After building up high expectations for this upcoming season, the Washington Wizards have been hit with the injury bug before the opening tip once again. This time, the infected players are Emeka Okafor and Chris Singleton. Okafor has been diagnosed with a herniated disc in his neck and Singleton has been diagnosed with a Jones fracture–breaking the fifth metatarsal on his foot.
Obviously this is a pretty damaging development for the Wizards. Okafor is out indefinitely and Singleton is out for 6-8 weeks, but I’m sure we all know how that could go. This adds even more pressure onto the Wizards to develop a system in which multiple players can perform to increase bench depth and production.
Singleton wasn’t a key cog to last year’s team until later in the year. Even then, he still played a smaller role. The loss of Okafor could be potentially damning for the Wizards, though, because of the impact that he had in unison with Nene when they were both on the floor together.
Okafor is the anchor to the Wizards defense and they need him there for that if nothing else. The Wizards had the fifth ranked defense in the league last season and Okafor was a major part of that. According to NBA.com’s wonderful stats tool, when Nene and Okafor shared the court together they limited opponents to 97.1 points per 100 possessions and had a +4.6 net rating.
The two bigs in unison made the defense work. Nene was versatile enough to stick with guards on the outside for set periods of time and Okafor played the role of the rim protector. In either case, guarding the pick and roll was a relatively simple task for the Wizards given their versatility.
But without Okafor, the Wizards will lose that rim protection. When he’s off of the court, the Wizards defensive rating increases a full point–in other words, the opponent scores 1 point more per 100 possessions. They have a system in place that the players understand and believe in, but Okafor was the best defensive player in this system. And he was also the most consistent Wizard last season as far as games played goes. He played in 79 of the 82 games and started in 77 of them. His presence was consistent on the defensive end.
Not only will they lose his defensive presence, but they’ll also lose his key rebounding ability. Okafor averaged 12.1 rebounds per game per 36 minutes last season according to Basketball Reference. He averaged 8.8 rebounds in 26 minutes per game last season–a very good total for the amount of time he played per game. He was 10th in total rebound percentage last season.
He grabbed 18.7% of total rebounds when he was on the floor last season. That’s just about where his career average is when it comes to rebounding percentage as well. This shows us that he’s a consistent rebounder and his effectiveness will be missed.
The next best player, as far as rebounding percentage goes, with at least 500 minutes played last season was Trevor Booker. Booker rebounded 14.9% of the rebounds available when he played but that is the issue–he only played around 18 minutes per game and was not consistent enough defensively to sustain a larger role.
The Wizards know that Nene has never really been a huge rebounder. And with his health issues coming into the offseason, its fair to question whether or not he’ll be able to have a consistent bill of health throughout the year. He rebounded 13.9% of the available rebounds while he was on the floor last season as well. That’s an average mark, but its nowhere near what Okafor was giving the Wizards.
Now that we know what the Wizards have lost, lets look at ways they can counteract this loss and maybe turn it into a positive.
The first thing that came to my mind when hearing about the Okafor injury was that the Wizards should get on the phone with the Houston Rockets and at least inquire about Omer Asik. However, even if they were to do so, they don’t really have the assets in place to make a move for him. The Wizards aren’t looking to give away any draft picks any time soon unless they are for a player who will be impactful on both ends of the floor.
While Asik is a great defensive center and a great rebounder, his offensive game wouldn’t help the Wizards at all. And they will also get Okafor back eventually, and even though Asik could be a key cog going toward the future, having him and Okafor on the same team and both active would likely be a waste of a roster space. They are both very similar players and Asik has made it clear that he doesn’t want to be stuck in a bench role.
Okafor will be hitting the market soon, and this injury will definitely affect his worth. He’ll need to be able to show teams that he’s fully recovered and can still play the game the way he was playing before the injury. If that isn’t the case, we could see him back on the Wizards for a lower amount–especially if the Wizards are a contender.
Getting back to what the Wizards can do to counteract the Okafor issue, the defensive end will be a struggle for Washington. They’ll have to rely on Nene to provide them with an anchor and hope for a much improved year defensively from Kevin Seraphin and Trevor Booker. They are both capable defensive players, but they both make mistakes that most young players make.
Still, I wouldn’t count on either of them improving so much that the Wizards defense stays as good as it was last year. You can expect a clear dropoff from the Wizards on that end of the floor.
What the Wizards may end up experimenting with is more small ball lineups. With Martell Webster being healthy and Otto Porter now in the fold, they may want to see what these two can do as a forward tandem and playing Nene at the center position. Depending on how Porter looks as a shooter and an offensive player, this could benefit the Wizards in the long run.
This would open up the floor for John Wall’s penetration even more. They wouldn’t have an ideal scoring forward to play the small 4 position, but if Porter can shoot the ball he’ll provide the defense with the choice of letting Wall finish at the rim or leaving him and letting try to find who ends up shooting the ball after a few ball swings. With guys like Bradley Beal and Martell Webster out there, that is a pretty dangerous option to live with.
Small ball wasn’t something that the Wizards experimented with last year often, but when they did it was effective. They were really forced to because of injury in some circumstances, but it still worked. And Randy Wittman hinted that he was going to try some more small ball lineups this season. With Al Harrington in the fold, Otto Porter and a healthy Martell Webster, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this at all next year.
But Porter is the X-factor here because we know what everyone else can bring to the table. He’ll likely end up playing the power forward slot in some of these lineups and that means that he’ll have to have pretty good rebounding fundamentals. And that leads me into something else that the Wizards could try that may end up being effective.
They could rely on guard rebounding more often to get their breaks started and kick their offense into gear. The Wizards are a team that can play fast when it needs to. John Wall is a dangerous guard in transition and when you line him up with a bunch of trailing shooters and guys in the corner, magical things will most likely happen.
John Wall and Bradley Beal are exceptional rebounders for their positions. They rebound 6.8 %and 6.7% of their rebounds when they are on the floor. For a guard, those numbers are well above average. If the bigs in the front court are able to box out to allow Wall and Beal to crash, we may end up seeing those numbers increase.
That is a dangerous strategy, though, because of health issues for these two. They are two players who willingly toss their bodies aside for the greater good of the team. Jumping into the trees with the bigs isn’t necessarily the safest strategy. The Wizards may shy away from it for that reason alone.
There are more ways than just those mentioned above to cover up Okafor’s presence. We’ll see what route the Wizards choose to go once basketball games are finally played. Until then, hopefully Okafor can recover at the fastest pace possible and still produce the way he did last season. If not, then we may have to lower some of the expectations for the Wizards this season.