Scott Brooks spent a year away from the NBA watching and learning. Day-to-day stresses from the league were gone, any tumult around the trade deadline or late season changes were other people’s problems.
Not this year. Brooks is in the middle of all those factors.
Brandon Jennings, signed by the Wizards following Wednesday’s 5 p.m. waiver deadline, is the latest part the Wizards are wedging onto the roster in the season’s final run. Backup center Ian Mahinmi played four games just before the all-star break, but is just now feeling like himself. Bojan Bogdanovic was acquired Feb. 22. He’s played four games, including Wednesday night in Toronto, with little practice time in between. In addition comes the pending addition of Jennings. That means coach Brooks has a lot of work to do.
Brooks has a handful of pet phrases. Among them is “the art of coaching.” This statement is deployed any time Brooks is asked how he is going to balance complications — good and bad. He turned to it Monday when asked how he would put Mahinmi and Bogdanovic into the season-long ineffectiveness of the bench puzzle.
“We’ve got to figure it out as a group,” Brooks said. “It’s realistic to get it done. We understand we still have 25 games left and the playoffs are right around the corner and we have had the last four or five days to basically integrate two players.”
That was before the ball-dominant and spirited Jennings entered the equation. In essence, the Wizards have remade their bench rotation with a quarter of the season to play. They decided to do it after spending two months torching the rest of the league. From Dec. 1 to the all-star break, no team in the Eastern Conference had a better record. Then, a sudden changeover in personnel. This is uncommon.
It’s not that Washington did not need change. Its starters have been pushed on the floor, though they have also endured less-strenuous practices under Brooks. He has focused on non-game rest. The Wizards even brought in a sleep consultant earlier this week. Still, the bench needed helped in order to be a more competent facet of the team.
Trey Burke was one of several offseason flyers by general manager Ernie Grunfeld. It has not worked out well. Marcus Thornton did not work. Andrew Nicholson did not work. Jason Smith has provided solid minutes after a rough start to the season, but is now out of the rotation. The back-end of the roster was filled with three undrafted free agents. It’s not just an offseason failure of last summer that has created the sudden need for Jennings or other improvement. Annual failure to find a long-term point guard to back up Wall has put the Wizards in this place.
Now that they are here, they have to decide how best to handle it and cross their fingers it works.
Mahinmi is feeling better. Preseason knee surgery plus setbacks during rehab dragged out his recovery. Tuesday night against the Golden State Warriors, he looked more like the player Washington thought it was getting when gracing him with a $64 million contract in the offseason. Mahinmi was active defensively and a good screen-setter who provided bulk around the rim offensively.
“Felt like I’m getting my sensation back,” Mahinmi said. “Feel like I’m getting into a nice little rhythm. Overall, I feel like we’re heading the right way with everything we’ve been doing. It’s a pretty good feeling. Body-wise I kind of see myself playing how I was last year. It’s a good feeling.”
Like most who go through an injury, Mahinmi is dealing with the part he cannot directly rehab, since rediscovering comfort within the speed of the game can’t be done in a weight room.
“Getting your legs under you, getting back to what you’ve been doing your whole life,” Mahinmi said. “No thinking. Just playing the game. Letting the game come to you. It’s hard because the team is doing so well. You want to contribute, but you want to do it the right way. It’s a tough job. We’re just going to build all the way to the end of the year and see where we’re at.”
Bogdanovic has folded in quickly. His first night with the team in Philadelphia he was capping the whirlwind move from Brooklyn to Washington. He was ineffective, going 1-for-5 from the field and scoring just two points. Since, he’s averaging 15.5 points and shooting 45.6 percent from the field. Brooklyn has nine wins this season. The Wizards came into Wednesday as the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference, on pace for 49 wins, and led by an All-Star point guard.
“When you play with those guys that are All-Star players, it’s easy to adjust,” he said.
Bogdanovic joked after Tuesday’s win against the Golden State Warriors that he thought the victory was his first of 2017. It just felt like that. Since the Wizards started 0-2 with him, Bogdanovic is now 2-25 since the calendar turned. One of those wins was with his new team against the team with the best record in basketball. This, he gleefully learned, is not Brooklyn.
Jennings, who took a roster spot which opened when the Wizards cut rookie Danuel House, will be the latest factor for Brooks. He’s shooting just 38 percent from the field this season and 38.9 percent for his career. He’s a solid 3-point shooter — 34.9 percent in his career — and can create off the dribble, plus push the ball.
However, he is a putrid defender (114 defensive rating, which is points allowed per 100 possessions) and someone who has irked the Wizards’ hierarchy in the past. It could be a case where Jennings is an annoyance to play against, but embraced when played with. He drew the ire of key Wizards players in the preseason when he taunted and banged into Casper Ware, a fringe player trying to make the team.
“I think just bring a lot of energy,” Wall said Tuesday. “He’s a guy that can pass the ball. Brings a lot of swag that can help us.”
Adding three critical players so late in the season is going to provide a jolt for the Wizards. It’s up to Brooks to determine its direction.