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Grading the Washington Wizards offseason

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

There’s a fine line between a young team building chemistry while growing and a team that has stalled.

The Wizards appeared to cross that threshold last season.

For just the second time in seven years, Washington’s record didn’t improve from the previous year. Also for the just the second time in five years, the Wizards didn’t reach the second round.

The last time both happened, they fired coach Randy Wittman. They didn’t dump Scott Brooks this year. With his contract, he’s entrenched.

But they did shake up the roster with a few moves that carry the potential to help Washington escape this muck or backfire in spectacular fashion. For a team that has become so uninspiring, the risk should be welcome.

Trade Marcin Gortat for Austin Rivers? Sure. Perimeter talent comes at a premium. Bigs are more easily replaceable.

Sign Dwight Howard? Sure. For all his foibles, Howard remains an elite rebounder, high-quality interior defender and helpful pick-and-roller. The taxpayer mid-level exception is a bargain for a starter of his caliber.

Sign Jeff Green? Sure. He’s coming off a career year, as he finally better understands how he can – and more importantly, can’t – contribute to winning. A minimum salary suits him.

Howard and Rivers particularly certainly add personalities to a locker room with John Wall and Bradley Beal. But Wall and Gortat already clashed. How much worse could it be with Howard? Rivers will get along better with teammates when his dad isn’t coach, and he has become more self-aware. (The same can’t necessarily be said about Howard.)

These are manageable issues relative to what Washington could have faced.

Credit Wizards owner Ted Leonsis for hanging above the luxury-tax line. After paying the tax for the first time in franchise history last season and not getting even a single playoff-series victory, he could have rushed to trim salary. Trading the No. 15 pick – instead used on Troy Brown Jr. – to unload a bad contract would have been quite typical for this franchise.

This doesn’t mean Leonsis will keep spending big forever. Next summer looks like a possible a breaking point if Washington doesn’t produce this season.

Starting power forward Markieff Morris and promising but inconsistent forward Kelly Oubre Jr. will become free agents. Wall’s super-max extension will kick in. Otto Porter, Beal and Ian Mahinmi will remain on massive deals.

Unless they’re far more willing to spend than understood, the Wizards would be wise to get out ahead of an even more daunting luxury-tax crunch. Just letting Morris and/or Oubre walk would be disappointing.

But there’s still time for a preemptive solution. It didn’t have to happen this offseason.

I’m not certain the Wizards will be better this year. But in a summer they appeared likely to take a step back, they gave themselves a real chance to be better. This was the right time to invite variance, and Washington did it shrewdly.

Offseason grade: B-

Marcus Morris smoked marijuana to deal with anxiety while with Pistons

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When the Suns traded Marcus Morris to the Pistons, he called it “betrayal.”

It wasn’t that, but it’s also worth understanding why he felt that way – and what it means in a greater context.

Marcus signed a below-market contract extension to stay with his twin brother Markieff Morris in Phoenix. That was foolish, because it made Marcus more tradable – and the Suns dealt him. Marcus just didn’t understand enough about how the NBA operated.

Why did he make that error? At least in part because he was blinded by a very understandable loyalty to Markieff.

Jackie MacMullan of ESPN:

When the twins were in high school, their house burned down with their family cat trapped inside. Their mother, Angel, moved them and their brother Blake into a small home in Hunting Park with their maternal grandparents, a tight squeeze for teenage boys who would grow to be nearly 6-foot-10. They lived in the basement and slept on a mattress, with no heat and a ceiling that was only 6½ feet high, which made it impossible for them to fully stand up. Yet they were grateful, because at least they had family who cared. Only one in 20 of their friends had a father around — the twins’ dad was nowhere to be seen, either — and their mother worked long hours so she could pay for their basketball shoes and something to eat at supper. The twins leaned on each other for companionship, solace and courage.

“We were just trying to survive every day,” Marcus says. “As a kid, it’s fun for a minute. You don’t see yourself in any danger. Once you become a teenager, you’re unprotected. Now you’re a target. If you’re wearing some Jordans, they’re coming for you. There were plenty of times I had to protect myself. You walk out the door every day looking around, watching your back, just trying to stay out of the line of fire.

“You see shootings, pistol whippings. One wrong decision, one wrong word, and it escalates so quickly into a full-blown war. It’s like that in Philly. You’re trapped in a box. Your opportunity is so small, so once a person gets ahold of something, they protect it with their life. It’s hard to explain if you haven’t lived it.

“We just walked out stressed all the time. I said to my brother once, ‘You know, this is no way to live.'”

The Morris’ situation is unique, but it’s not totally atypical. The black experience in America has always been subject to large amounts of violence. Redlining continues to keep black people in more violent neighborhoods with more poverty, worse schools and harsher policing – elements that continue the cycle.

Those stressors contribute to mental-health issues, and if the NBA – whose players are predominantly black – is concerned about mental health, it can’t ignore this greater context.

The Suns didn’t sound like they empathized. Marcus began his pro career in Houston, and it didn’t sound like Rockets general manager Daryl Morey – who doesn’t have the best track record of discussing mental health – knew how to relate to Marcus, either. MacMullan:

That summer, he refused to go to Houston for offseason workouts and wouldn’t answer calls from the Rockets’ staff. “[Rockets general manager] Daryl Morey is telling me, ‘You’re hurting your career,’ but I was thinking, ‘Well, you guys are hurting my career,'” Morris recalls. “I didn’t trust them. I didn’t trust anybody.”

The results weren’t better in Detroit, either. MacMullan:

Morris couldn’t sleep because his mind was racing all the time. The Pistons tried to make him feel welcome, but he wasn’t very responsive. He was often up all night replaying a missed shot or a mistake on the floor, and his play was suffering. He seriously considered quitting, but what would he do? Go back to Philly? That notion led to more anxiety, more stress. He tried sleeping pills. He smoked marijuana. Nothing granted him peace.

I’m very curious how this will be received. White coaches Steve Kerr and Phil Jackson admitted to smoking marijuana to help with pain after back surgeries, and people were generally understanding. Black player Larry Sanders – trying to cope with anxiety, depression and mood disorders – essentially got run out of the league for using marijuana and espousing its benefits.

White people get more benefit of the doubt on drug use. Physical pain is taken more seriously than mental pain.

Marijuana isn’t the answer for everyone dealing with anxiety and stress, because there is no single answer for everyone. But criminalizing marijuana – banned legally in many places and by the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement – isn’t the answer. The appropriateness of marijuana for NBA players should be explored.

Perhaps it will be as we remove the stigma around mental health. Players like Marcus Morris opening up about their issues is a huge step forward – and especially important one considering the NBA’s majority-black demographics.

It sounds as if Morris is getting far better help from the Celtics. I highly recommend reading MacMullan’s full article for more on that and how mental health and race intersect as it pertains to the NBA.

John Wall believes Wizards have chance in wide-open East

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LeBron James — the man who has led his team to eight straight NBA Finals — has moved from the East to the West and the Los Angeles Lakers. With that has come the perception that the Eastern Conference is more wide open than it has been since LeBron started to dominate it.

Is it? Toronto and Boston were the top two regular season seeds in the East and both should be seriously improved — the Celtics will have a healthy Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward on a team that almost made the Finals without them, and the Raptors just upgraded with a potential MVP in Kawhi Leonard. Plus, the Sixers should get noticeably better with their young roster of Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and Markelle Fultz (now with a jumper) all a year older and having worked on their game this summer.

That’s not even getting into the potential of the Milwaukee Bucks with a new coach, and what should be an improved Indiana Pacers team.

John Wall believes it will be more open.

And he believes his Wizards can be part of that mix, just like he thinks they could/should have been the past couple of years. Here is what he said in Las Vegas at the USA Basketball mini-camp, via Bleacher Report.

“I think we have a better team now, and the East is more wide-open now that [LeBron James is] out of the picture,” Wall said…

“I think we could have competed the last two years if we didn’t have to deal with injuries,” Wall said… “Falling to the eight seed (last season), playing Toronto, a heck of a team, I felt like we should have beaten those guys, but they came out the better team at that time,” Wall said…

“I think we have a better team now.”

On paper, the Wizards can be dangerous. Wall at the point, Bradley Beal at the two, and Otto Porter at the three makes up a terrific perimeter starting group. With them are solid role players such as Markieff Morris, Tomas Satoransky, Austin Rivers, Jeff Green, and then they now have Dwight Howard in the paint. (Howard can be a fit with the Wizards, if he plays his role, but that hasn’t always gone smoothly.)

However, I need to see it before I buy in.

I need to see Wall play all-out on both ends and look more like an All-NBA level player (he’s only made that team one time). Beal and Wall both need to stay healthy. Howard needs to set picks, not demand the ball in the post a lot, and be a nightly force on defense, not an occasional one. Most importantly, will their notoriously troubled locker room chemistry improve with the addition of Howard to the mix?

There are a lot more questions than answers for Washington heading into next season. It’s on Wall and company to answer them.

Report: Clippers trade Austin Rivers to Wizards for Marcin Gortat

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DeAndre Jordan could leave the Clippers, either by opting out to enter unrestricted free agency or opting in to facilitate a trade.

If he does, L.A. will be prepared.

The Clippers are sending Austin Rivers to the Wizards for Marcin Gortat in an exchange of expiring contracts.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

This trade could improve the mood in both locker rooms.

By dealing Rivers – son of coach and former team president Doc Rivers – the Clippers are eliminating a political problem. Teammates resented Austin’s favored status, and it might have even contributed to Chris Paul‘s exit. Though the situation was more complex than that, perception matters greatly. The only way to move past the issue was firing Doc or dropping Austin. Once the Clippers extended Doc’s contract and Austin opted into his $12.65 million salary, trading the guard become favored.

Gortat always seemed to have tension with John Wall. Though they managed it well enough, that gets exhausting.

Beyond the interpersonal dynamics, Rivers was expendable in L.A., and this trade saves Washington money.

The Clippers have Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams as lead guards and just drafted Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jerome Robinson in the lottery. Beverley and Williams are better than Rivers. Gilgeous-Alexander and Robinson have higher upsides.

Based on their current roster, this puts the Wizards in line to save $3,203,263 – $915,218 in salary and $2,288,045 in luxury tax. They could trim payroll even further.

In Washington, Rivers will slide behind John Wall and/or Bradley Beal at guard. The Wizards especially need another backup shooting guard after Jodie Meeksperformance-enhancing drug suspension, but they also don’t seem to believe enough in promising Tomas Satoransky as backup point guard.

Washington might seek another center in free agency. It’ll be a buyers’ market at that position. A hodgepodge of Ian Mahinmi, Markieff Morris and Jason Smith is far from inspiring.

Gortat could start at center in L.A. if Jordan leaves. If Jordan returns, Gortat would be a good backup. The Clippers also have Boban Marjanovic at center, though none of his three teams (Spurs and Pistons previously) have figured out quite what to do with him.

Markieff Morris: Wizards better than Raptors; Giannis Antetokounmpo: Bucks better than Celtics

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The Raptors beat the Wizards 4-2 in their first-round series. The Celtics beat the Bucks 4-3 in their first-round series.

But that didn’t stop players on Washington and Milwaukee from claiming superiority.

Wizards forward Markieff Morris, via Hoop District:

Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo, via ESPN:

I thought we were the better team. But, unfortunately, we cannot move to the second round. But it was a good series. But we have a better team.

Antetokounmpo has a much stronger case.

The Bucks pushed Boston – without Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward and Daniel Theis, which is the team we’re judging – to seven games. The home team won all seven games. The Bucks outscored the Celtics by 12.3 points per game in Milwaukee – more than the Celtics’ advantage in Boston, 10.3 points per game. If this series were played on a neutral court – the theoretical best way to judge “better team” – the Bucks might have won.

Toronto was better than Washington all season and looked better throughout the series. That result wasn’t a fluke. The Wizards keep talking big, and – led by John Wall and Bradley Beal – they’re pretty talented. But they too rarely back it up. This seems like more of the same.