- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 20, 2019

When the owner speaks, the rest of the franchise typically has to fall in line. But when Ted Leonsis declared last week the Wizards would “never, ever” tank, players and coaches didn’t have to make any adjustments.

They were already on board with the message.

“I never understood the word tank,” coach Scott Brooks said Sunday. “As a player, as a coach, your job is to go out there and compete and put yourself in a position to win games. Our organization, even though we’ve had some guys out, some starters out and some really good starters out, we’re still focused on competing and winning.”

“For me, that’s not an option,” guard Tomas Satoransky said.

The Wizards have played better lately, and they’ve shown no signs of folding since John Wall opted for season-ending surgery late last month. While they are still seven games under .500, the Wizards are 6-4 over their last 10 and just three games out of the playoffs.

Further, the Wizards’ upcoming schedule features teams near them in the standings, starting with Monday’s game against the Detroit Pistons. Detroit, for instance, is ninth in the East, but Washington trails them by just a game.

Later in the week, the Wizards face the Orlando Magic, who are also desperate to make the playoffs.

“It’s going to really important, the schedule 10 games before the All-Star [Break], and to see where we can be after that,” Satoransky said. “We are very aware of the importance of this stretch of the games.”

It’s understandable that some fans want the Wizards to end up with a high pick this season — especially those who watched Duke’s Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett pick apart Virginia’s pack-line defense on Saturday.

Right now, Washington’s recent play makes drafting one of those two stars a pipe dream. Even their defense — which was, at times, embarrassing — has been better in Wall’s absence.

Over every team’s last 10 games, Washington ranks eighth in defensive efficiency, giving up 108.5 points per 100 possessions.

By comparison, from the start of the season through Dec. 26 (Wall’s last game), the Wizards gave up a third-worst 112.5 points per 100 possessions.

The difference? Brooks said his team has been better in stopping transitions and has committed fewer turnovers. For the former, the Wizards went from allowing 15 fast break points per game through their first 35 games to just 13 in the last 10. That might not seem like a lot, but they’ve climbed up to 10th in the league from 25th in that category.

In-season additions have helped. Trevor Ariza, acquired from the Phoenix Suns, gave the Wizards a reliable veteran presence.

Backup point guard Chasson Randle, who cracked the rotation after Wall went down, is also a feisty young player whose effort has been a boost.

Brooks said he’s been impressed with Ariza’s “serious approach” to the game.

“He’s not going to get a stop every time, but he’s going to give great effort,” Brooks said.

“He’s not going to gamble a lot. He’s not going to take the immature chances that might lead to a steal and a dunk in transition, most likely it’s not. He doesn’t usually take those gambles.”

Brooks‘ statement could be interpreted as a subtle dig at Kelly Oubre, whose risk-taking often irritated his coach and limited the forward’s playing time before the Wizards traded him and Austin Rivers for Ariza.

Time and time again, Brooks has emphasized the importance of players knowing their roles.

Without Wall, the Wizards have especially had to play within a system. Star Bradley Beal has elevated his game and Washington is getting the most out of role players Satoransky and Tomas Bryant.

Is that good enough to make the playoffs? Based on Leonsis‘ comments last week, it better be.

“It’d be easy to say, ‘We have so many players out injured,’ but we’re not gonna do that,” Leonsis told reporters. “We’re not letting anybody off the hook. We gotta make the playoffs.”

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