Being part of a three-win team did not stop Los Angeles Lakers forward Metta World Peace from a disparaging view of the Washington Wizards. During an at times humorous and philosophical postgame conversation, Peace wound his way through multiple topics last week when the Lakers were in Washington. Eventually, he stumbled across the fact the Wizards are under .500. He said he was not surprised.
“I look at a lot of other teams [as] better than them,” Peace said. “Absolutely. If you don’t know how to play basketball, move, cut, back screen, face cut, you know, show, box out, pass, move, play off the ball. If you can’t do those things, you’re not going to be good.”
That was the synopsis when, a night after beating the Cleveland Cavaliers in Cleveland, the Wizards lost to the woeful Lakers during the Kobe Bryant Retirement Tour. Cleveland is the Eastern Conference favorite and expects to be in the NBA Finals. The Lakers are hoping for a top-three draft pick. The fluctuation in result has become standard for a Wizards team, at 9-11 and starting a four-game road trip Friday night, that does not know what it’s defined by this season.
The loss to the Lakers made sleeping difficult for Jared Dudley. The Wizards expected to move forward this season with small-ball lineups and an altered offensive scheme. Instead, they are wading through the first quarter of season in stops and fits.
“[The Lakers] is not a team you should lose to right now,” Dudley said Thursday.
The Wizards have accomplished one thing: Their offensive pace is up. Way up. They are fourth in the league in pace, according to ESPN, just a sliver behind the Golden State Warriors coming into Friday. Their defense, however, continues to be woeful. Opponents are shooting 46.3 percent against the Wizards, which is the fourth-worst mark in the league. They are tied with Friday night’s opponent, the New Orleans Pelicans, allowing teams to shoot 39.3 percent from behind the 3-point line. That is the worst in the league.
A year ago, those percentages would have been inconceivable. The Wizards’ identity was clear. Washington was a defense-first team that took offense as it came. If they won 86-85, so be it. The formula had pushed them into the playoffs in consecutive seasons and was the basis for having significant chances to move into the conference finals each time. It fit coach Randy Wittman’s beliefs and personality. Washington coupled small-ball offense with the defensive approach in last season’s playoffs. This season was projected as an extrapolation of the concept over 82 games.
But, the only brand of the 2015-16 is inconsistency. The Wizards’ increase in pace has not coupled with a reasonable dip in defense, one to be expected when playing at an accelerated speed. They are just playing fast without an anchor, leaving players even unsure of what the team is based in, at the moment.
“What it is?” Bradley Beal responded when asked what the team’s identity is. “Or what it needs to be?”
Dudley, 30, is feeling compelled to speak up more in the lockerroom and on the floor. He does not carry the career panache of Paul Pierce, who spent almost every postgame session last season saying the defense needs to be better, but Dudley is a smart player who has been around the league for almost a decade.
“If someone is not picking up the slack, I don’t care if you’re an All-Star to the 15th man, you have to be able to say it to him,” Dudley said. “I don’t think we’ve done a great job of that.”
In that state, the Wizards begin one of their most difficult road trips of the season. They head to Dallas after playing New Orleans on Friday night. Then, stops in Memphis and San Antonio follow. It’s a full week on the road for a team that has been better when packed and away, going 5-4 on the road and a listless 4-7 at home. Nene (calf) and Drew Gooden (calf) did not make the trip.
Dudley will wait before he panics. He looked at the road trip as a chance to start focusing more on the nuance of the nightly NBA schedule. Handling James Harden is different than dealing with Anthony Davis and Dirk Nowitzki and the team game of the Spurs. Each evening, the emphasis shifts. Good teams adapt accordingly.
“I’m not someone who is going to pull a fire alarm right now,” Dudley said.
Though, they’re likely not far from breaking the glass.