With the Eastern Conference looking as wide open as it has in years, the Washington Wizards haven’t exactly shown they’re ready to seize the throne.
Teams in the East appear to finally have a realistic opportunity at knocking off LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs as the reigning conference champions continue to deal with turmoil.
Yet while Boston and Toronto have seemingly appeared to pass Cleveland by, at least in terms of regular season success, Washington have been stuck in mediocrity.
After winning 49 games and coming one victory shy of reaching the conference finals last year, the Wizards were considered to be trending upward as legitimate threats to the Cavaliers, in a similar vein as the Celtics and Raptors.
But through 47 games this season, Washington haven’t been able to keep up with Boston and Toronto and have instead been floating in the middle of the conference with a 26-21 record, near teams like Miami, Indiana and Milwaukee.
The Wizards have dropped five of their last eight and their most recent defeat, a 98-75 thumping at the hands of a Dallas Mavericks team sitting in the basement of the Western Conference, saw them score their second-fewest points this season.
The loss also saw trash talk between Washington’s John Wall and Dallas’ J.J. Barea, with the former saying of the Mavericks’ 6-foot-0 guard: “Just a little midget trying to get mad. I don’t pay him no mind.”
Barea, when told of the comment, fired back by saying: “I don’t like him at all now. But I don’t think his teammates like him, either. So it’s nothing new for him.”
The jab by Barea came a day after the Washington Post put out a story about a Wizards players-only meeting that had the opposite of the desired effect, potentially creating more friction within the team.
“A couple guys took it the negative way, and it hurt our team,” Wall told the Washington Post. “Instead of taking it in a positive way like we did in the past and using it to build our team up, it kind of set us back a little bit.”
Wall has previously acknowledged chemistry issues with backcourt partner Bradley Beal, but whether or not the point guard is liked by his teammates, his declining play this season has been a cause for concern.
Following four straight All-Star appearances, the 27-year-old hasn’t looked like one of the very best players in the East, with his numbers down across the board from his career-high year in 2016-17. His scoring has dropped from 23.1 points to 19.3, while his assists have fallen from 10.7 to 9.2 and his rebounds from 4.2 to 3.6.
More troubling, Wall is shooting just 41.7 per cent after making 45.1 of his shots last season. Wall’s shot has always been a question mark throughout his career, yet even while he’s shooting 3-pointers at a respectable 34.8 per cent clip, his inefficiency from the field is hard to ignore.
Regression has likely resulted in Wall losing ground, from a reputation standpoint, to other top point guards like Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry and Damian Lillard, while his own teammate – Beal – has potentially surpassed him as the Wizards’ best player.
It’s also a scary thought for Washington that Basketball Reference calculates them as having the easiest strength of schedule in the entire league so far.
They have time to turn it around and a chance to redeem themselves in the playoffs, but the Wizards have yet to show they can be anything more than they are.
Jason Kidd could see impossible passing angles as a player, but as a coach he couldn’t see what was obvious to everyone else: he was holding his own team back.
The Milwaukee Bucks fired Kidd on Monday, ending his three-plus year tenure at the helm of a squad that went from being on the rise in his first season, to plateauing and underachieving by the end.
This wasn’t supposed to be the Bucks’ timeline, especially not with Giannis Antetokounmpo turning into an MVP candidate this season.
But here we are with Milwaukee just barely above .500 at 24-22, sitting seventh in the Eastern Conference and looking nowhere near a contender.
With what their roster and collection of athletes is capable of, there’s no reason why Milwaukee shouldn’t be onto bigger and better things by now.
Yet Kidd’s approach and lack of vision – again, ironic considering his mind-bending vision on the court during his Hall of Fame playing career – was limiting their growth.
It’s not as if Kidd accomplished nothing during his time there. In his first year alone, he took a Bucks side that had won just 15 games the season prior and turned them into a playoff team, notching 41 wins in an impressive turnaround.
And his greatest accomplishment has undoubtedly been developing Giannis into one of the very best players in the league already by the age of 23. Maybe the ‘Greek Freak’ would have been on this individual trajectory anyways, regardless of coach, but Kidd certainly helped maximise his game by putting the ball in his hands more and giving him the reins as a point guard.
It’s no wonder then that Antetokounmpo reportedly offered to help save Kidd’s job when word came out of his firing on Monday.
Aside from Giannis’ rookie season with Larry Drew, Kidd is the only head coach he’s ever professionally played for. The two obviously had a connection – no insignificant feat for Kidd or anyone that has to coach a superstar.
Giannis, however, has yet to experience really good coaching and while he might miss Kidd right now, the Bucks could very well end up benefitting from a change in leadership.
What needs changing immediately is the area where the team suffered from Kidd’s biggest shortcoming: defence.
Since Milwaukee finished with the second-best defensive rating in Kidd’s first season (99.3 points allowed per 100 possessions), they’ve slipped to 22nd (105.7) in 2015-16, 19th (106.4) in 2016-17 and 24th (107.5) this season.
It’s not for lack of ability or personnel as the Bucks, even discounting Giannis, have plenty of length, athleticism and versatility that should translate into one of the better defensive units.
But Kidd’s over-aggressive scheme, which centred on blitzing ball-handlers with two defenders and then zealously jumping out to disrupt passes, tried to do too much.
The thought process behind implementing that defence makes sense: try to take away everything and make it as hard as possible for opposing offences to do the simplest things, eventually wearing them down.
In theory, that defensive approach maximises the attributes of a long, versatile team, and while it may have been an effective concept when Kidd arrived in Milwaukee, it quickly became stale as opponents figured out how to attack it.
The problem with Kidd, however, wasn’t that he ran that defence – it’s that he was hell-bent on sticking with it even though it was clear it was failing them.
And that stubbornness is tied into another factor in Kidd’s downfall: his outward belief that much of the team’s struggles were due to their young age and inexperience.
The average age of Milwaukee’s current roster is 25.8, but their three best players –Giannis (23), Khris Middleton (26) and Eric Bledsoe (28) – aren’t exactly out of their depth.
No, age isn’t the reason the Bucks are in a holding pattern and have yet to take the next step, like so many have expected over the past couple seasons.
The talent is there. A generational superstar is there. It’s an attractive job for any head coach eager to mould a malleable group full of potential.
It just wasn’t going to happen with Kidd.
As the Cleveland Cavaliers continue to spiral downwards, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the Golden State Warriors’ biggest challenger this season likely resides in Houston.
And based on how the teams have fared against each other, the Rockets have proven they’re up to the task of taking down the NBA’s giants if they end up meeting in the playoffs.
In the third and final regular-season clash between the Western Conference rivals, Houston looked impressive in handing the Warriors a 116-108 defeat on Saturday to snap the defending champions’ 14-game road winning streak.
James Harden hit a clutch step-back 3-pointer over Stephen Curry with more than a minute remaining before blocking Curry’s long-range attempt on the next possession, while Chris Paul finished with 33 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists in the Rockets’ best victory of the season.
The win had Houston players feeling themselves and no one more so than centre Clint Capela, who claimed his side are better than Golden State.
“We’re confident because we know if we’re doing what we’re supposed to do, we’re going to beat them,” Capela told ESPN.
“We are better than them.”
While Capela’s words may seem nothing more than boastful, there is a semblance of truth to his bold statement.
The Warriors are coming off a title and, even after their most recent loss, have the best record in the league at 37-10, but when they’ve gone head-to-head with Houston, the Rockets have looked like a legitimate threat.
Houston have claimed two of the three regular-season meetings, with their lone lose coming in a game that didn’t feature Harden or Kevin Durant as the two stars sat out with injuries.
With both Harden and Paul on the court, the Rockets won the two games against full-strength Warriors teams.
What’s more, when Harden, Paul and Capela have all been healthy and in the lineup, Houston are a perfect 17-0.
A deeper look at the head-to-head stats in the Rockets’ wins over Golden State reveals these aren’t exactly aberration victories.
The Warriors actually outshot Houston in those two games, connecting on 51.2 per cent of their field goals and 50.0 per cent of their 3-pointers, compared to 47.8 and 37.2, respectively, for the Rockets.
It’s not as if Golden State have suffered from dry spells as one of their major strengths has let them down. And it’s not like Houston are hitting everything they throw up.
Instead, the difference between the teams has been on the margins.
The Rockets have capitalised on the Warriors’ propensity to be loose with the ball and force careless passes, leading to quick scores on the other end. Houston like to play fast anyways, but by attacking Golden State before they get a chance to set their half-court defence, the Rockets have picked up easy points.
Then there’s the rebounding edge, which Houston held by an average of 44.5 to 32.0 in the wins. That’s a trend that should be here to stay with the Rockets having the best defensive rebounding efficiency in the league at 81.5 per cent, while the Warriors rank 26th at 76.2 per cent.
And while Golden State’s sheer talent can’t be matched, Houston have multiple stars in Harden and Paul, along with players like Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza, P.J. Tucker, Ryan Anderson, Gerald Green and Nene who add depth and form a supporting cast that could very well make this a dogfight of a series in the Western Conference Finals.