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Mahinmi’s injury will test Wizards’ new defensive approach

Indiana Pacers center Ian Mahinmi (28), from France, walks to the bench after fouling out during the second half of an NBA basketball game Saturday against the Indiana Pacers, March 5, 2016, in Washington. The Pacers won 100-99. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

In news that seems par for the course for the Washington Wizards, center Ian Mahinmi suffered a partially torn medial meniscus in his left knee. The injury occurred in Thursday’s game against the Philadelphia 76ers. Mahinmi underwent surgery Friday evening and is expected to miss four-to-six weeks.

Obviously, this is not the start the Wizards were hoping for, but they have a chance to weather Mahinmi’s absence since the team stockpiled on bigs at the expense of its wing rotation. Marcin Gortat and Jason Smith don’t bring the same level of rim protection, but are capable. Unfortunately that may not be enough. Scott Brooks has renovated the team’s defense to resemble the one he implemented as the coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder.

In Oklahoma City, Brooks deployed an aggressive defensive system that relied on the team’s formidable athleticism and wingspan. At their peak, the Thunder relentlessly trapped on pick-and-rolls and rotated to the open man with unparalleled frenzy.The Wizards certainly have the athletes and length, but come up short when it comes to their centers. All of their 5’s are little more conventional in their defensive approach and style.

That version of the Thunder used the not-so-graceful Kendrick Perkins and was successful, so it’s not completely necessary to have a mobile center, but I think that edges closer to the exception than the rule. Oklahoma City was probably the most athletic team in the league. The Wizards are by no means frail – well maybe Bradley Beal – but they can’t match that level of force. In terms of athleticism, Mahinmi offers Washington the best choice among their centers.

Mahinmi himself excelled with the Indiana Pacers in ICE coverage last season, but given his age and strengths is the best candidate if Brooks is intent on molding the Wizards in OKC’s image. Gortat and Smith can be plodding, and are easily taken advantage of in space. Mahinmi has the foot speed and patience to stay with smaller, quicker opponents.

Washington’s transition to a more hyper defensive system just became that much harder because of Mahinmi’s injury. He was limited in camp and the preseason because of injuries to his lower back and left knee, but under normal circumstances Mahinmi is an effective rim protector and versatile defender. It’s not to say that the Wizards won’t be able to conform to their new identity, it’s just that the road there would have been less rocky with Mahinmi fully healthy.

To be fair, the Wizards may have encountered some roadblocks even with Mahinmi on board. His reputation as a shot blocker is a bit overblown. He’s protects the paint well, but he isn’t in the same league of Serge Ibaka – OKC’s former in-house shot blocker. Ibaka has taken his share of grief for his passive play and possible decline, but there was a time when his presence alone was enough to deter shots at the rim.

Ibaka inspired a healthy amount of fear in players that drove the lane in his vicinity. They altered shots or decided against them entirely, his intimidation factor was that real. It’s doubtful that Mahinmi could emulate that effect.

Ultimately how the Wizards fare during Mahinmi’s absence will come down to their adjustment to Brooks’ defensive system. If the team can play with intensity as a whole, they can keep their heads above water. If not, this may be another rough year for the Wizards.

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