The Wizards had a rough start this season. Calls for trading John Wall and Bradley Beal were thrown about haphazardly on Twitter. Ernie Grunfeld was believed to be on the hot seat. At one point during the season, it seemed that the Wizards would be on the outside looking in when it came to postseason play. The team had a slow start with a record of 6-12 at the start of December, and hovered around .500 for much of those first two months.
What difference does a new year make? Well, the Wizards have gone 29-11 since January 1. There are several reasons for this. The team began to mesh with first-year coach Scott Brooks, John Wall finally got healthy and, at least lately, the bench unit grew slightly stronger with the trade for Bojan Bogdanovich, and the addition of Brandon Jennings and Ian Mahinmi finally getting on the floor. Now with a record of 45-28, the team is comfortably the Eastern Conference’s third seed, with an outside chance to pass either the Boston Celtics or the ailing/resting Cleveland Cavaliers.
To understand the team’s chances in the playoffs, you have to look at what the Wizards do best, and how they evolved from a disappointment to championship hopeful.
This Wizards team is built around its offense. And whether in the half-court or on fast break, that starts with John Wall whizzing by defenders in the open floor and orchestrating pick and rolls. The point guard dynamo has earned every ounce of MVP consideration thrown his way. He’s averaging career highs in points and assists, and it makes sense as the team currently boasts the fifth best offensive rating (110.3) since January 1, and ninth best overall (108.4). The other key cog to the team’s offensive repertoire is dead-eye shooter Bradley Beal, who is finally avoiding the injuries responsible for cutting previous seasons short, thus living up to the promise he flashes every time on a basketball court.
“I think the backcourt is where you start,” says Dan Nolan, digital correspondent at Monumental Sports & Entertainment. “If John Wall and Bradley Beal are healthy, they can compete with any team in the NBA. They’re top 10 in every offensive category you can think of with those guys. They’re also extremely aggressive on the defensive end, so they nab a ton of steals.”
The backcourt success, though unexpectedly elite, isn’t really all that surprising. Wall is a perennial all-star, and folks have been waiting on Beal to stay healthy in hopes of seeing this level of consistency for years. However, forward Otto Porter Jr.’s play in a contract year has been revelatory. His cutting behind help defenders has always been a pleasant off-ball complement to his more on-ball guards, but this year Porter has also proved himself lights out from behind the three-point line, shooting a career mark of .442 percent, good enough for second-best in the league. This spaces the floor and allows driving lanes for Wall and Beal, and gives a clear path for center Marcin Gortat when rolling to the rim.
“The last half of the 2015-2016 season it clicked for him,” says Jake Whitacre, the manager of SB Nation site Bullets Forever. “He’s really been dynamite since then.”
The team has scored in bunches all season, averaging 109.5 points per game, and at an even higher clip since the new year. And while the pace slows in the playoffs, the Wizards offense is far from smoke and mirrors. With two primary ball-handlers and shooting at positions 1-4, the team is a tough cover for any opponent in the Eastern Conference. (The best defense in the East currently is Atlanta, and in the past two matchups Washington scored 112 and 104, respectively).
Starters Bear the Burden
Another aspect of playoff basketball that differs itself from the regular season is the tightening of lineups. With more rest between games, starters are able to play more minutes, and for the Wizards this is a huge plus.
“All it takes is a bad night from Bogdonovic shooting the ball, and you have to bring the starters back in early,” Whitacre says. “On the flip side, the starting lineup has played so many minutes together that they know exactly what they’re doing.”
Currently, the Wizards starting lineup, the fifth most effective per NBA.com, has played the most minutes together in the entire league at 1,265. This lineup also boasts a net rating of 9.2, which is among the tops in the league for units that have spent meaningful time on the floor together. This helps takes pressure off of Bogdanovic, Kelly Oubre Jr., Mahinmi and Jason Smith knowing they’ll be on the floor with more starters in the duration of the postseason.
Things to Worry About
Despite the fact that the Wizards will largely avoid bench heavy units, the team still has one of the thinner rosters amongst top teams. Bogdanovich has been an enormous help, turning minutes that once featured Marcus Thornton into moments where the Wizards are still threatening to put points up.
Another thing to at least pay attention to is the team’s defense. Though Whitacre tallies it up to the team’s overreliance on offense during the rigorous regular season schedule, the team has been losing points lately to both good and bad teams. When the ball isn’t moving as fast in the postseason, you want to have a defense that is at least semi-reliable when the shots aren’t falling. Currently, the Wizards defensive rating is at fourteenth, and even players like John Wall are statistically experiencing down years on that side of the ball, even if marginally.
The Wizards have set themselves up for at least one home series in the playoffs, which is a nice departure from the early season doldrums. The team has a lot of the makings of a championship squad: experienced head coach, a superstar experiencing a career year, multiple shot creators and a solid supporting cast. I think the defense will improve in the playoffs, but the bench is probably still a tad unreliable.
“You obviously want to get out of the first round,” Whitacre says. “I think they get past that, and you hope for Boston because they’re a little inexperienced in the playoffs. Plus, Oubre Jr. can at least bother Isiah Thomas a little bit, and that will definitely help in that series.”
Facing the Boston Celtics in the second round is likely, and probably a tough series even if the Wizards emerge victorious. The ceiling for this team if LeBron James stays healthy in Cleveland is probably bowing out after a series against the Cavs. If this outcome comes to bear, and the Wizards fall short in an Eastern Conference finals matchup with the defending champs, that would still be an amazing season for Washington fans, who months ago, weren’t sure if this team would or should stay intact.
“Any team with a healthy LeBron James is the favorite in the playoffs,” Nolan says. “When he gets to the playoffs, year after year, right off the bat, he deserves to be favorite. If a healthy Cleveland team plays a healthy Washington, they’d be favorites because they’ve earned that. Overall, though, honestly I think this is simply very exciting. To have this level of basketball right now in Washington, to be in contention, is astonishing.”