility in the locker room leaked out as the season progressed.
With Wall nursing an injury mid-season, Marcin Gortat praised the team for how they won without its star point guard.
Unbelievable win tonight ! Great “team” victory!
— Marcin Gortat?? (@MGortat) February 2, 2018
Wall did not take too kindly to Gortat’s words, as he said Gortat was “spoon-fed buckets.” The two made up, but that wasn’t the only instance. Following a fight he had with Wall, Dallas Mavericks guard Jose Juan Barea went on record stating that he thought fellow Wizards didn’t like their franchise player.
These were the most prevalent of several incidents that indicated that things weren’t running smoothly with D.C.’s basketball team. Once Wall stated that the team needed upgrades following their playoff elimintation, it was clear some changes were in order.
Since the off-season has commenced, the Wizards have made said changes. The real question is, will these changes cease the flames or merely fan them?
First, they traded Gortat for Austin Rivers. The motive was obvious for this deal. If they hadn’t done so already, Gortat and Wall were one more squabble from going at each other’s throats, so it was one or the other between the two of them. With Gortat on the downside of his career and Wall being one of the league’s top point guards in the prime of his career, it was clear that Gortat was the odd man out.
Then there’s who the return that the Wiz received for Gortat. For years, Washington has searched for years to find that third guard to spell their elite backcourt. From Martell Webster to Garrett Temple to Brandon Jennings to Tim Frazier, the Wizards have auditioned various players to fill in the role as their first guard off the bench to no avail.
Now, they may have very well found the perfect man for the job in Austin Rivers.
Laugh all you want. Adding Rivers could pay huge dividends for the Wizards. It is true that Rivers has developed a bad reputation since joining. He’s a punk. He’s a bust. He’s a daddy’s boy. Rivers deserves most of the labels he’s been given, but the one label he doesn’t deserve is scrub.
Rivers’ improvement since joining his father in Hollywood has fallen under the radar because he has become, as I like to call it, one of the most “over-hated” players in the league. Since joining the Clippers in 2015, Rivers has gradually seen both his scoring and assist average double, as he posted career-highs in both categories this season – 15.1 points a game and 4.0 assists a game – while also shooting a career-high 37.8 percent from three. Those numbers should make Wizards fans excited that he’s going be the team’s third guard.
The concerns with Rivers are very real, but his skill set makes him the guy the Wizards have been looking for. On paper at least.
Then, there’s Jeff Green.
You know how they say, “If at first you don’t succeed, try try again?” Well with Jeff Green, it’s, “If at first you don’t succeed, lower your standards.”
For years, Jeff Green has managed to consistently disappoint no matter how low the expectations go for him despite his obvious talent. The bar for Green was at the absolute lowest this season as the Cavs wanted him as a backup wing and nothing else, to which Jeff passed with flying colors, if not more so.
Much to the chagrin of any Celtics, Grizzlies, or Clippers fan who rooted for the guy, Jeff came through for the Cavs when they needed him to. With Cleveland down 3-2 to Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals and Kevin Love out with a concussion, Jeff stepped it up. Averaging 16.5 points on 46 percent shooting and averaging 5.5 rebounds, Jeff played a huge hand in dealing the final blow to his former team’s season.
The lesson to take from all this is that Jeff Green can succeed when little is expected of him. The lower the bar, the happier you’ll be with him. Coming to Washington, Green’s not expected to be any more than Mike Scott’s replacement, so Washington should get its money’s worth. On paper at least.
Finally, of course, there’s Dwight Howard.
I’ve already written about Howard’s career tailspin in the last half-decade, so there’s no need to bring that up again. Instead, let’s focus on who Dwight is as a player currently.
By all means, Dwight should give Washington quite the boost. Regardless of how far he’s fallen, Dwight is still an impactful player, and the numbers speak for themselves. While other parts of his game have fallen, Howard’s presence on the boards is still as strong as ever.
Before acquiring Dwight, Charlotte ranked 16th in the NBA in total rebound averages with 43.6 a game in 2017, but after bringing him in, the Hornets rose all the way to third this season with 45.5. Atlanta, who had previously employed Dwight in 2017, ranked ninth in the league with 44.3 rebounds a game but dropped all the way to 25th this season with 41.9 after trading him.
The Wiz have had severe struggles punding the glass over the last three years, as detailed below.
2017-2018: 43.1 rebounds a game (ranked no. 21)
2016-2017: 42.9 rebounds a game (ranked no. 22)
2015-2016: 41.8 rebounds a game (ranked no. 26)
So they should be thrilled to have Howard aboard.
Howard is also still a quality athlete even if he’s not the basketball goliath he once was. In Charlotte, he had his best statistical season since his first year in Houston, so there’s plenty of good basketball left in him. Given that he signed for just the mid-level exception, he should be a smart investment.
On paper at least.
Howard should be a fantastic fit in Washington should he fall in line, but history shows that he’s incapable of doing that. Howard’s skills still fit in well with the NBA, but he’s shown that he only plays by his rules, which has led to him being thrown out of every situation he’s been in. For both him and Washington, this is probably their last chance.
Talent-wise, the Wizards have what it takes to compete with the best in the east with their new additions. They added a more-than-qualified third guard that they’ve desperately needed, they added a solid backup wing, and they upgraded at center. However, their perplexing history since their surprise playoff run in 2014 makes it hard to know what their ceiling truly is. See for yourself.
2015: An injured John Wall and an Al Horford buzzer beater stopped them from making the conference finals
2016: Missed the playoffs
2017: A Kelly Olynyk performance of a lifetime stopped them from making the conference finals
2018: They got ousted in the first round as an eighth seed in a throw-away season
There aren’t that many teams who have been as enigmatic over the last four years as Washington has. They are as talented as they are egotistical. They’ve shown that they can play some beautiful basketball together and they’ve shown that they can tear each other apart. Adding Rivers, Green, and Howard, three serviceable players (at the very least), is sensible since depth has also been one of their biggest holes.
But there’s a reason why Austin Rivers isn’t very well-liked around the league. There’s a reason why Jeff Green has bounced around like a hot potato in the last three and a half years. There’s a reason why every team that’s employed Dwight Howard has happily waved bye-bye when they shipped him out of town.
The Wizards are not a lock to make a run after the moves they’ve made. But, given the state that they were in coming into this summer, they’ve done about as well as they could have reasonably expected.