I’m not gonna sit here and say that the Knicks would’ve needed a Christmas miracle to rally together and beat the Wizards in that holiday matinee. Some of that thinking comes from the utterly deluded part of my soul that still thinks my boys are better than their record and will SOMEDAY start to string together a couple of wins. I don’t need the playoffs (and certainly won’t get them) but it would be cool to just throw a few more in the win column. Give some of our younger players a chance to ball. Maybe actually finish the season ahead of Philadelphia in the sorrow standings. The other part of it? I’m still not convinced that Washington is really all that good.
Let me rephrase that a little. After Thursday, the Wizards are sitting at 20-8, holding down the third seed in the East (squeezed half a game behind Atlanta and half a game ahead of Chicago). While they’ve played mostly a cakey, East-heavy slate of opponents so far (here ranked 28th in strength of schedule), they have some quality wins over the Clippers and Cavs, and a gritty 83-80 topping of the Brow and company. Other than that… Nothin’. I’m actually backpeddling a little right now and saying these guys have hardly any impressive showings through 28 games. A strong win over the Clippers, a narrow loss to the Mavericks. No games against the Spurs, Blazers, Warriors, Grizzlies… You name it. Look for them to begin a BRUTAL 5 game road trip on Monday where they play the Mavs again, along with the Thunder, Rockets, Spurs, and Pelicans. We’re gonna know a lot more about them after that. (If they can even go 2-3, I’ll be pretty impressed).
So far, the thing most responsible for the Wizards success has been a truly stifling defense. The ‘Zards are a top 5 team in points allowed per game, and just barely fall out of that mark for both FG and AFG%. They do struggle with fouling their opponents but they also rank within the top 10 in both opponent 3pt% and 3pt makes. A lot of that success comes from the continued development of All-Star guard John Wall who, while mostly known for doing things like this, has become a truly complete player: 2nd in the NBA in assists, 4th in steals, and falling just behind Marc Gasol in box plus/minus (a metric that looks at how the team has played over the entire course of the season. Also, HOLY SHIT look at Russell!!). Not only that, but Wall has become a fearsome defender as well, using his length and incredible speed and athleticism to annoy the crap out of opposing guards. Zach Buckley wrote this really cool article on Christmas Day. Even though the title might be reaching a little, the stats are incontrovertible: When Wall plays, Wizard opponents score 96.4 points per game, a mark that would be the best in the association. When he sits, that number jumps to 110 and the Wizards are just ekeing out the Sixers and the Timberwolves for a 28th mark. Damn.
Of course, I’m gonna get my hater on for a moment. Full Disclosure: I love John Wall. He’s a great guy, he’s shown a ton of improvement every year as a passer and a leader on this team. I own him in fantasy. This broke my heart. But I gotta say it. It’s not that hard to be a great defensive team if you’re playing one of the league’s easiest schedules. Sure, Wall contributes in a MAJOR way defensively. But then why doesn’t he crack the league’s top-20 in defensive plus/minus? He is 9th in defensive win-shares, but that list is also led by James Harden at #1, so I have a hard time totally buying it. And yes, again, Wall has yet to check Steph Curry, Lillard, Parker, or *GASP* Russell Westbrook. Those among the elite he has played (Kyrie, Lowry, Paul) have averaged about 20 ppg, which represents pretty much what they average on the season anyway.
I say all this because the Wizards just aren’t that good on the other side of the floor. By Hollinger’s metric for offensive efficiency, they are a middling squad at 13th in the league. For more simple evaluations, they score just over 100ppg, which drops them down to 18th. They are a top 5 team in FG%, but that number drops all the way to 12 when you factor in 3 point shooting with AFG. This last point has actually drawn a lot of attention from various analysts across the league, with sportswriters quick to point out the overabundance of long 2s that the ‘Zards tend to take (hey, they’re not the Knicks). On a team that pairs Wall’s passing with sharpshooters like Bradley Beal and the RED-HOT Rasual Butler, its unusual to see the Wizards rank so low here. I mean, John Wall is only a year removed from generating the most corner 3 opportunities in the league, by a WIDE MARGIN.
A lot of the issues with the offense will improve. Beal missed a big chunk of the season, which obviously would have impacted their numbers. They are also still waiting on Martell Webster, a knock-down shooter in his own right. Nene’s been banged up. Paul Pierce will turn up in crunch time when he needs to. And, most importantly, Wall and Beal are still young players, continuing to flourish individually and in playing off one another.
Still, I can’t help but be a little skeptical. Swap Pierce for Ariza and this is pretty much the same team that averaged under 91 points per game through 2 playoff series (yes, that was against two of the league’s elite defenses, but you gotta add at least 10 to that number if you wanna hang with the West). While they are almost certainly locked into a playoff spot (Milwaukee is 6th in the East right now with a 15-15 record) they might have a hard time securing homecourt as both the Bulls and the Cavs will make a late season push for positioning, likely putting the Wizards in a battle with Atlanta for the 4 seed. Not only that, but these are teams that have improved significantly over the caliber the Wiz witnessed in the playoffs last year (Chicago put up 69 points in one of those games lolz). If they do fall out of those first 4 spots, they may have a much tougher go around come April.
All that being said, the East is WIDE open. The 1st seed Raptors score at a ridiculous rate and have a lot of heart, but they’re still a very young team, and weak on the interior if Amir Johnson’s ankles kick up again. Cleveland is still figuring itself out, and desperately needs to make some kind of move in the wake of Varejao’s season-ending injury. I picked the Bulls to come out of this conference at the beginning of the season, and I stand by it, but they’ve looked on-and-off through 30 games and have some weird losses. Its really worth noting how BIG the Wizards are up-front with Gortat and Nene. If they can dial in defensively and play some bully-ball in the post, they match up very well with everyone but Chicago; the team they beat last year. I guess all of this is looking forward a little too heavily (especially for a piece that started about the Knicks more recent woes) but I’m intrigued by this Washington team. I’ll be very curious to see how their upcoming road trip goes.
Back to the Game
I guess it gets even worse when the real highlight coming out of Christmas is one of your players getting thrown out of the game for (almost) DECKING John Wall. I don’t wanna talk about this too much; it was definitely ejection worthy, but Acy did a good job of pulling out of that punch at the last minute. Plus Wall was mic’ed up all night and kind of being an asshole, shouting “Merry Christmas” all over the court while running train on the Knicks. People get frustrated and I’m actually kinda happy that we have Acy as an enforcer type player. I’d love it if the league could get a tiny bit more physical but, then again, I’m not the one playing.
As for the rest of the night, pretty forgettable. There was one point in the 4th when the Knicks cut it to 10 and I prepared myself for another almost-comeback-shattering-loss, but they never really got closer and my hopes weren’t up that far anyway. Unfortunately, this now represents 8 home losses in a row and what would have been a must-win game (if the Knicks could win games) before they begin a pretty brutal 3 game road trip against the Kings, Blazers, and Clippers. Its also worth noting that the lovely titual quote (from who else but Mr. Melo?) came before this most recent horrible holiday loss. If they were dying before, what are they now?
Its an interesting question because I wanted to end this article giving a big ups to the New York sports fans out there. I understand that these Christmas tickets probably cost an arm and a leg and once you buy them you’re pretty much committed to spending the ENTIRE 3 hours at the Garden. Still, this was Christmas and the Knicks were getting killed and I didn’t see a single fan leaving. No one ducking out early to beat the rush. No one jumping ship to go spend some good family time on their day off. I know that 95% of cities will claim to have the most passionate fanbases but between everything NY has put up with this year between NBA, NFL, MLB (I don’t really watch hockey), its been pretty trying. And yet, these guys are still there cheering, reading the sports section, and, most importantly, remaining very aware of everything that’s going on and looking forward to the next year and some great draft picks. Jameis the Jet!! After watching a segment where an analyst walked around the beach asking people in Miami if they still liked Lebron (several people said they only watched the games when it was too rainy to tan), I gotta say I’m proud of all my boys and girls holding it down in the Big Apple.