On Monday night, the Washington Wizards were 10 points away from their first Conference Finals appearance since 1979. They pushed the top seeded Boston Celtics to a seventh game, where their bench, an Achilles heel all year long, turned into a puddle.
The bench made one basket all night. One basket! Bojan Bogdanovic, who was acquired at the trade deadline to fill it up in this exact situation, was -19 in 16 minutes; Ian Mahinmi, who was acquired in the offseason for the low, low price of $16 million per after Al Horford chose Boston and Kevin Durant wouldn’t even take a meeting with Washington, had four more personal fouls than rebounds; Kelly Oubre played six seconds; buyout market pickup Brandon Jennings played a bit longer than that, but shouldn’t have.
The inevitable result was an exhausted starting five that actually outscored the Celtics by nine points in 32 minutes. John Wall missed all his four shots in the fourth quarter, and somehow managed to contest zero of Boston’s three-point attempts. His touches per game went from 88.3 during the regular season to 96.3 in the second round.
Heading into Game 7, Wall was averaging 12.3 drives to the basket in 38.5 minutes per game. In Game 7, he drove 12 times in 44 minutes (which is also the fourth-most minutes he’s played all year long). At some point, it’s unreasonable to expect much more from your franchise player.
Replenishing the bench is essential for Washington’s front office this summer, but they’ll have to do so with severely limited cap flexibility and no first-round picks in this year’s draft. Given the direction of the league — being able to play three guards at the same time is almost a requirement — and how critical it is to preserve Wall throughout the regular season and during a grueling playoff run, the Wizards should target a backup point guard this summer.
Tomas Satoransky may someday be that guy, but the role is too significant in the short-term to put all their eggs in one basket. Unfortunately, this year’s free agency class is a shallow pool. Assuming Washington renounces all their free agents except Otto Porter, they’ll still be capped out and only have the mid-level exception to shop around with. They can comb through a list of lifelong backups — guys like Ty Lawson, Shelvin Mack (a former Wizards draft pick), and Darren Collison — or shoot their shot on two bigger fish: Shaun Livingston (also a former Wizard), and Deron Williams.
It’s unclear if either would be interested in a backup role for a team that isn’t a definitive title contender, but Washington can afford to give them a raise and more playing time on a damn good playoff team that should be even better next season. Both are veterans with serviceable value on and off the floor.
Even if they swing and miss, Washington’s future is still one worth envying so long as they re-sign Porter (a restricted free agent in line for a potential max contract) and maintain their continuity. Next season, Bradley Beal will be 24 years old, Wall will be 27, Markieff Morris will be 28, Porter will turn 24, and Oubre will be 22. All should/could improve.
Mahinmi, who has about three years and $48 million left on his deal, turns 31 in November but will presumably head into training camp more healthy than he was this season. Adding him to the bench will help. Backup power forward also remains an area of need; try-hard utility big Jason Smith provided some decent spot minutes off the bench at times during the regular season, and even showed an improved three-point shot, but isn’t skilled or quick enough to be a viable option against playoff-level competition.
What we learned from this team, one that finished with a top-10 offense and net rating, is that their core is good enough to compete with nearly any team in the league. Internal improvement and a lucky offseason signing could very well put the Wizards over the top as soon as next season.
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