The Step Back has been born from the aesthetics and traditions of the Hardwood Paroxysm Basketball Network. In the past, Hardwood Paroxysm has produced a massive stand-alone season preview. This year, that preview effort has been rolled up into the launch of The Step Back.
The Step Back’s writers and illustrators have prepared a hefty deep-dive into each team, built from multiple smaller sections. This year’s theme is television comedies and each section is named after some of our favorite sitcoms. For links to all 30 teams, as well as details about the focus of each section, check out our guide on how to read this preview.
By Ian Levy (@HickoryHigh)
The Washington Wizards have been waiting for what feels like forever. Waiting for John Wall to fully inhabit his potential. For Bradley Beal to get healthy, to be all that he could be. For Otto Porter to deliver. For Kevin Durant to make up his mind. For Randy Wittman to figure out something that works for this group of almosts and very-nearlys. All that waiting hasn’t been nearly enough.
Kevin Durant is a Warrior. Randy Wittman is now shorter, wears glasses and plaid shirts, and goes by the name Scott Brooks. Otto Porter is probably all the Otto Porter he is ever going to be. John Wall is still a little shaky from behind the three-point line and absurdly over-confident from two steps inside of it. Bradley Beal might need a minute restriction for the rest of his career and, excepting the unquenchable thirst for long pull-up two pointers, he and Wall don’t appear to have much patience for the shortcomings and quirks of the other. The Wizards have been waiting long enough.
Washington has certainly been making do while they’ve waited. Before last season’s step backwards, they had made the Eastern Conference Semifinals in two consecutive years. But even in that success, they never seemed settled or in the present. The Wizards were a team on the rise. Now, I would argue, they are just a team.
To some degree, every team is waiting for something. The Knicks are waiting for Porzingis. The Celtics are waiting for their assets to become a star. The Wolves are waiting for Thibodeau’s influence to take hold. The Warriors are waiting for opening night. The Spurs are waiting for the playoffs to begin. The Wizards, though seemed guilty of living in the future instead of the present, of inhabiting their waiting more than their doing.
The Wizards will still have things to wait for this year because every team has a future (even the Kings). The march of chronology is inescapable. However, the future appears to have lost all of its definition. There will be waiting because there has to be but what, exactly, they’re waiting for can’t really be divined right now. So, the challenge for the Wizards this season is to pay as little attention to the future as possible. There are infinite paths forward but the only one worth taking is the one that requires of every player absolute fealty to living in the moment. There is only this game and this quarter. This possession. Setting this screen, making this defensive rotation, closing out on this shooter, and drilling this jump shot.
Too much time has been wasted on the machinations of next. For Washington, this season, there can be only right now. Let next take care of itself.
By Wes Goldberg (@wcgoldberg)
Bradley Beal lowers himself from a high rock, carefully avoiding a thorny patch of weeds. He hears a voice call out.
“Hi!” it says. “Wait a minute!”
Otto Porter backs out of the nearby undergrowth, branches rubbing up against his Washington Wizards jumper. He leans over to pick the thorns from his pants.
“What happened?” Otto asks.
“We’re stranded. We crash landed.” Bradley replies.
The two start heading to the sound of waves crashing against the shore. On their way, Otto spots something in a bush. He runs over to the bush and pulls out a suitcase. He hands it to Bradley, who opens it without showing Otto, and sees it is full of money.
The two wander to the beach, finding their teammates huddled there already. Beal opens the suitcase and lifts it over his head to show everyone what is inside. Immediately his teammates gather around, eager to listen. Bradley tells them they need to build shelter, find food and create a smoke signal.
His teammates elect Bradley captain, nearly all of them showing support except for John Wall, Markieff Morris and Kelly Oubre.
Bradley tells Marcin Gortat and Ian Mahinmi to start a fire, saying, “We need a smoke signal in case anyone comes by the island. Build it high. We need something they can see.” Marcin and Ian use Otto’s goggles to catch the sunlight to light a fire.
The team works on constructing shelter, using bits from the crashed plane that washed up on shore for cover. Exhausted, the team falls asleep in their respected harbors.
In the twilight of night, there is a loud bang that rings out across the beach. The players are suddenly awake and wide eyed.
“W-w-w-what was that?” Otto asks to no one in particular.
“A beast,” John’s voice echoes from the back of the pop-up village. The other players turn to see John approaching them. “What, you thought we were alone?”
“A beast?!” Otto asks.
“That’s right. And I’m going to kill it,” Wall says, holding up a spear he had carved while the others were sleeping.
“I’ll come with you,” Markieff speaks up.
“Me too,” Kelly says.
The three head off into the forest, armed with large sticks and rocks and Wall his spear.
Hours pass then days go by, the team eating the same small portions of berries and soft shell crabs from a nearby rock formation. They grow weary and tired. Some of the team stops helping maintain the fire and with gathering food. Bradley senses that he’s lost control.
As the team eats one afternoon, they can hear voices echoing from the distance.
“HEY-O, hey-o, HEY-O, hey-o, HEY-O, hey-o…”
Trey Burke follows the sound past the rock formation, tiny crabs scattering as he approaches. He crawls up on a rock and peers through a group of trees. He’s shocked by what he sees. It’s John, Markieff, and Kelly, dancing and chanting around John’s spear, erected in the middle of them with an effigy of Randy Wittman mounted on top. The trio of players’ faces are covered in war paint as they chant incomprehensible nonsense.
Markieff, hearing something, turns and spots Trey. He points and delivers a menacing screech to alert his brothers. “Scawwwwwww!” John and Kelly look to see what Markieff is screeching at and also see Trey. Unable to get through the small crease in the group of trees, they take off in the direction of the beach.
Trey runs back to his tribe and tells them of what he saw. As he hears Trey’s tale, Bradley sits on a stone, silent. The rest of the team, terrified, looks to Bradley. Time is ticking. Bradley, defeated, tells them to surrender and join John’s tribe.
“You can’t let them do that,” Otto tells Bradley when they have a moment away from the team. “They’ve gone mad. They aren’t civilized. John’s immature and jealous and never could stand it that you got the money.”
Bradley agrees. He can’t give up now. But by the time he tells the team he’s changed his mind it’s too late. Everyone’s decided to join John, fearing for their lives, including Marcin and Ian. Bradley decides he’s going to run. Maybe John will accept the surrender of his teammates, but he won’t from Bradley. Not when he wants to be the highest paid player on the team. Otto decides he’ll go with Bradley.
They grab whatever few belongings they have — track jackets, sneakers, Otto with his goggles — and take off threw the nearby brush. After they are several of yards into the forest, they can hear John’s tribe. “Blu-lu-lu-lu-lu-lu!!!!”
Bradley and Otto can only assume his teammates have survived in their surrender. They find sanctuary under a nearby rock jutting across a small hill. They hide there for hours, waiting on any sign of John’s tribe. It’s windy, the ocean breeze cutting between the trunks of the trees. They’re planning what they will do if the tribe crosses their path.
“I think we should hide,” Otto says.
“For how long, Otto?” Bradley asks. “We can’t just hide forever. We have to attack.”
About 150 yards away John leads his tribe through the forest. It’s cold. He thinks back to the warmth of the fire, gone now after Marcin and Ian surrendered and joined his tribe. At that moment he realizes the true power on this island isn’t money. It’s fire. It’s Otto’s goggles.
Meanwhile, Bradley is sharpening a spear. “I’ve finished mine,” he says. “But there aren’t any sticks big enough for another spear for you around here. I’m going to go look for one. You stay here and hide under that rock.”
Otto agrees and nestles under their shelter as Bradley heads off deeper into the forest.
John’s tribe is about 20 yards away when sees a flashing light moving like a firefly. He squints and can see it’s Otto. His goggles are reflecting the light of the moon. John, Kelly and Markieff devise a plan.
Markieff walks nearer to where Otto is hiding. Otto, trembling, sees Markieff approach. Bradley is one his way back with an appropriate stick. When he gets close enough to see his shelter, he sees a shape over the rock. It’s Kelly’s hair. He quickly scans the area and sees Markieff and realizes Otto is in trouble. Bradley hurls his spear at Markieff, striking him in the chest. Kelly looks back and sees Bradley. He panics and tips over the rock, crushing Otto’s. Kelly grabs the goggles and takes off, running away from Bradley.
“No!” Bradley screams. He runs over to Otto as Kelly gets away. “Otto!” He inspects the body but it’s too late.
Kelly brings the goggles to John and informs him that Otto is gonoe, but Bradley is still alive. John hands the goggles to Ian. “Burn it all.”
Bradley sees the fire coming towards him and begins to run. John’s tribe splits up to try to find him. It’s John who eventually finds him and takes chase. Bradley, seeing him, runs away. He’s gasping for air. He knows he’s no match for John one-on-one. John’s arms are too long, and his body much too fragile.
Bradley keeps running and running until he trips over a log. He looks up and sees a man. The man has blonde hair, thick-rimmed glasses and great posture. He’s looking down at Bradley.
“Who are you?” Bradley asks.
“My name is Scott Brooks,” Scott Brooks answers. “My ship was passing by when I saw the smoke. I came over to see what was going on. Is everything okay?”
Bradley burst into tears. He can’t believe what it’s all come to.
“This is fine.” A nearby Wizards fan’s dog says.
John catches up and sees the man and also bursts into tears. Bradley and John are both at Brooks’ feet now, crying uncontrollably.
Brooks looks down, expressing his disappointment in John’s pettiness and the two great player’s divisiveness. He thinks about how great a team they could have been if only they had gotten along, before looking off into the distance, remembering his own time with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Third Rock From The Sun
By Chris Manning (@cwmwrites)
At the moment, Markieff Morris is probably not the third best player on the Washington Wizards. That distinction probably belongs to Marcin Gortat or Ian Mahinmi or Bradley Beal if you’re inclined to think he hasn’t lived up to his full potential yet. Morris, for all of his talent, hasn’t been the best version of himself since the 2014-15 season when he was with the Suns and not angry about being separated from his twin brother, Marcus.
But the Wizards might need Morris to be their third best player if they are going to reach their full potential and make some sort of run in the playoffs. What Morris is at his best — a stretchy four who rebounds and defends opposing threes and fours at a high level — is the type of player that perfectly fits within the structure of Washington’s other pieces.
Just imagine Morris as John Wall’s pick-and-roll partner, where teams have to choose between letting Wall get a clean run at the rim or letting Morris get a clean shot attempt. Or imagine Wall getting more space to drive because teams have to account for Morris, Beal, and one of Otto Porter or Kelly Oubre outside. Or, to get nuanced, imagine the versatile pairings Scott Brooks can use up front with Morris’ ability allowing him to defend multiple types of players well in space and on the block.
With a specific moment in mind, it’s hard to imagine the Wizards even pushing the Cavs in a seven game series without Morris playing a huge role. For one, he might be their best option to defend LeBron James; he’s strong, quick and capable enough if he’s willing. Secondly, Morris is the type of four who can make Kevin Love a defensive liability. Aside from one moment in the Finals, Love can be put on an island and hunted down by opposing offenses in space and in the pick-and-roll. Wall, at least when healthy, is one of the fastest point guards in the league. A Wall-Morris pick-and-roll is maybe the best way to attack a Cavs defense that is solid, but features two minus defenders in Love and Kyrie Irving.
Even against other teams — like Toronto or Boston or maybe even Indiana — the Wizards likely need Morris. Without him, their offense could easily slip and become too easy to defend when the game tightens up come April. As much as Washington needs Porter and Oubre to take a leap and for Beal to stay healthy, Morris opens doors and creates opportunities that are arguably just as essential.
Last year, after being traded to Washington, Morris’ play was indicative that he might be back towards top form. In 27 games with Washington — which admittedly is not the best sample size, especially on a team failed to make the playoffs — Morris got his shooting back up to 46.7 percent overall after it dipped below 40 percent in Phoenix. His three-point shooting got better to — 31.6 percent after it fell to 28.9 percent with the Suns — and he just played more engaged basketball. For Morris, that’s half the battle.
Still, there is still room for improvement. Morris’ three-point shooting wasn’t good enough to really make defenses pay attention and, in a dream world, he’d get it back up to the almost 35 percent range he had a few years ago. But even if he can somewhat bridge the gap while also playing with the focus and drive that he needs to really be effective, Morris becoming the best version of himself would go a long way to making the Wizards the best team they can be.
by Matt D’Anna (@hoop_nerd)
Ten Word Analysis: If everyone tightens up just a little, could be deadly.
TeamSPACE charts are based on mapped clusters of shot activity. These areas are affectionately called Hunting Grounds, because they are the areas on the court where a player hunts for shots — and successfully scores most often. TeamSPACE takes the Hunting Grounds of all five players in a lineup and puts them on the court together — because, you know, they have to share that physical space, and there is only one ball.
In the past, it was one color per player; which meant that blending colors represented overlapping spaces for shot activity. But this time around, these are not your ordinary TeamSPACE shot maps. Each lineup is analyzed in the aggregate — one color! — and that unit is compared that unit to the rest of the league. So you will see a persistent red layer on every chart, highlighting the league’s Hunting Grounds from last season. The most prolific locations should come as no surprise: the paint, the corners, most of the top of the arc, and a couple of dabs at the foul line and top of the key.
So…how were these lineups chosen for each team? In the past, it’s been about projecting the starting lineup, estimating the most used lineup, or even designing the “most favoritest” lineup. This year? It’s the these charts represent the “most interestingly feasible” lineups….what? That’s a loaded phrase, so let’s unpack it a bit.
The goal is to identify the collection of five players on a team that could potentially play together, and if they did, the offensive results could be glorious. Ideally these lineups aren’t too far-fetched, but also slightly off-kilter and confusing to an opposing defense. While this type of analysis is not conducive for assessing defense, somewhat reasonable decisions are attempted to be made. So while it’s tempting to just put all the best shooters together…how realistic is it (outside of Houston, at least)? And, full disclosure: I favor some stretch in my lineups. It not only provides plenty of high-octane potential, but getting stretchy is also on par with current league-wide trends.
Each TeamSPACE chart has a couple of other sitcom-related features:
Family Matters: You’ll notice a series of Jaleel White’s across half court. Each lineup is scored on a scale of 0-7 Steve Urkels for how well it matches league-wide trends. Remember, there’s seven league Hunting Grounds (right corner three; at the rim; left corner three; foul line/top of the key; right wing; middle 3pt; left wing). A lineup gains points for matching each area; it loses points for messy excess shot activity.
Odd Couple: “Most interestingly feasible” is obviously debatable, so in order to account for some of those decisions, you’ll see Oscar and Felix on each chart. Often, there are players that are in the lineup…and maybe/probably they should not be. They get the Oscar label. And, there are those players that are out of the lineup…and maybe/probably should be included. They are the Felix for their team.
And briefly, a word about data. These strange visual displays are based on last season’s shot data, weighted by made buckets — so rookies and season-long injuries are sadly excluded. This analysis is nothing without the help of Darryl Blackport, and the research materials available atBasketball-Reference and NBA.com. Further, these charts feature some of the best logo re-designs I could curate from the ol’ Information Superhighway, including Dribbble.com and Pinterest. I made none of the logos; I merely selected some of my favorites. Enjoy!
Everybody Loves Raymond
By Matt Rutkowski (@MontaWorldPeace)
In the interest of full disclosure, I am Polish. Marcin Gortat is also Polish. I promise not to resist letting that cloud my judgment.
Poland is great. One my favorite parts of it is everything. I also am fond of a Polish vodka called Zubrowka. It’s got bison grass in it, and if you mix it with apple juice it just kind of tastes like cinnamon, and it will get you really drunk without you realizing until it’s too late, and you’ll wake up feeling like you’re being bashed in the head with a hammer, and it’s awesome. Coincidentally (??), Marcin Gortat’s nickname is The Polish Hammer.
Another cool part about Poland is Krakow. It’s really pretty, and there’s a big castle right in the middle. There’s a place you can go to watch a little old lady make pierogi, and then you can buy them, and then you can eat them. Coincidentally (?!?!), Marcin Gortat grew up in Łódź which is also a city in Poland.
Marcin Gortat has Polish parents, if you can believe that. His mom was probably pretty cool because she’s Polish, but his dad Janusz is really great too. He’s a multi-medalist for light-heavyweight boxing at the Olympics, and has called Marcin out for not accomplishing as much as that as early in his life. Janusz was also not a fan of when Marcin got him tattooed on his arm and asked if he was crazy. Aren’t parents the best? Yes, but only if they’re Polish.
Okay, so I’ve admitted to my biases, and I think that’s basically tantamount to not having any, but for the sake of argument let’s consider other potential “most likable” players on the Wizards. First of all, there are John Wall and Bradley Beal, but they don’t even like each other. That means they’re out.
And I think that’s everyone, so back to Marcin.
He was on the Cover of Men’s Health. Granted this was the Polish edition, but we shouldn’t hold that against America.
He once joined the Celtics huddle in the middle of a game. There was no follow up on exactly how grateful they were.
He screams quotes from 300 before games despite the fact that that movie is like forty years old at this point. You have a to appreciate a man who appreciates history, especially since for a good 100 year stretch of history Poland didn’t technically exist.
He’s kind of enough to show off his bulging Slavic thighs during interviews, inspiring men like me to wear shorter shorts at all times.
He once stated in an interview, “I’m a loner. Even when I used to live with my girlfriend I often wanted to be alone. Sometimes I cut myself off from my friends, too. They go together to a club or a restaurant and I stay at home, and I’m not answering any phone calls.” If you’re looking for likable, look no further.
So yeah. If you’re not convinced that Marcin Gortat is the most likable player on the Wizards at this point, then I don’t blame you. But I do judge you. My judgment is great, by the way. It’s Polish.
Boy Meets World
By Peter Nygaard (@RetepAdam)
The Wizards occupy a strange space in the NBA landscape at the moment. One season removed from 46 wins and a first-round sweep of Toronto, expectations seem considerably lower than they did just 12 months ago. Somewhere in the midst of their liftoff, the Wizards’ engines sputtered. And while their ascent has not been canceled yet, it feels like they’ve been sitting on the tarmac for hours.
Still, it’s important to remember that their young players are still just that. John Wall and Markieff Morris are a little bit further down the age curve, but Otto Porter wouldn’t have even been the oldest player in the 2016 Draft, and Bradley Beal is somehow even younger than Porter. So, while Coach Scott Brooks and company continue to hold their breath for Washington’s potentially potent wing duo to finally enjoy a breakout season, they’ve still got a little bit of time before oxygen becomes an issue.
The problem is that due to the way their contracts are staggered, they’re likely to be capped out until Wall hits free agency in 2019, meaning these are pretty much the guys they’re rolling with. And once you get past the aforementioned group and second-chancers like Trey Burke and Andrew Nicholson, there doesn’t appear to be much of a youth movement shaping up in our nation’s capital. A pair of trades left Washington without a pick in this year’s draft, though they did sign a trio of undrafted rookies — Danuel House, Sheldon McClellan and Daniel Ochefu — to non-guaranteed contracts.
House, a hyper-athletic slasher from Texas A&M, opened some eyes with his performance at the Las Vegas Summer League but quickly found himself tethered to a short leash in the preseason, getting yanked after failing to impress in 32 minutes of action. McClellan, one of the most efficient scorers in college basketball last year, went the exact opposite route. The 23-year-old guard struggled mightily in Vegas but took over down the stretch of Washington’s double-OT preseason win over the Sixers, finishing the game with a heroically efficient 20 points. The anchor of the national champion Villanova Wildcats, Ochefu rated well in a number of different draft models but was scarcely heard from in both Summer League and preseason play. The 6-11 center was reportedly on the chopping block, per David Pick, until Ian Mahinmi’s knee injury created the need for more frontcourt depth. All three players would seemingly be ideal candidates for a longer look in the D-League, but Washington remains one of eight teams on a shrinking list of NBA franchises without an exclusive D-League affiliate.
The other — and likely most intriguing — rookie addition to the Wizards roster is 2012 second round pick Tomas Satoransky. A 6-7 point guard who spent the past couple seasons with Barcelona, Satoransky plays a little bit like Evan Fournier, only if Fournier had the worst case of flat feet in documented history. But despite lacking the same fluidity as Orlando’s young star, Satoransky is an explosive athlete in his own right. And with the kind of size he has for his position, it doesn’t take much to carve out an advantage on offense. Defensively, he has the length to be a pest. The biggest question on offense will be whether or not his three-point shooting made it through customs. A 41 percent three-point shooter in his final two seasons in Europe, Satoransky made just 2-of-9 from beyond the arc during the preseason. A small sample size to be sure, but it will be something to keep an eye on as the season progresses. Translating his shooting ability to NBA range would open up a number of different ways for Washington to utilize him.
Of course, the other relative newbie with high expectations is second-year forward Kelly Oubre Jr. The former first round pick was given some run in December but spent most of his rookie campaign confined to the bench. At the Las Vegas Summer League, he was essentially the only clear-cut NBA player on the Wizards’ roster, providing him with a unique opportunity to be the focal point on offense. He responded by averaging 19.2 points per game and being named Second Team All-Summer League. Oubre continued to show improvement during the preseason, but it’s clear that he still has a ways to go. The physical tools are undoubtedly there, but it’s tough for a team that harbors playoff aspirations to live with the mistakes that will come from giving heavy minutes to a player as raw as KO still is at this point. So, again, it goes back to what would be best for the Wizards’ young apprentices. And without a suitable D-League option, the answer to that question will likely interfere with the team’s goals for this season.
Once again, the Wizards will try to take the big leap forward that eluded them this past year. But it may be coming at the cost of their future sustainability.