8:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Washington -1.5, Over/Under: 208.5
A pair of teams jockeying for the eighth and final seed in the Eastern Conference clash tonight in the Nation’s Capital as the Washington Wizards host the Detroit Pistons at the Verizon Center. At the moment, Detroit (34-32, 3rd in Central Division) currently possess a slim grip on the last spot in the East, a full two games ahead of division rival Chicago. Few teams helped themselves as much as the Pistons did at the Trade Deadline little under a month ago, shipping out the likes of Brandon Jennings in favor of the incoming Tobias Harris, providing a far better fit for the wide-open system that Stan Van Gundy prefers to run. In his previous successful stays in Miami and Orlando, the veteran coach’s sides oftentimes thrived with a dominant big man in the middle surrounded by a plethora of shooters, providing spacing for said Big to work. Now we’re not bold enough to compare the young Andre Drummond to an older Shaquille O’Neal or an in his prime Dwight Howard, but the 6′-11″, 22-year old does have plenty of promise. Allowing Greg Monroe to depart in Free Agency has furthered this kid’s development exponentially, as he has grown into a devastating presence on the defensive end of the court, leading the league in rebounds (15.0), his team with a solid 21.7 PER (Player Efficiency Rating) and 4.7 Defensive Win Shares, while also logging 1.4 blocks and 1.6 steals per game. With that said, the offensive part of his repertoire is where he’s shown the most improvement, which comes with the confidence of knowing that he will touch the ball on virtually every possession; he’s averaging a career-high 13.3 field goal attempts per game this season (also a team-best), up from 11.7 attempts from the previous campaign, while finding himself on the charity stripe far more often than he has any at any other point of his brief four-year career (7.6 FTA per Game). With Drummond coming into his own, the second part of Van Gundy’s equation for success is fielding versatile shooters from a variety of positions, which was achieved with the acquisition of the aforementioned Harris. Less than a year after signing a lucrative contract with the Orlando Magic, the long, 23-year old wingman looks like a perfect fit for this team. Remember Rashard Lewis? That’s the role this kid will play for the Pistons; in twelve games since arriving in the Motor City, Harris has seen his numbers spike across the board, increasing his scoring average (17.7), field goal percentage (51.6%), three-point field goal percentage (42.9%), and assists (2.4), while exhibiting the versatility to shift over to the Power Forward position in smaller lineups. And it’s been that versatility that has been on exhibit of late; winners of three out of their last four outings, the Pistons rebounded from a disappointing 118-103 loss at the Hornets, with a 125-111 victory over the lowly 76ers, in which they outscored the hosts 73-54 in the second half. The starting five alone (106 points) nearly outscored Philadelphia, with Reggie Jackson (24 points), Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (23 points), and Harris (21 points) each crossing the twenty-point threshold. Van Gundy’s charges shot a blistering 53.8% from the field, including 9-of-18 from beyond the arc (50.0%), while absolutely demoralizing the Sixers on the glass by a staggering sixteen rebounds. It was a welcome sign for a team that recently has struggled to contain the opposition defensively of late, allowing 104.5 points on 48.6% shooting from the floor during the month of March, the most this season. We’ll see if they can continue that trend tonight against the Wizards, who they have struggled against thus far, dropping each of their previous two matchups in 2015-2016; in those meetings, Washington has outscored them by an average of 7.0 points per game, while shooting 47.4% from the field, while dishing out a healthy 24.0 assists compared to 16.5 for Detroit.
Meanwhile, despite occupying the eighth and final seed in the Eastern Conference for months, the Wizards (30-35, 4th in Atlantic Division) has since been in a freefall, dropping a season-worst five consecutive games. After posting their best record (46-36) since the 1978-79 season, Washington has proven to be one of the most maddeningly inconsistent teams in the league, suffering five different losing streaks of three games or more this season. And it’s because of that erratic play that they’ve completely lost their grip on the East’s last postseason spot, now sitting 4.5 games behind tonight’s opponent, the Pistons. Like their counterparts in Detroit, their play on the defensive end of the court has completely bottomed out during the month of March, as Randy Wittman’s charges have allowed a dismal 108.7 points on 47.9% shooting from the field, including 40.5% from beyond the arc. Furthermore, they’ve been hammered on the glass (minus-5.5 rebounds), while also finding themselves giving away points at the free-throw line, where they’ve been at an 8.1 disadvantage. However, their effort on defense has been far from the only place they’ve struggled, as the offense has devolved into “John Wall or Bust” mode. Despite dishing out 21.8 assists per game, the Wizards simply haven’t made the most of their opportunities, scoring 98.0 points per game on 44.2% shooting from the field, including a dreadful 32.9% from downtown. Of course, a portion of this slide has coincided with the absence of one Bradley Beal, who has suffered through a hellish season in which he has missed twenty-four games to a variety of injuries, the most recent being a bruised hip that sidelined him for the past three contests. However, that only tells part of the story, because even when he has been healthy enough to play, Beal has only started twenty-one of those games, relegating him to a shell of himself; though his scoring has actually increased (17.7), his numbers have plummeted across the board, as the 22-year old has posted averages of 3.3 rebounds, 2.8 assists, and 1.0 steal, while shooting 38.3% from beyond the arc, each of which represent steep declines from the 2014-2015 campaign. Unsurprisingly, his absence has had an adverse effects on the fortunes of his team, as Washington has gone 10-13 in the twenty-three games in which the smooth Shooting Guard has been relegated to the sidelines. As a result, the aforementioned Wall has had to fill the void by taking an even greater burden on his shoulders; the electrifying three-time All-Star has quite literally had to do it all for this team, averaging a career-high 20.1 points 42.7% shooting, including 34.2% from beyond the arc, 4.8 rebounds, 9.9assists, and 1.9 steals, with a team-best PER of 20.2. With that said, one has to wonder if his usage rate is starting to take a toll on the 25-year old, former No. One Overall Pick; thus far, Wall is attempting more field goals (17.6), particularly from deep (4.3), than at any juncture of his six-year career, while committing a career-worst 4.0 turnovers per game. In laymen’s terms, he’s having to do far too much. But neither of those factors explains Washington’s rapid decline on the defensive end of the court, where they were one of the better teams in the league over the past two years. With less than a month to play in the Regular Season, the Wizards are allowing 104.8 points (21st Overall) on 46.7% shooting from the field (26th Overall), including a dreadful 37.8% from three (29th Overall), and 22.4 assists (18th Overall), all the while becoming the worst rebounding team in the NBA (40.7). Furthermore, they’re Effective Field Goal Percentage allowed (which compensates for the significance of three-pointer) checks in at a poor 52.1%, a year after ranking fifth overall yielding 48.1%. So what’s the difference, you ask? Well, they’ve gotten significantly smaller… Wittman has shifted to a much smaller lineup, with veteran big man Nene Hilario moving to the Bench, where he’s logged just 18.9 minutes per game, down from 25.3 last season, breaking the Twin Tower partnership with Marcin Gortat. While neither Big is a stalwart defensively, they’ve proven over the previous two years to work very effectively in tandem in that regard. Now with slighter, fleet-of-foot players such as Markieff Morris occupying his role in an effort to provide shooting and spacing, the Wizards are playing at far faster pace (98.1 possessions per 48 minutes, 4th Overall) than in previous years, which while taking full advantage of Wall’s electrifying speed, unfortunately has opened them up to exploitation defensively. We’ll see if they’re able to fix things tonight against a team that they most recently back on February 19th humbled to the tune of 98-86.