It’s easy to lament the Wizards for being terrible. But somehow, for the scribes on hand night after night to document their struggles this season, there is always something interesting to write about – and it often reflects the larger state of the franchise.
That’s certainly the case with JaVale McGee’s self-alley oop in Monday’s 114-106 loss to the Houston Rockets.
“Apparently, if you get a fast break in the 3rd quarter and you're 1-11, you're not supposed to do stuff like that," McGee said afterward, making clear that he had no regrets.
Was the action itself wrong? Was Wizards coach Flip Saunders wrong for leaving McGee in the game immediately afterward? Was McGee supported by his teammates? Plenty to talk about here.
First, it’s pretty easy to say that the dunk itself wasn’t harmful, one field goal out of 81 total scored in the game, with plenty of indications beforehand by the Washington defense that the Rockets were already taking control of the contest by exploiting the Wizards’ usual weaknesses defending the pick and roll.
But there are certain blatantly obvious times in sports when showboating is a fundamental no-no. Yes, trailing in a game when your team is already 1-11 is one of those times. When every single person in the arena reacts with disbelief upon seeing the play, not because it was amazing but because it was amazingly out of character with the circumstances, it’s clear that the motivation behind it wasn’t accurately gauged.
“Obviously, it’s a little disappointing,” Wizards forward Mo Evans said. “We’ve had this on a team I played on in the past where we showboated a little bit. We were winning, we were in the playoffs and as a result we went to Miami that year and really got beat the heck out of. I think that’s something people will look at. We’re already struggling to get wins; we don’t need to put targets on our back. That’s something JaVale knew and recognized and understood once he was in the locker room. I think that’s something he’ll learn from.”
Of course, Saunders was the one person in the arena with the power to act immediately after the play. A swift benching right away would’ve been the way of a disciplinarian. Saunders hasn’t been that way with McGee throughout his tenure in Washington, in large part because he has no one behind McGee to throw on the court, whether that's fair or not. Kevin Seraphin has been awful, Jan Vesely isn’t a five, and Ronny Turiaf is injured. In this instance, Saunders watched McGee then get beaten repeatedly over the remainder of the third quarter and the start of the fourth before sitting him for the game’s final nine minutes, replacing him with Andray Blatche.
“He couldn’t help us in pick and rolls,” Saunders said. “I told the guys we’ve got to get to the point, you know some people are going to have to play in situations, you know, no matter what your stats are, it’s what the team does.”
Right, substance over highlights, meat-and-potatoes basketball, things that Saunders has said more than a few times in the last two-plus seasons.
From there, though, it’s back to the locker room, the place where the franchise is determined to cast off the losing culture that has pervaded for so many years, and Evans was critical of McGee. So was John Wall.
“A dunk is a dunk,” Wall said. “I would rather seen him do a regular dunk. We're down. We're 1-11, 1-12 now. So there's no point in doing any kind of excitements, but he made the basket and that’s all that counts.”
But how about Andray Blatche and Nick Young, who’ve been McGee’s teammates since he was drafted in 2008?
Blatche had trouble searching for the right thing to say, settling for neutral.
“I don’t know. That’s his thing,” Blatche said. “He’s a dunker. I don’t really care for it. It’s nothing bad or good to me.”
Young, meanwhile, was fully supportive.
“He had some big kahunas [cojones?],” Young said. “Good for him, being that brave to even think of doing that. That’s JaVale McGee. He can jump out the gym. That’s a good way to get him going by dunking. That gets his offense going, makes him start blocking shots.”
I pointed out to Young that the Wizards were losing at that point in the game, and asked if the dunk sent the wrong message.
“To me, I don’t know,” Young said. “I think we supposed to have fun. You have fun. You play well, you play better. I know that’s the type of person JaVale is. You can’t really cage him. Go back to the old ways. I see a change, and he’s playing great. I want to keep his head right, keep him on the same page.”
So while the dunk was “unacceptable” to Saunders, Young all but encouraged McGee not to change a thing. The Wizards locker room and Saunders office are adjacent to one another but couldn’t be farther apart.
“I think because he’s a freak athlete and I think what happens, some of the stuff he does he doesn’t even know he does it,” Saunders said. “That’s just his nature. I’d say that, but he’s gotten better. It takes time. We pounded him for two-and-a-half years not to dribble the ball full court, you know we haven’t seen any this year, knock on wood yet, so something comes through.”
Yes, we’re now treating the ridding of a 7-footer’s tendency to dribble the ball up the court himself on the fast break as a legitimate coaching accomplishment. Okay, maybe Saunders was being somewhat sarcastic, too. But the point is, McGee either couldn’t identify himself what was appropriate and what wasn’t, or he simply knew there wouldn’t be significant consequences; and though some of his teammates were disappointed, others were complacent or dismissive. The combination isn’t a strong indication of changes that need to take place for the franchise to turn itself around. Which means this subject is certain to be revisited again soon.