LOS ANGELES — Scott Brooks was searching.
After the Los Angeles Clippers picked apart his Washington Wizards’ defensive strategy through the first half Sunday night, Brooks looked deep on his roster to construct a new first unit. Although second-year player Troy Brown Jr. fulfilled the starting small forward role — just as he has started every game since Nov. 8 — Brooks pulled him in favor of an even younger player, Isaac Bonga, who hasn’t logged meaningful minutes since Brown took over the main duties.
The Wizards would go on to lose, 150-125, their third defeat on a four-game road trip in which their opponents averaged 131 points. Now as the Wizards (6-12) return home, the search for the right adjustments could mean changes in the lineup.
“We want to play better. We’re not satisfied just throwing players out there and trying to make them develop. That’s part of my job is to develop them but [another] part of my job is to develop them the right way and we need some fortitude,” Brooks said after the game. “We need some resolve and we don’t need guys just going out there just thinking: ‘You know what? We’re young and we’re just going to keep just being thrown out there.’ You got to earn [minutes].”
When asked after the game whether the Bonga substitute was based on Brown’s performance, Brooks started his response by answering “no.” However, Brooks’ decision to bench Brown at the start of the second half spoke loud and clear.
“I definitely wouldn’t be surprised come next week if he does,” Bradley Beal said of the possibility that Brooks will rearrange the starting lineup. “He needs a spark from somebody from somewhere. I’m open to it and I’m sure us as a team, we really don’t have a choice, we’ve got to get something going.”
“Whatever he decides to do, look at film and review it, see what lineups work best,” Beal said. “We’ll probably make changes.”
For 19 minutes, Bonga threw his spindly body around on the defensive end and logged three deflections; Brown had none in 22 minutes. Instead, Brown tried to stay locked into the team’s scheme or stop superstars Paul George and Kawhi Leonard whenever the one-on-one matchups demanded it. But by Brown’s own admission, he failed.
“I just felt like, to be honest with you, a majority of the time I was guarding somebody they scored,” Brown said, “and that’s not how I am defensively.”
The Wizards were down two rotation players in forward CJ Miles (left wrist ligament injury) and center Moritz Wagner (left ankle sprain), limiting Brooks’ options for lineup adjustments. However, it seemed as though if Brooks could have made more drastic changes on the floor, then he would have.
For the Clippers, center Montrezl Harrell plays starter’s minutes even though he comes off the bench. On Sunday against the Wizards, Harrell performed as the backup big who looked like the most dominant ever in producing 23 points and 15 rebounds. Harrell moved bodies out of his way, dictated the physicality in the post and scored all of his points near the rim or on free throws. As a team, the Clippers bullied Washington for 66 points in the paint.
Brooks singled out Bonga, Beal and rookie Rui Hachimura, who scored a career-high 30 points and pulled down eight rebounds, for competing with passion. The players omitted from this praise, namely Brown and center Thomas Bryant, drove home the point that Brooks wasn’t pleased with several of his starters.
“We just needed to get a defender out there. We needed a spark,” Brooks said of Bonga.
“A couple of bright spots,” Brooks continued. “I thought Rui came in and competed and he played with a lot of passion. That’s what we need. We need more guys like that every night and the crazy thing is, I thought Brad competed against Montrezl twice in the post and he’s our two guard. And he won the jump [ball in the fourth quarter] — and he’s our two guard.”
Although Bryant contested 14 shots, the most of any Wizards player, he played as the team’s lone available big man and could not match Harrell’s hustle.
“We have to have guys that collectively play out there with passion and that grit and grind,” Bryant said, echoing Brooks. “That’s all we can do right now.”
What the 20-year-old Brown lacked in defensive experience during the first half — George breezed to 27 of his 31 points during that stretch — he made up for in maturity in the locker room. Brooks didn’t need to call out Brown in postgame comments, because the player did so himself.
“Honestly, I wasn’t playing the greatest defense out there. I was trying my best,” Brown said. “I take a lot of pride in my defense, especially with the first unit being able to call myself a defensive stopper and guard the best players and stuff like that. Tonight, I didn’t feel like I met my expectations of playing defense and holding myself to that standard. I have to do better.”
While Brown pledged self-improvement, Brooks hinted strongly at finding replacements.
“Don’t know what we’re going to do going forward. We need a defender and that’s what he does,” Brooks said of Bonga. “He started early in the season, [but] we got some guys healthy, now CJ’s out. Maybe it’s time to give him another look.”
Though this season has been dedicated to the maturing of the team’s young players, Brooks wants to make sure they’re not developing the wrong habits.