Why Nene's Return Will Change Washington Wizards' Playoff Ceiling

Stephen BabbFeatured ColumnistApril 8, 2014

Washington Wizards power forward Nene (42), of Brazil, adjusts his arm sleeve during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014, in Washington. The Wizards won 94-93. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Nick Wass

If the playoffs started April 8, the Washington Wizards would face the Toronto Raptors in the first round. Now a pause is in order—the Wizards are going to make the playoffs? 

Yes, get your confusion and/or elation out of the way. These Wizards are pretty good. And the thing that's made them pretty good is that they're no longer 100 percent dependent on John Wall to do everything. He still does most of the things, but there's been a legitimate supporting cast this season.

That's usually a prerequisite for the playoffs to be an option. 

Chief among the complementary pieces is Nene. The 31-year-old doesn't receive as much attention as he did back in the day with the Denver Nuggets, but he's still a valuable piece—especially in the postseason. He was injured on opening day and then went down for an extended period in February with a sprained knee ligament, leaving some doubt as to when—or if—he would return.

Nene recently returned to practice and not a moment too soon. As Wizards big man Drew Gooden put it, per The Washington Post's Brandon Parker: "I already know what to expect with [Nene]. He's a physical force down there, he can pass it extremely well for a big man and we need it. We need him."

The Wizards are a very young team, led by 23-year-old John Wall and 20-year-old Bradley Beal. Nene's experience alone should be instrumental in giving head coach Randy Wittman's club some edge and composure. When close games are on the line, he has the capital to settle everyone down. He's been in these situations before. 

Few other of the Wizards have.

But Nene's presence is about more than intangibles alone. He's still a good player, and the things he's done on the court this year prove he's more than capable of making an impact in the postseason. 


Ball Movement

Nene has long been one of the best passing big men in the game, and that hasn't been lost on Wittman, according to CSN Washington's J. Michael:

Nene gives us another facilitator. Against a team like this [the Chicago Bulls] you need another one. With John being one, Bradley can do some things off the dribble but Nene was another guy that can play like Noah does at the top with the ball in his hands, the passing and also the posting up that he does for us. 

It's important that Washington has an experienced big man who can pass. It takes pressure off Wall to make every play, and it gives the Wizards the option to run with different offensive looks. 

Thanks to center Marcin Gortat also patrolling the painted are, the Wizards can feature a nasty high-low game in which Nene holds the ball at the top of the key, threatening either to take the jumper or to make a pass in low to Gortat.

The luxury of putting the ball in Nene's hands also makes it easier for Wall and Beal to shake their defenders off the ball, running them off screens in order to create some space for a jumper or lane to the basket.

Big men who can distribute are a rare commodity. Nene ranks with Joakim Noah, Marc Gasol and Tim Duncan as one of the best. When Wall feels like the weight of the world is on his shoulders, Nene can bear some of the load.


Interior Defense

Nene is by no means a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. That's never been his game.

All the same, he is a very big body. He's 6'11" and meaty, the kind of specimen you can throw at post scorers to make them work. He's better at muscling someone around in the paint than he is at swooping in for blocked shots, and there's certainly value in that. 

Moreover, Nene has quick hands. He's averaging 1.2 steals this season in addition to his 0.9 blocks, a testament to his craftiness as a defender. Those numbers might not blow you away at first glance, but they're pretty good for a big man. 

He can poke the ball away when his man gets lazy, and he's been around the block enough to know when a pass is coming. These are the kinds of little things that can make a big difference in close games.

But OK, while Nene's defensive contributions are probably a little bit better than we might initially think, there's no sense in getting hyperbolic. He's not a great defender, not a game-changer.

The big takeaway here is that Washington just doesn't have many other options. Trevor Booker is a bit undersized, and Al Harrington is a spread 4. The only other big man who gets much run is Marcin Gortat. What makes Washington's defense respectable (11th in opponents' points) is that having Gortat and Nene on the court at the same time can actually be somewhat imposing. 

Take some of that size away, and you're left with a far less protected painted area.



Nene gives the Wizards a credible third option, someone who can look for his own shot without being set up every time. His scoring average (14.2 points per game) isn't far off teammate Trevor Ariza's, but you'd much rather Nene have the ball in his hands with the shot clock winding down. He can create.

And he can do so in a variety of ways—displaying a number of moves with his back to the basket or hitting jumpers from the high post. 

A look at Nene's offensive versatility.
A look at Nene's offensive versatility.NBA.com

That's an important option to have, especially when teams are working overtime to take the ball out of Wall's hands. Washington can boast a dangerous scoring attack when clicking on all cylinders, and there are times when Nene is central to that effort. He's twice scored 30 points this season.

Sans Nene, there's far greater pressure on Washington's backcourt to handle the scoring load. That might be acceptable here and there, but there's no way that's going to cut it in a seven-game series—especially against a capable club like the Raptors.

Without Nene in the mix, the Wizards stand little chance of advancing past the first round. Even with him in the mix, it's hard to see this group competing in the Eastern Conference Finals. 

But the Wizards stand a fighting chance of beating the Raptors (or potentially the Chicago Bulls) in that opening series. Nene will take defense attention away from Wall and Beal. He'll serve as a third option on an offense that desperately needs one.

And he'll serve as a steadying presence when the playoffs start feeling like the playoffs. 

Nene's return ranks as of one of the quieter stories this season, but don't underestimate it. The Wizards certainly aren't.