- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 17, 2017

John Wall jumped in the air along with Bradley Beal on Monday. Beal had the ball and was doing the dunking after a delivery from Wall. The Washington Wizards‘ still-young and excelling backcourt had just run a two-on-none break much to their enjoyment.

Their fun came while beating the defenseless Portland Trail Blazers with ease Monday. The win pushed the Wizards into fifth place in the Eastern Conference, though the position is not firm in the cramped standings. The ninth-place team is just 1.5 games behind Washington.

But, this is a revival at the midpoint of the season. The Wizards were 2-8 two months ago, wondering where they were going and how they would arrive there, with both ideas filled with harrowing projections. Heading into the 41st game of the season, Washington is 21-19, two games over .500 for the first time this season, and the winners of 12 consecutive home games.

“We have a comfort level,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said Tuesday. “The baskets, everything [at home] seems to be good for us. I think our guys are comfortable, they like playing here. We want to make this a special place. Crowd’s been great. We just got to continue to give them something that they can be proud of. I tell them all the time our fans, they want 48 minutes of great effort. They’re not looking for perfection, they’re looking for great effort and I think that’s what we have been doing this past six or seven weeks, we’ve been playing very, very well on our home floor. We just have to figure out how we can get some of these wins on the road.”

Midway through the season, it’s time for a look at how Washington made it to this point, and what could be coming in the second half:

The bench

Teams often attach a nickname to their bench group, one based in fun language and the backups’ forte. Any moniker applied to the Wizards‘ bench players early in the season likely would be unprintable. They were out of sorts in all aspects. They could not shoot, defend or play with any continuity.

The correction has been significant. In November, Washington’s bench was ranked 25th in defensive rating. In December, it was ranked 27th. In January — a smaller sample — it is up to 17th.

The bench offense moved along with the defense. It was 25th in November, ninth in December when the team had 10 wins, but back to 30th through the first two weeks of January.

“I think we’re thinking a little too much about the offense in the beginning of the season. I think now that we’ve run it — kind of drilled it over and over and over it — has become second nature,” backup center Jason Smith said recently. “When it’s second nature you don’t really think about it, so now you can kind of focus on your shot, following through, attacking the basket, getting to the free throw line, stuff like that. I think our first unit has been doing a great job all season, but that second unit like you said in the beginning had a little bit of a lag. Now we’ve corrected that, we’ve got to continue to do that moving forward.”

There is a large amount of work to do. The Wizards‘ bench remains last in the league in net rating for the season. Can the team find help in the trade market? Or will it settle for the possible return of center Ian Mahinmi, and hope that Tomas Satoransky and Kelly Oubre can become consistent contributors, is enough to improve that group?

Beal, Porter take next step

John Wall is a three-time All-Star who may sneak into the game again this season. Neither Bradley Beal or Otto Porter will be there despite a large improvement for each. When Beal signed his $128 million contract in the summer, he emphasized that getting paid was not clearance to shut down progress. So far, his game has shown that. Beal’s field-goal percentage, 3-point percentage, and, naturally, effective field-goal percentage are all career bests. His offensive game has become more efficient. His first three seasons in the league, Beal made moderate increases to his offense. This season, his offensive rating has leaped from 103 to 117. Also of note is his time on the floor. Through 40 games, Beal has already made more starts this season (36) than he did last season (35). He won’t play 82 games, but is on pace to play the most games of his injury-hammered young career.

Porter is by far having his finest season, which is also taking place during the final season of his rookie-scale contract. His offensive rating is a staggering 126. Porter is also sixth in the league in effective field-goal percentage. What’s intriguing is Wizards coach Scott Brooks believes there is more to be had from Porter. Porter is shooting 4.3 3-pointers per game. Brooks thinks Porter could shoot up to eight per game. The increase in attempts would likely lower his percentage some, but the net result would be another bump for a Washington offense that is up to 12th in the league in offensive rating.

Now what? The Wizards move into the second half of the season with a more road-heavy schedule. That does not bode well for a team that is 4-13 away from home this season. They also have to be watchful of the starters’ minutes. Wall, who is playing with a splint on his right pinky and a sprained left wrist, is eighth in the league in minutes played. He would be in the top five if not for two recent blowout wins. Marcin Gortat is 13th in minutes, making the Wizards one of three teams in the league with two players in the top 13 in minutes. Porter is averaging a career high in minutes. Markieff Morris and Beal are right at the top end of their career averages. Heavy minutes for the starters dragged them out of 2-8. They need to be careful that it does not drag them down before the season closes.

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