The Wizards' Search for Meaning in the Bubble

With Bradley Beal done for the season, and only a slim chance at a playoff berth, Washington hopes it can take a step toward its future by focusing on the rest of its young roster in Florida.
photo of David GardnerDavid Gardner@@byDavidGardnerStaff WriterJuly 30, 2020

When Scott Brooks saw Bradley Beal's name light up his iPhone screen, he hesitated. It was the night before the Wizards were to leave for Orlando, and Brooks had a feeling about what Beal was calling to say. Brooks had grown hopeful after seeing Beal show up every day to the team facility for weeks once it reopened, but he knew that Beal was still struggling to feel healthy. The aftershock of Beal's seismic scoring this season was a lingering shoulder injury. Brooks' phone buzzed on.

"I thought, 'I might just let this go to voicemail,'" Brooks said, and laughed. "Maybe I'd text him back, 'I'm about to go to sleep, but I'll see you on the plane tomorrow!'"

Instead, Brooks answered and heard Beal deliver the news: He wouldn't be joining the Wizards in the NBA bubble. The Wizards' 24-40 regular-season record left them 5.5 games behind the Magic and six games behind the Nets in the race for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. To advance in the bubble, they would need to make up 1.5 games on the Magic or two games on the diminished Nets, triggering a two-game playoffs play-in.

Their path got more perilous in early July when Davis Bertans, the team's second-leading scorer and second-unit leader, announced he would not play in the bubble. But as long as there was Beal, there was hope. Although Beal was a historic snub for the All-Star Game, he was having an All-NBA-caliber season, averaging 30.5 points and 6.1 assists per game. With his backcourt mate John Wall sidelined all season as he recovered from a bone spurs surgery and a ruptured Achilles tendon, Beal was directly involved in more than a third of the Wizards' points.

Which leaves Brooks looking for a lot of points in the bubble. "I don't think it's going to be one guy," he said. "I can't say, 'This guy is going to give us 23 points a game.' I think everyone can give us three or four more points than their average. I'm not going to lie and say that it's going to be easy to make up for Bradley or DB. But our guys are going to get opportunities. Hopefully their shots will fall."

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Washington's distant playoff hopes and depleted roster left some to compare the team's time in the bubble to the summer league, instead of a series of seeding games. But Brooks wasn't bothered by those slights.

30 teams, 30 days: The biggest story from each NBA team ahead of the league's return.

Atl | Bos | Bkn | Cha | Chi | Cle
Dal | Den | Det | GS | Hou | Ind
LAC | LAL | Mem | Mia | Mil | Min
NO | NY | OKC | Orl | Phi | Pho
Por | Sac | SA | Tor | Uta | Was

"I don't take it personally," he said. "People who say that have a really good point. We have no Brad and no DB, and we haven't had John [Wall] in a couple of years. The challenge is a tall order, but I think we have a chance to get involved and make it very interesting. Our goal is to get into the play-in game. We want to get a two-game chance to get that eighth seed.

Though Scott Brooks understands the expectations are low for his Wizards as the NBA restarts the season, he hopes to use however many games they play to further teach his uptempo offense to Washington's young roster.
Though Scott Brooks understands the expectations are low for his Wizards as the NBA restarts the season, he hopes to use however many games they play to further teach his uptempo offense to Washington's young roster.Nick Wass/Associated Press/Associated Press

"These are meaningful games. Anytime you can put young players in meaningful games late in the season, it helps your team."

So how will the Wizards hope to make up for Beal's lost production? The answer began to emerge on July 22, when Washington debuted its new starting lineup in a scrimmage against the Nuggets: Shabazz Napier, Troy Brown Jr., Isaac Bonga, Rui Hachimura and Thomas Bryant. The unit, whose average age is 22.8, has accounted for 51.8 points per game this season.

For Brooks, the key to the bubble will be finding the right balance between battling for the play-in game and building this Wizards team into a long-term contender. Those two goals converge on Hachimura. Washington selected him with the ninth overall pick last summer, and he showed plenty of promise before the league's hiatus despite missing more than a month with a groin injury. In the games he did play, he posted a respectable 13.4 points and 6.0 rebounds a game.

Hachimura was the Wizards' leading scorer in each of their three bubble scrimmages. His 17.3 points and 7.3 rebounds per game were marginal improvements over his pre-bubble numbers, but the team will need him to be much more assertive moving forward. The Wizards went winless in their scrimmages against three Western Conference contenders, but Brooks has no plans to overhaul his style of play. He's using this as an opportunity to get his young role players more comfortable in his uptempo system.

Their pace, which was the fifth-fastest overall before the season was suspended in March, has another benefit as well, helping a young roster avoid bailout heaves at the end of the shot clock—the kind of responsibility that automatically fell to Beal during the regular season.

"The history of the game tells you that when you have talented All-Star players, you can experiment and then let someone make a play in the last seven seconds," Brooks said. "We want to play faster and make quicker decisions with ball movement. We want to score early in the shot clock. When we had John and Brad, if we were late in the shot clock, they could run a pick-and-roll and create and make plays for us. We don't have that right now."

Rui Hachimura has played well in his rookie season but now will be counted on to carry the scoring load for the Wizards with Bradley Beal and Davis Bertans not playing at Disney World.
Rui Hachimura has played well in his rookie season but now will be counted on to carry the scoring load for the Wizards with Bradley Beal and Davis Bertans not playing at Disney World.Nick Wass/Associated Press/Associated Press

What they do have, in his view, is a unique opportunity to build chemistry—on and off the court. A couple of days before their first scrimmage, the team gathered and ordered takeout from one of the six approved restaurants on the Disney World campus. And then they screened Good Trouble, a documentary about the recently deceased civil rights hero John Lewis.

"To me, that's the most important thing that's taking place right now," Brooks said. "It's as important as the basketball. The time that we have together, there's no way around it, other than to know your teammates and your staff. We're with each other so much even more than on another road trip. There's no restaurants to go to. There's no, this player is meeting his relatives in this city, or this college teammate. There's none of that. We're here together."

ESPN's Zach Lowe and Rachel Nichols return to The Full 48 with Howard Beck for the third annual "Drunk With Power" podcast. They discuss life in the bubble, social justice, player activism and the probability of the next NBA season. Of course, the three also talk about all the things they would change about the league if they were NBA Czar For A Day, including removing bad owners, expanding the MVP ballot, establishing the G League's one shot rule for all fouls, and empowering referees to enforce social distancing rules in the bubble.

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