NEW ORLEANS -- The Wizards are the NBA’s most surprising team going into the All-Star break. No one expected them to have 34 wins regardless of how this season shook out, but that was especially true after a 2-8 start. Now that we’re 55 games into an 82-game season -- and with the trade deadline approaching Thursday afternoon -- my takeaways on what's transpired, why and what has to happen next:
10. Bradley Beal has avoided injury. The revamping of the medical staff was headed up by VP Tommy Sheppard and has worked. The system that the Wizards put in place to be more clinical in dealing with how to treat injuries and be more forward-thinking has kept him stress-reaction free in his lower right leg. Beal missed three games with a right thigh strain early in the season and one game after rolling his ankle but he has played 51 of 55. Twenty-three more appearances and he sets a career-high for games played. And this is the healthiest that John Wall has been this deep into a season in several years and he had surgeries to both knees May 5.
9. The evolution of Jason Smith. He was all thumbs when the season started, so much so that Brooks joked that he was starting to question his spot on the roster (pre-emptive strike: he said it as a joke so do NOT take this out of context and fashion it into a blog post that misrepresents the actual tone). Smith has grown into a fan favorite because of his effort, hustle and energy he brings off the bench. He’s hitting the mid-range jumper when he pops on the pick-and-roll and is flashing some of his underrated athleticism with highlight-reel blocks and dunks diving to the basket. Most nights, he’s the best player off the bench.
8. The second-biggest free-agent acquisition, Andrew Nicholson, is completely out of the rotation. He has the old-man game but appears out of place when the game is played at a faster pace. Nicholson is a bench player so there was no mystery as to what his role would be. But he has accrued 25 DNP-CDs (did not play coach’s decision). Nicholson last played double-digit minutes Jan. 14. Given the length of his contract (four years), moving him will be next to impossible.
7. Wall’s decision-making late in games or at the end of quarters has gone through the roof. He’s had his hero-ball moments but that was early. As his judgment has become more sound, so is everyone else’s. The Wizards late-game execution is a strength and it’s why they’re 11-4 in games decided by six points or less since Dec. 1.
6. The diversity in the offense has taken the ball out of Wall's hands more often but he's actually more productive. generates 108.1 points per game (seventh). Since Dec. 1 when the turnaround began, the Wizards average 110.4 points (fifth), shoot 49.1% from the field (second) and 39% from three (tied for second). They're 28-10 in that stretch. For the season, Wall is 15th in the league in passes made per game at 59.8 and third in passes received at 76.3. Last season, Wall made 70.9 passes and recevied 83.9 which was the most per game of any player in the NBA in both categories. He created 24.7 points which was second-best in the league then. By involving more players in the offense, even though Wall handles the ball less to pass and receives fewer passes per game, he's actually averaging more points created at 25.3, second only to James Harden (Rockets).
5. Three-point defense. It was atrocious at the start. They’ve gone from allowing XX% to XX% from the arc. The recoveries to the shooters and extra effort to get there has made a world of difference.
4. Beal isn’t an All-Star is one thing, but that he received so little respect in the initial voting process was stunning. He was 14th among fans and eight among media voting. It shouldn’t have come down to a commissioner’s pick as to whether or not he made it.
2. Otto Porter’s three-point shooting. That he’d become better with the deep ball isn’t a surprise. He was sub-par for most of last season shooting in the low 30s. Then he raised it to about 37% by season’s end which is better than average. But he’s now almost 10% better and is taking XX more three-point shots per game.
1. Brooks is an elite coach. I’ve never been a fan of the logic that states because a coach either didn’t win at a previous stop or didn’t take a team with a lot of talent far enough (see Brooks with the Oklahoma City Thunder) then that coach isn’t a good coach. That’s not how you measure coaches. The same was said about Erik Spoelstra of the Miami Heat. First, coaching is about much more than what happens during 48 minutes on the court. It has to do with more than Xs and Os. And it has to do with having players who allow themselves to be coached. College basketball is about coaches. It’s their system vs the other coach’s system. The NBA is about players. It’s no coincidence that those who make the most money determine that tone. It was proven in last year’s Western Conference finals that Brooks wasn’t the problem with Oklahoma City. Boxscores don’t necessarily tell you who are the best players in a game. Neither does a coaching record. And Brooks’ was already pretty good.