Every once in a while, the NBA throws a randomly awesome night at us and we need to run through the games and savor the flavor. Last night was one such night. Dig in.
The Agony of the Knicks, the Ecstasy of the Wiz
YEAH. THAT'S JAN VESELY DUNKING IN TRANSITION ON AMAR'E. NO, YOU ARE NOT ON AYAHUASCA. Eastern Conference basketball, guys. To paraphrase Man on Fire, not coaching well is Mike Woodson's art, and last night's Knicks-Wizards clash was his masterpiece. The Knicks lost the game with the fart-pratfall double-whammy of the season, when Beno Udrih funneled Bradley Beal baseline with just seconds remaining and nobody came to help. This was the Knicks' reaction to it all:
In case you were busy regretting a decades-old decision to allow your son to play football so long as he was just the punter, here's what you missed in sports on Monday:
The Detroit Pistons, fueled by Josh Smith's 30 points on 29 shots, handed the Indiana Pacers their first home loss of the year, 101-96. "More of a long-term thing," said Pacers head coach Frank Vogel of the loss, before shaking his head and saying, "What? No. I mean, man, Smith was money tonight, huh? Guy's tough to beat when he's firing a high volume of jump shots. Would hate to see him do that to us in some sort of playoff scenario."
Justin Tucker's 61-yard field goal, his franchise-record sixth on the night, was the difference as the Baltimore Ravens beat the Detroit Lions, 18-16, in a Monday-night battle of teams named after classic stories. The Ravens, of course, were named after House Ravenclaw from the Harry Potter series. Less well-known is that the Lions were named after the Cowardly Lion from L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a character who was modeled after three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. Coincidentally, it was Bryan's promotion of the Free Silver movement that served as the basis for the naming of the Lions' old stadium: the Pontiac Free Silverdome, which was quickly renamed the Pontiac Silverdome after an opening-day riot caused by fans equally disappointed by the lack of free silver and the Lions' generally poor play.
Pretty much everyone who follows basketball, including mostWizardsfans, thought last Friday's Wizards trade was a desperate move made by a GM trying to save his job, forfeiting the future at the expense of a fairly underwhelming present.
And they're totally right!
But as a Wizards fan, I have to explain why I liked the trade.
The Wizards, always Wizarding around, are on the verge of signing John Wall to the maximum-allowable contract extension — a five-year, $80 million mega-deal that precludes the Wizards from signing any of their other current players, including Bradley Beal, to five-year extensions after their rookie deals expire down the road.
The Wizards are making a bet, and if Wall plays this season as he played the final two months or so of last season, it’s a bet Washington will either win handily or lose by such a small margin that it’s ultimately meaningless. But it’s a bet they in no way have to make, and probably shouldn’t. Without an extension by October 31, Wall would enter restricted free agency next summer, a process the incumbent team — the Wizards — controls almost completely. The very worst possible outcome, at least among outcomes that are even remotely likely, is that Wall signs a max-level offer sheet with another team — a deal the Wizards, if they are so inclined, could immediately match.
That offer sheet could run for only four years, and carries smaller raises than the Wizards can offer, meaning it would constitute a shorter and slightly smaller cap hit than the five-year deal the Wiz are about to give Wall. So the Wiz-Bangs have several variables to weigh as they make this decision:
• The value of waiting an extra season to learn more information about the current state of Wall’s game, how he’ll mesh with Beal and Otto Porter, and how much he might improve going forward. Spoiler alert: This, to me, is the most important variable at play. Wall has played only three NBA seasons. He suffered various knee-related injuries in his rookie season that forced him to miss 13 games of that campaign and lingered into his second season — the chaotic lockout-shortened campaign in which Wall played all 66 games.
After being instantly dismissed from the national consciousness following a dreadful 4-28 start, few people noticed when the Washington Wizards quietly showed signs of a promising future during the second half of this past season. The Wizards’ improved play coincided with the return of John Wall, whose knee injury had kept him in street clothes through early January. With their promising young point guard back in the fold, the team morphed from disaster to, dare I say it, playoff-caliber force almost overnight.
Washington finished out the season at a .500 clip upon Wall’s return, which hardly screams “elite.” But the 25 games featuring a healthy core of Wall, rookie guard Bradley Beal, and veteran wing Martell Webster (whom the team intends to bring back despite his free-agent status) certainly do. No matter what roles Wall or Beal played (both came off the bench for a few games), the Wizards posted a point differential of plus-4.84, the equivalent of a 55-win team over a full season. And though a 25-game stretch isn’t something Washington can hang its hat on, it’s certainly an encouraging sign. That trio, combined with Nene and Emeka Okafor, also combined to form the league's most effective five-man unit that played at least 140 minutes together, per NBA.com. That amount of playing time isn’t enough to produce ironclad proof that the Wizards are set to the rule the basketball world, but it certainly is enough time to suggest that’s a lineup that can be quite effective.
For a franchise that’s been toiling in mediocrity for decades, there are enough bright spots from last year to suggest Washington is poised to make some serious noise in the Eastern Conference if it can inject one more talented piece into its core (and stay relatively healthy), a real possibility thanks to some incredible lottery luck. By selecting the right player with the third overall pick, the Wizards can become a legitimate contender in the East as early as next year, something no one could have predicted six months ago. Unlike some of the more desperate teams, Washington doesn’t necessarily need to hit a home run at the top of the draft, but to break through from mid-standings irrelevance, the Wizards probably have to avoid coming up empty. If the team can get an impact player with the third pick while also finding a competent backup point guard with one of its second-round picks, the Wizards have the opportunity to completely change the course of their franchise. No pressure, right?
The NBA playoffs are upon us, with 16 teams competing for the Larry O'Brien Trophy. But what about the other guys? What about the teams we wish were in the playoffs? We may know, in our heads, that they didn't do enough to get into the postseason, but that doesn't change how we feel in our hearts. We'd like to see these teams competing in Bill Simmons's Entertaining as Hell Tournament, but until that day, we'll just have to write longingly about why we wish they had made it to the promised land.
Portland Trail Blazers
Sean Fennessey: This isn't exactly a song for the Blazers because the Blazers were hard to watch this year. Nic Batum was long and lean and aggressively French, J.J. Hickson played like an exploding can of soda, and Weber State's Damian Lillard was a revelation to those who enjoy tiny-man dunks but don't much care for consistency. (He is only the Rookie of the Year because Anthony Davis hasn't totally figured out how to play basketball yet. He will.) I won't miss those Blazers and I certainly won't miss their bench, mostly because their bench doesn't exist beyond the many terrified faces of Meyers Leonard.
On Sunday, Bradley Beal played in only his fourth game since March 3, and his first since March 20, after being sidelined with ankle issues. His return and continued chemistry with John Wall — playing like he really, really wants that max contract — were basically the only reasons to watch one of those sad late-season games between lottery teams when Toronto visited Washington on Sunday. Beal did not disappoint, racking up 24 points on 8-of-14 shooting, including a blistering 6-of-9 from 3-point range, with a good chunk of those 3’s coming when Wall ran a high pick-and-roll and kicked to Beal on the weak-side corner.
That's basically what Washington envisioned when they snagged Beal with the no. 3 pick in last year’s draft. But Wall began the season injured, and Beal had to carry too much, too soon as a key cog of what was then the league’s worst offense by a considerable margin. When the calendar flipped to 2013, Beal was shooting under 40 percent overall and a hair below 30 percent from 3-point range; critics were ready to dub him the latest Washington draft bust.
But he's been on fire since Wall’s return. He’s shooting 48 percent overall, and 50.8 percent percent from 3, when he’s on the floor with Washington’s franchise point guard, and a much higher share of his attempts in those Wall minutes come from the tastiest spots — the corners and the restricted area, per NBA.com.
After his rousing return, Beal sat down (or stood up, actually) for an extended one-on-one with Grantland.
The NBA is funny this way: We still don’t know all that much about John Wall, but from now until the end of October, the Wizards will already have to wrestle with the idea of giving Wall an extension as he enters the final year of his rookie contract. Wall missed a chunk of his rookie season with knee and foot issues. His second season was the lockout-shortened mess in which he dealt with lingering knee pain, and he missed the first 33 games of this season after doctors discovered the early signs of a stress fracture in his left knee.
But the clock on Wall’s rookie contract hasn’t stopped ticking. And as a no. 1 overall pick, Wall may well demand both a maximum extension and the extra fifth year Washington can tack on if it names Wall its “designated player.” Washington can choose only one such player among its current roster, and given what Bradley Beal has shown in the past six weeks, it will at least have to kick around the idea of saving the honor for him. Minnesota’s desire to keep the “designated player” tag in reserve for Ricky Rubio influenced its negotiations with Kevin Love and played a role in Love insisting on an opt-out after just three seasons on his new deal.
The Wizards are 15-13 since Wall returned, and they’ve been better on both ends with him on the floor. He has meshed nicely with Beal and Nene, and the Wiz have maintained a top-10 defense all season. Wall is on pace to shatter his career-best assist rate, and though he’s still a below-average shooter even from the midrange, his accuracy on those shots — which he’s taking more than ever — is beginning to creep within sniffing distance of the league average.
But he’s still shooting just 41 percent with five 3-pointers combined over the past two seasons and has a borderline-alarming turnover rate. The Wizards, dead last in points per possession, are indeed scoring more efficiently with Wall, but their scoring mark with him on the floor would still rank only 25th overall.
In other words: This is a strange, unproven player entering a very important phase of his career and financial life. During Washington’s visit to Brooklyn on Friday, Wall sat down with Grantland for a one-on-one about his game, his team, and his future.
There are a number of incredible stories currently populating the sports pages here in the nation's capital. Obviously and quite appropriately, the heroics of His Holiness the Black Jesus Robert Griffin III predominate. Not only does he seem to win an award or set a new Redskins or NFL rookie record every game he plays, but, in the unlikeliest of unlikely turns, he also has this town dreaming about the possibility of playoffs. The Redskins host the Giants next Monday night, which will also mark the first relevant football game played in D.C. in December in almost seven years (to be truthful, it feels like 70).
It’s never too early in an NBA season to judge a player or team’s performance — just ask Mike Brown. The season has just begun, but important trends are already emerging. Some are familiar; some are brand-new. In terms of scoring, as of Friday, NBA players had made 11,039 out of their 24,940 shots (44.2 percent), which is slightly down from last season’s 44.8 percent, which was slightly down from the 2010-11 season mark of 45.8 percent. Looking at scoring across the league on a team-by-team basis, some interesting things start to emerge. One of them is the disparity between two teams in the NBA’s Southeast division: Miami and Washington. It's been a tale of two cities. In one, we see unmatched offensive firepower. In the other, it’s a tale of woe.
In their eight years of existence, the Charlotte Bobcats have drafted three players from UNC, one from Duke, and one from Boston College, a school that plays up to seven games a year in the state of North Carolina. They have drafted one player from Texas, a Naismith runner-up from Gonzaga, and two UConn greats. Outside of trading for Alexis Ajinca’s draft rights in 2008, the Bobcats have found nearly every undersized or questionably athletic college star in the country. Some, like Jared Dudley, turn out to be valuable players on other teams. Others, like Sean May, quickly confirm that college post moves sometimes don’t translate to the NBA. The Bobcats haven’t fully developed a player since their inception in 2004. They handcuffed Raymond Felton, they didn’t tell the managers of all Charlotte-area Waffle Houses to stop serving May, they turned Gerald Henderson into the worst version of Kobe Bryant in the history of versions of Kobe Bryant.
Evaluating wing players is difficult because there are many types: shooting specialists, athletic freaks, defensive specialists, slashers, and more. Very often, teams choose a player based on need as opposed to sheer talent. That said, here are my top prospects.