The Wizards suffered their second straight game scoring under 110, this time falling on the road to the formidable Denver Nuggets. The story heading into this game was Washington’s second-ranked offense against Denver’s first-ranked defense, and the defense prevailed this time around. The game never really felt close after the first quarter. Denver was unable to bury the Wizards, which we will discuss below. But the Wizards never got close enough to give the Nuggets much of a scare.
Bradley Beal had another subpar night, contributing only 14 points on 6-15 shooting and 2-10 from three-point range. Jordan McRae led all scorers with 21 points, many of those coming in garbage time. Moe Wagner and Davis Bertans put in solid efforts off the bench, scoring 14 points each.
The Nuggets were led by Nikola Jokic and DeMatha Catholic product Jerami Grant. Jokic put up an absurd 8 point, 20 rebound, and 5 assist stat-line. Grant poured in 20 points off the bench, 15 of those coming in the second quarter alone. That was ultimately when the game got away from the Wizards.
The Wizards cannot survive subpar games from Bradley Beal. There simply isn’t enough firepower around him this year. I would venture to predict that the Wizards will not win any games this season in which Beal scores 20 or less. So far, they are 0-3 in such games. For as great as the bench has been, there’s only so much they can do.
Ish Smith is the backup point guard Wizards fans have been looking for. Many fans on Wizards Twitter are calling for Ish Smith to take the starting point guard spot over Isaiah Thomas. That likely won’t happen, and I’ll explain why later. But what he provides to that second unit is invaluable, and hard to capture in numbers. When he is on the floor, the offense just looks better. He is great at finding holes in defenses to cut into the lane, which collapses the defense and allows him to kick it out to someone on the perimeter. His passing is extremely underrated.
His facilitation is a major reason that the bench unit has been this effective. I’ve been a big believer that this season is a gap year for the Wizards. I don’t expect them to make the playoffs, and I think it would be detrimental to their future if they made a push to do so. Wizards fans should be more excited at the potential lottery prospects that the team could be selecting next summer.
However, this season is a chance for the team to figure out their identity before John Wall returns. Ted Leonsis and Tommy Sheppard have made it clear that they expect this team to compete in the East again next season. The Wizards’ young players will have another year under them, and the team will finally have some cap space with Ian Mahinmi coming off the books (my hot take for next summer: the Wizards should go after Bogdan Bogdanovic. There is no way the Kings can afford to resign him, and the Wizards will have the space to make it happen). Ish Smith is the perfect backup point guard to facilitate that bench unit when John Wall is not on the floor. This is the role he will be playing next season, and the role I expect him to continue playing this season.
The Wizards are actively tanking but in a subtle way. Meet veiled tanking. In the last two games, I’ve noticed a few odd trends. Scott Brooks pulls his starters a bit earlier than I would expect. He’s experimenting with “boom or bust” lineups during critical parts of the game (playing Isaiah Thomas and Ish Smith together against the Kings). The team does not always make proper defensive adjustments that seem obvious to those watching the game.
This is a concept that I’m going to start calling veiled tanking. You heard the term here first. This differs from pure tanking, or naked tanking, in the sense that the Wizards aren’t actively throwing games or playing subpar players. That is a strategy that the Sixers executed in “The Process” days, and the Knicks utilized last season.
Here is where veiled tanking differs. In the game versus Sacramento on Sunday, Brooks pulled the starters with about a minute left in regulation. It was still an eight point game! That’s a game that’s still within reach. Last night, Brooks put Isaac Bonga in with about 6 minutes left, signifying Brad Beal’s night was over. It was about a 15-16 point deficit at that point. Again, this is not an insurmountable lead. In fact, this is a number that we’ve seen the Wizards come back from on multiple occasions this season.
It appears that there are certain games this season where the Wizards may just concede the victory to their opponents in the fourth quarter. In a game like last night’s, the Wizards don’t have any business beating the Nuggets on their home floor. It was the first game of their west coast road trip. The starters got their minute and reps in, and the bench unit looked solid. So why not call it a game and rest up for the Suns on Wednesday night?
As I mentioned, the Wizards should not aim to make the playoffs this season. I believe it is in their best future interest to protect their lottery odds for the 2020 Draft. Veiled tanking is one way to do that without sabotaging the development or performance of your players, or putting a terrible product on the floor for your fans. This is definitely something to keep an eye on in the coming weeks.
The Wizards are back at it in their second back-to-back of the young season, facing off against the Phoenix Suns at 9pm on Wednesday night.