- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Scott Brooks’ preseason concern was defense. Even at the Wizards’ training camp at VCU, Brooks was worried about defending better in the coming season. Washington had its starting five back — once Markieff Morris became healthy — and a year-plus under his offensive system, which was good enough for a top-10 finish in offensive rating last season. So, the other side of the floor was his focus.

Brooks’ wonder now is about offense. The midpoint of the season arrives Wednesday, along with a game against the Utah Jazz, and Washington has no heavy, distinct issues. What is does have is a surprising step back in offensive quality, one that can be attributed to multiple starters missing games and the old-fashioned issue of simply missing open shots.

“Our defense has been pretty good,” Brooks said. “It’s our offense that hasn’t been up to par. I don’t know if it’s because we focus more on the defensive end. The numbers defensively, we’re eighth in the league and first in 3-point defense. We do a lot of great things. But, offensively, we’ve struggled a bit. We struggled, partly because John [Wall has] missed a lot of games and now he’s back. But we still — we’re not clicking offensively as well as I think we can.”

Washington is 23-17 and fourth, by just a half-game, in the Eastern Conference as game 41 arrives. That record has dueling traits. Since Wall, Morris and Otto Porter have each missed multiple games, it could be viewed as a reasonable outcome. The Wizards are in front of the second tier of Eastern Conference teams, but behind the upper crust after navigating the injuries.

That positive perception is undermined by the games the Wizards let slip away — nine or 10 by Wall’s estimation — despite the injuries. The late, bad, close losses to mediocre, or worse, teams. Simply splitting the difference in those games would put Washington on pace to win 56 games, which would be third-most in franchise history. Five more wins would also put them in third place in the conference and just a game out of second.

However, that’s not the reality of where they are. There is a clear tone of underachievement despite the team being six games over .500. It is lagging behind its preseason goals of winning 50 games and corralling homecourt advantage for most, if not all, of the playoffs.

“You would think it would be a lot worse the way we were playing and what we’ve been going through so far,” Wall said. “To be even where we are right now is not great for us, but we’ll take it. And, we understand we put ourselves in this position and we have [42] more game to make it better and improve.”

Wall has missed 11 games. Morris eight. Bradley Beal zero. That, plus Beal’s increased total production, is why Wall has begun to refer to Beal as “our MVP” during the first half of the season. It’s Beal who has been one of two starters to play every game this season. And, it’s Beal who could well be finally joining Wall at All-Star weekend.

Beal was ninth in the first round of fan voting, which means he will need the coaches to put him on the Eastern Conference roster for the first time in his career. Beal will not stump for a spot. The lone marketing he has done on his behalf is to tweet a video of pandas promoting his inclusion. He found it an enjoyable, if corny, take on his nickname, “Big Panda,” which was not even derived from his basketball skill. He just eats a lot.

“Obviously, I’m not going to be naive and say I don’t want to be an all-star,” Beal said. “Of course I do. But, that’s not why I’m going out and playing every night. The main goal is to win.”

There are no surprises ahead of Washington in the standings. At least, in regard to Boston, it being a top-four team is not a surprise. Being on pace for 60-plus wins after losing offseason prize Gordon Hayward is itself eye-opening. But, Boston’s position among the elite, along with Toronto and Cleveland, is not.

The question for Washington is if it can move to second or first. Neither appears likely since it is six and 8 ½ games out of each spot, respectively. Third has little relevance. Like finishing fourth, it would likely provide homecourt advantage in only the first round. Finishing second could provide a chance for homecourt in the first two rounds, plus the opportunity to not face the top seed until the conference finals, should all of that shake out accordingly. Though, always looming is the fact that Cleveland may not finish first in the regular season, but will be the heavy once the playoffs begin.

“I think the bright side of it is we’re still right here with the top three teams,” Beal said. “I feel like everybody’s still within reach. We have [42] more games left. So, this is where it gets interesting. This is where the season changes. I’m looking forward to it. I think we’re starting to realize that we can make a big jump right here. Especially over these next couple weeks.”

• Todd Dybas can be reached at tdybas@washingtontimes.com.

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