The Washington Wizards enter a difficult stretch with seven of their next eight games on the road and All-Star point guard John Wall sidelined with knee discomfort.
Wall’s absence puts a spotlight on the backcourt rotation as the Wizards (10-9) aim to stay above .500, yet the frontcourt maneuvers remain most curious.
Mike Scott has ably filled a frontcourt role on the second unit after signing with the team during the offseason. He ranks second behind Otto Porter in 3-point shooting percentage.
Scott didn’t play in Saturday’s 108-105 loss to Portland, one of three games he’s been a healthy scratch this season.
Jason Smith’s 2017-18 campaign hasn’t been crisp, but his energy and shooting played an instrumental part in last season’s 49-win campaign.
The 7-footer has missed 11 of 19 games.
Ian Mahinmi at times provides rebounding and quality interior defense as Washington’s backup center, but nothing like he did during one stretch of last season when he wasn’t sidelined 51 games with a knee injury. Certainly not at the level for a player who received a four-year, $64 million contract in July 2016.
There’s been the occasional second half benching, but Mahinmi has missed zero games this season.
On Monday I asked head coach Scott Brooks why.
“That’s definitely a fair question,” Brooks responded following the team’s final practice before heading to Minnesota for Tuesday’s matchup with the Timberwolves. “That’s something that we’re considering and looking at.”
That answer alone won’t mollify those frustrated by a player whose turnover rate is the highest on the team and has more personal fouls (57) than points (56). The 6-foot-11-inch center is shooting a dismal 44.4 percent from the field despite taking half of his attempts at the rim.
The response is also the closest we’ve come to hearing about a lineup change involving Mahinmi. Of course, words are not actions. Brooks has repeatedly said Smith needs more minutes and yet the “DNP-CD” stat lines roll on.
“He gives us a spark. I’ve got to do a better job for creating minutes for him” is something Brooks said after Smith helped Washington nearly overcome a 25-point deficit against Miami Dec. 17. Smith sat out the next three games before playing eight minutes against Portland.
The insistence on staying with Mahinmi is perhaps obvious and yet confounding based on the willingness to sit others.
Some believe sticking with Mahinmi must be contract related. Clearly, there’s some correlation, though let’s not forget minimum-contract player Marcus Thornton played regularly last season before even Brooks couldn’t take it anymore.
Ideally, Mahinmi provides resistance against opposing bigs and makes would-be penetrators think twice about heading to the rim.
Let’s not confuse Mahinmi’s defense with Dikembe Mutombo’s, but it’s where he helps most, clearly. It’s not ideal that Capital One Arena promotes a family-friendly atmosphere because things are definitely unsightly when the awkward Mahinmi has the ball in his hands on the offensive end.
The truly cynical take is the Wizards hope using Mahinmi will boost his trade value. Don’t assume that’s where their thinking lies. Besides, Washington used a first-round pick to move Andrew Nicholson’s unwanted deal last season. It might take multiple picks, a six-pack of meals personally cooked by famous chef and Wizards fan Jose Andreas and membership into Taylor Swift’s squad to dump Mahinmi.
He played 17 minutes against Portland, matching his most work since a season-high 19 in Washington’s third game. Mahinmi finished 0-for-3 from the field with three rebounds and four fouls.
It's not all brutal with Mahinmi. He was part of various bench-heavy lineups that helped give Washington a 17-point lead with eight minutes remaining. Brooks said the matchup against 280-pound center Jusuf Nurkic played a factor in the rotation. Mahinmi is better suited for that physical matchup than Scott or Smith.
“You’re going to have to make decisions with Mike or Jason or Ian,” Brooks said. “I think we have to definitely look at ways that we can definitely improve now throughout the game, not just the last part of the game.”
Mike Scott could only watch all parts of Saturday’s game. The Wizards took a chance on the former Atlanta Hawk coming off a dismal professional and personal season. They signed him to a minimum contract. Over 16 games, they’re clearly getting more than they paid for at least offensively.
Scott is shooting 53 percent from field and 45 percent on 3-pointers. In November, he’s even better from deep, hitting 11 of 20. He also sat out three of the last six games.
Scott and Smith certainly have flaws. While both offer greater lineup versatility than Mahinmi, it’s totally reasonable for Brooks to sit them at times. The same logic should apply to Mahinmi.
The Wizards gave the big man a big contract and should want a quality return on their investment. The money is spent. The first quarter of the season is essentially over. Now it’s about getting some production, from him or someone else.