First half summary: Thank heaven for the Eastern Conference’s parity, which has even the Wizards dreaming some play-in playoff dreams. Their 14-20 record is the NBA’s seventh-worst, leaving them 12th in the East, but the prospect of snagging the 10th spot — a mere 1.5 games away — is a way to keep them, and the second half of their season, interesting.
We say “keep” because the Wizards went from moribund (6-17) early in the season to interesting, even a little compelling when they began the 8-3 stretch in mid-February that carried them to the break. They’ve been beating mostly good teams, too, with a 3-1 West Coast trip central to the improvement. Coach Scott Brooks has tinkered with his lineups and rotation, while building up Rui Hachimura’s defensive confidence and impact. Bradley Beal, the league’s leading scorer (32.9 ppg), is the All-Star everyone knew he was regardless of team record. Robin Lopez has been a great insurance policy at center with rim-running starter Thomas Bryant lost to ACL surgery. Davis Bertans is in shape and rhythm with his shooting range again, and then there’s that irrepressible point guard whose obituaries have proven premature.
Biggest question going into the second half: Has the real Russell Westbrook stood up? Sure looks like it, after many wondered if the former OKC and Houston juggernaut had lost some skills and would fight any adjustment necessary to his game. Westbrook seems to have won the argument, since he said all along it was the injury to his left quadriceps muscle that had hampered him in the early going. He has stopped jacking up 3-pointers and resumed attacking the basket, playing like the Westbrook of old in a way that helps the Wizards.
In January, Westbrook shot 39.8% overall and averaged 7.4 rpg and 7.9 apg. Not bad, but in February, he was more accurate (43.8%) while getting back to his triple-double ways (19.1 ppg, 10.4 rpg, 9.6 apg). He took 39 3-pointers in 14 games compared to 37 in seven in January. If the Westbrook seen lately by the Wizards is the one they’ll get the rest of the way, even playing .500 ball should get them a real shot at the postseason. Which is a great lesson-in-waiting for his many young teammates.
Playoffs or lottery?: Let’s go with playoffs, based on what seems to be a legit turnaround in Washington’s season. Brooks has hung in there, as has GM Tommy Sheppard, believing in and sticking with their plan, and their boss Ted Leonsis — he who oversaw Ernie Grunfeld for, like, forever — remains patient. The Wizards have an electric backcourt, promising youth and an interesting global culture, with a second half that could be worlds away from their first 34 games.
— Steve Aschburner