November 29, 2017

The First Quarter

The real title of this post should be Five Things I Hate About The First Quarter Of The NBA Season but that title is just too damn long. But that's what this is about.

With last night's win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Washington Wizards pretty much wrapped up the first quarter of the 2017-2018 season (yes, I get that the actual quarter point is halfway through tonight's game in Philly). Their record? 11-9 with five quality road wins against Milwaukee, Toronto, Minnesota, Miami and Denver. That 11-9 record is better than last year's 7-13 record at this point so that's good, right?

Well, yes. And maybe.

Yes because it's just statistically better. More wins is good. Last year the team won 49 total; this year they are four games ahead of last year's pace a quarter of the way through. All good, yes?
Maybe because after that 7-13 start last year, the team responded by winning 17 in a row at home. Can they do that again? If not, if they even go something like 12-5 at home over that span, then the current start doesn't look that good at all. Unless they can make up the number of games they drop this year vs. last year by winning a corresponding number on the road.

I'll say one thing about this start that I never expected to say (ain't this always the case with the Wizards?): I am probably more frustrated with this team than I can remember at any point in the last 10 or 15 years. That's saying a lot. There was a 19-63 season in there. There was an 0-12 start in there. There was a missed playoff year after making it to the second round two seasons in a row in there. This one is worse. Right now. Maybe it's because I'm in the moment. Is there time to turn things around? Sure. Absolutely. But right now I hate this season. And here are five things I particularly hate about this Wizards season right now.

1. Bad Losses
Last year the Wizards finished four games out of first place in the Eastern Conference. They also won every game at home in the playoffs last year. Wouldn't it have been great to have finished first overall and had homecourt advantage throughout? Not saying it would have gotten us all the way to the NBA Finals but it sure would have given us a better shot. How possible was that? Well, I wrote a post on this blog in May detailing a series of games we could have won but didn't.

If that happens again this year, I already have five games the Wizards could easily have won but didn't: home games against the then 3-4 Phoenix Suns and the then 1-10 Dallas Mavericks; a home game against Miami where the Wizards scored just 29 points in the first half and ended up losing by 3; a road game in Charlotte when they held a 9 point with 3:12 to go in the game; and this past Saturday's loss to Portland by 3 after holding a 17 point lead in the fourth quarter and failing to score a single point in the last 2:30 and allowing the Blazers to score 10 over that span.

We've had apology after excuse from the Wizards players after these losses. It's not good enough. Honestly I felt a little disingenuous writing the post last May I referred to earlier. It's difficult to win every game you should win. But these five this year? No way. No excuses. Five blown games in the first 20 is horrendous. And I'm not even dwelling on the Lakers game in L.A. or the Cleveland game here at home. One could easily argue the Wizards should have seven more wins than they do now and sit 18-2 and first in the conference. But they aren't.

2. John Wall's Injury
One of the reasons the Wizards lost at home to the Miami Heat on November 17 was John Wall's play. John managed zero points in the first half that saw the Wizards down by 21 at half and he finished with just 8 points on 3 of 12 shooting in the 3 point loss. After the game it was revealed that John's knee was swollen, likely from the intravenous fluids administered to overcome sickness and dehydration before the home game against the Atlanta Hawks the prior Saturday.

Apparently that wasn't true. Now John is in the midst of the first week of a projected two week absence due to swelling in his knee and not from the IV before the Hawks game. Instead, the story has been revised to reflect some knee-to-knee contact during the game against the Dallas Mavericks on November 7.

I'm not frustrated with John missing time. I'm frustrated with another mis-diagnosed injury to a Wizards player. This used to be a pattern. For years, the Wizards dealt with injuries and every so often the training staff would get it massively wrong (thinking Jarvis Hayes here but there were certainly others). I thought getting a new training staff in the door in the summer of 2016 would fix that and maybe I'm being too harsh over the first occurrence with the new staff. I guess long suffering Wizards fans like me are extra-sensitive. It would have been nice to get it right the first time is all I'm saying.

3. The Boston Celtics
The Wizards drew a lot of praise over the summer from a lot of folks for staying the course on their plan and keeping their team of current and budding future All-Stars (and max players) intact. In a summer that saw Cleveland trade Kyrie Irving to the Boston Celtics who seemingly blew up their defensive core to make that trade and sign Utah Jazz free agent Gordon Hayward, it certainly seemed like staying the course was a sensible move.

While the conventional wisdom was that the Cavs were all in once Isaiah Thomas recovered from his hip injury and the Cs would be the team of the future once their young team developed, there was a chance the Wizards could start strong while those teams were still gelling and steal the number one seed. Six weeks or so into the season things look a bit different. Standing pat looks safe to the point where the Wizards have let some teams just roll right by them. The aggressive and potentially reckless moves by the Celtics seem to have paid off big time. That team sits comfortably in first place in the East even considering they lost Hayward for the season on opening night.

This is not necessarily surprising. After refusing to commit to contracts for years so the team could sign a max free agent in the 2016 offseason, the Wizards are now overcommitted to sub-par players long term to the point where they are severely limited in the moves they can make without shaking things up. Well, maybe that's the key. Maybe we do need to shake things up. Maybe not now. Maybe later in the season towards the trade deadline. But there's one sure thing: the Celtics knew they likely couldn't win it all unless they made some big moves. So they did. And it's worked. The Wizards have preferred to stay the course and somehow they expect different results than last year. So far it's not working. I was looking forward to some good rivalry games with the Celtics this year. So far, we look like an eight seed to the Celtics' one seed. Although that might start to change if we stop dropping eminently winnable games.

4. Ian Mahinmi
So full disclosure here...this post actually started out as a post solely about how bad Ian Mahinmi's season is going so far. But I didn't want that much bad karma so I decided to expand it to cover some other issues that I am a little less angry with in addition to his participation this season. Suffice it to say I am frustrated on pretty much a nightly basis by Mahinmi's play.

Say the name Ian Mahinmi to me this season and I think of three things: defensive lapses, fouls and turnovers. None of those are positive.

Would it surprise you to know that Mahinmi leads the team in turnovers per minute played? Not John Wall (although he's close). Not Bradley Beal. Not Tim Frazier (although he's also close). Ian Mahinmi. His current turnover rate per 36 minutes is 3.5, good for first (or last depending on your perspective) on the team. Think about how much Wall, Beal and Frazier handle the ball and then think about how much Mahinmi handles the ball. On a per minute basis, Ian turns it over more. Wow!

Ian doesn't commit more actual turnovers than John or Brad or Tim, of course. The reason? He's not on the court long enough. But when he is out there, he's usually committing fouls. 8.3 per 36 minutes to be exact. That's 12th in the whole NBA but it's really worse than that. To be statistically valid, metrics like points, assists, rebounds, blocks, fouls and anything else need to have a reasonable sample size. Khem Birch actually leads the NBA in fouls per 36 minutes because he's played 2 minutes this season and collected one foul, yielding a rate of 18 fouls per 36 minutes. But because of the small sample size, the statistic is useless. If Birch had happened to hit one three point shot in his two minutes of action, he'd be leading the league in points per 36 minutes too at 54.

In the case of Mahinmi's fouls, he actually does have enough game action (at 248 minutes) to make the stat worth paying attention to. And he's really actually second in the NBA. Only one player "ahead" of Mahinmi has played over 32 minutes this year and that's the Houston Rockets' Tarik Black, who is barely edging out Jan with 8.4 fouls per 36 minutes.

Almost the biggest mystery about Mahinmi this year is he seems to have forgotten how to play defense. He is (when he's not fouling) frequently way out of position on his man and is not really the rim protector we thought we were getting when Ernie Grunfeld panicked and plopped down $16 million per over four years for this guy. I say almost the biggest mystery because the biggest headscratcher is how Scott Brooks continues to put this guy out on the floor. And what about his teammates? Is there no peer to peer pressure being applied for him to step up? I'm stumped here.

Having said all that, I thought Ian actually played Karl-Anthony Towns well last night. We need a lot more of that like every night. Otherwise I don't get why he's on the court. And one game of good performance should not get him a pass for the next 20 or so. Minutes should be earned here.

5. Fluid Tickets
Last year the Wizards introduced a new season ticket holder benefit called the Fluid Tickets Program. I raved about this program last November for the option it provided to season ticket holders when there was a home game we just couldn't get to. Instead of selling tickets for pennies on the dollar on a secondary market site, the team granted us full purchase price credit for future purchases in the same season. Most especially, it offered fans the opportunity to upgrade to better seats every once in a while.
Last year this was an awesome benefit. This year? Good but not so much. It just doesn't seem like there are many really great seats available, particularly in the VIP areas, and some games don't seem to have any tickets available at all. The jury's still out on this one for me but I don't understand why the team doesn't make tickets for every game available, unless they are getting rich off of balances left in ticket holders' accounts at the end of the year. The balances are non-refundable and don't count towards next season's purchases. I'm willing to let this one ride out a bit but for now, this benefit is trending down for me.
Tonight the Wizards are in Philly on their second back to back of the year. Then it's home against second place in the East Detroit and then a west coast swing. This thing has got to get better soon and I honestly think at least two of my complaints above are within the team's control. Stop playing Ian Mahinmi unless he earns minutes and try every minute dammit. The Wizards have proven they can win some tough games on the road and the crowd support for the first time in a long time is there at 601 F Street. Start playing hard and putting teams like Phoenix and Dallas and teams that you hold big leads on at home away early and often. Then we can start getting back to chasing the Celtics. And the Pistons. And the Cavaliers. And the Raptors. And the Sixers. And the Pacers. Start tonight in Philly, please.

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