A year ago, Bradley Beal called his Washington Wizards “the best team in the East.” It wasn’t the first time that the Wizards made a claim that they’d yet to earn. And after this particular boast, the team proceeded to finish eighth in the Eastern Conference and lose in the first round of the playoffs.
There were times when the Wizards lived up to their own hype. They had a winning regular-season record (14-13) against the East’s seven other playoff teams and wins over six of the eight playoff teams in the West. They were one of only two teams — the Golden State Warriors were the other — that had a top-10 offense (they ranked 10th) against the league’s top-10 defenses and a top-10 defense (ninth) against the league’s top-10 offenses.
The Wizards could play with the best. They just couldn’t take care of business against the worst.
Among the 18 teams that finished with winning records last season, the Wizards had the worst record (20-15) against the 12 teams that finished with losing records. They weren’t much better offensively in those 35 games (107.4 points scored per 100 possessions) than they were in 47 games against the other 17 teams that finished above .500 (106.6).
The Wizards were without John Wall for 41 games last season and better against bad teams with Wall (14-8) than without him (6-7). But those eight losses in 22 games are more than eight teams had in a full season (minimum of 32 games) against teams that finished under .500. While the Wizards fell to eighth in the East, the Toronto Raptors were the No. 1 seed, largely because they went a league-best 35-2 against the 12 worst teams in the league.
Part of being one of the best teams in the conference is beating the worst teams in the conference. Consistency isn’t glamorous, but it certainly gives you more license to talk about how good you are.
It’s not clear that the Wizards have been humbled, but head coach Scott Brooks wants them to act like they have. At media day this year, Brooks’ message was “Stop talking.”
Of course, Markieff Morris would then go on to say that “Boston has never been better than us,” even though the Celtics eliminated the Wizards in the 2017 playoffs and have since added Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward and Jayson Tatum.
The Wizards have been a good team for five seasons, but losing in seven games in that 2017 conference semifinals series has been their best postseason result since adding three top-three picks (Wall, Beal and Otto Porter Jr.) in four years (2010-13). Wall, Beal and Porter are still just 28, 25 and 25 years old, respectively, so there are more opportunities ahead.
But it remains to be seen how many more years that Washington management is willing to give this core before making a major move. Only one decision-maker placed the Wizards in the top four of the Eastern Conference in NBA.com’s GM Survey, and another year as a 5 seed or lower might be reason enough to go in a new direction.
As it stands, the salaries owed to Wall, Beal and Porter have made it impossible for the Wizards to add much to their core. The team’s big offseason move was signing Dwight Howard, who has been discarded by three teams in the last three years.
Howard still has the ability to improve a defense that ranked 15th last season and had particular issues with protecting the rim. But questions about chemistry on a team that already lacked it are more than valid.
A healthier Wall will help an offense that ranked 14th last season. Not only did he miss 41 games last year, but his numbers were not to his standards when he was on the floor. Offseason additions Jeff Green and Austin Rivers will make the bench more potent (if not more inconsistent), and a bigger role for the efficient Porter would help.
A glass-half-full Wizards observer might see the potential for a top-10 team on both ends of the floor. But finding a glass-half-full Wizards observer is difficult at this point in the team’s history.
The players on the current roster have played just a small role in the franchise’s continuous futility, but Washington has the league’s longest active streak of failing to win 50 games and its second-longest streak of *failing to reach the conference finals. Both streaks are 39 years long, dating back to consecutive trips to The Finals in 1978 and ’79.
* The LA Clippers haven’t reached the conference finals in the 48-year history of the franchise.
Whether you consider all 39 years or just the last few, the Wizards should be hungry to prove themselves, not only against the league’s best teams, but against the ones at the bottom of the standings too.
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John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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