6 Reasons You Can and Can't Believe in Washington Wizards' Playoff Success
The Washington Wizards are headed to the playoffs for the first time since 2008. The last series they won was three years before that. Basketball hasn’t been sunny in the nation’s capital for quite some time, but this season’s squad might be ready to turn things around.
What would that take? Washington (37-35) clings to a favorable six seed right now, but the Wizards are just two games in the loss column ahead of the Charlotte Bobcats.
If they can stay in that spot or climb even higher (the Chicago Bulls, Brooklyn Nets and Toronto Raptors can all be caught), the Wizards will be in position to win a series, gain some momentum and give one of the conference’s top dogs all it can handle in the semifinals.
Or, they can fall flat on their face. Whether you’re looking at their record or net rating (appropriately 15th in the league since the All-Star break),Washington is an average basketball team. Here are three reasons each to explain their possible success, or their impending failure.
We'll first go with the optimistic take before tackling things that will make Wizards fans frown. Everything is ranked on importance.
3. Been There, Done That
Washington’s young talent is the reason the team is going to make the playoffs. John Wall and Bradley Beal are the team’s engine, gasoline, wheels and plush interior.
It's understandable then that the first thing you think about when Washington comes up in conversation is its two franchise players. Unfortunately, neither of them has playoff experience.
The Wizards have tried to answer this possible issue by supplementing their roster with veterans who’ve been to the playoffs, understand its rhythms and know what it takes to win.
Al Harrington hasn’t necessarily put up impressive numbers (in fact, his numbers are bad), but since the All-Star break, when he’s on the court—231 minutes—Washington outscores opponents by 9.2 points per 100 possessions, and its offense operates at a level that’d rank first in the league.
Drew Gooden is averaging 12.1 points (on 58 percent shooting) and 6.4 rebounds over his last 10 games. (Not a joke.) Andre Miller is a stable point guard who just one year ago single-handedly won a playoff game for the Denver Nuggets. (Also not a joke.)
All three guys are capable of having a positive influence on and off the court over the next few weeks. Washington needs at least one of them to step up.
2. Three-Point Shooting
The three-point shot is the closest thing basketball has to an equalizer. Inferior teams have it at their disposal to slingshot themselves from behind no matter how insurmountable their odds to win may be.
This hopeful detail shouldn’t be lost on the Wizards. Since the All-Star break, they’re shooting 40.2 percent behind the line on 22 attempts per game. That makes them the fourth-most accurate team in the entire league over a 20-game sample size.
Can they keep it up? The team’s regular snipers (Trevor Ariza, Bradley Beal) shouldn’t be a concern, but John Wall’s hitting an insane 45.2 percent and Drew Gooden’s making nearly half of his attempts (just one per game, but still).
The Wizards will be an extremely tough out if everyone stays hot.
1. John Wall Is an Animal
John Wall is cruising along the superstar path Washington dreamt he’d find when it took him with the first pick three years ago. His fourth season has been his best by a noticeable margin. Wall is second in assist rate, 10th in steal percentage (only two players in the league have more total steals this year) and has molded himself into a respectable three-point shooter.
Last season, only 6.1 percent of Wall’s field goal attempts were threes. Now, that number has exploded to 23.5 percent. And he’s making 36.1 percent of them. This is huge, and it makes defending him off the dribble an incredibly taxing exercise for every defense.
The Wizards depend on Wall, as they average nearly 10 more points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor. As their best player by a significant margin, Wall’s first taste of playoff basketball this spring could quicken his journey to becoming a superstar. Washington’s counting on it.
3. Crunch Time
When it's the final five minutes of a game where the score differential is five points or less, the Washington Wizards shoot just 39.3 percent from the floor and 29.2 percent from the three-point line. It'd be harsh calling these numbers "awful," but head coach Randy Wittman wouldn't bring them up in a job interview, either.
Out of all the teams virtually guaranteed a spot in the playoffs, Washington's crunch time offense is third worst (only the Chicago Bulls and Charlotte Bobcats are worse—the Phoenix Suns are too, but may not qualify for the postseason, as unfair as that is) in the league.
The Wizards are 18-23 in these games, with a net rating that's 21st in the league. If a playoff game is close (lots of them are), betting on the Wizards to pull it out may not be your smartest bet.
2. Problematic Offensive Tendencies
Apart from John Wall, who averages an impressive 6.3 drives per game, Washington doesn’t have any players who can get to the rim.
This would be fine if an effective, healthy post presence was around (it isn't), or if they were overflowing with knockdown three-point shooters to create space (they aren’t). Instead, Washington is forced to let the defense dictate its movement.
The Wizards rely on mid-range jumpers and never get to the free-throw line. Since the All-Star break, they’re 29th in free-throw rate, and since opening night they average the most mid-range shots per game, hitting a sickly 37.6 percent of them.
Nene might be able to help some of this stuff if/when he comes back, and Beal could take an unexpected leap to scoring more off the dribble. However, most of these issues have lasted the entire season. There's no indication Washington can turn it around before the playoffs begin.
1. Nene's Questionable Health
Nene’s injury looms large over the Washington Wizards. He’s one of their best players and presents matchup problems galore, especially in the syrupy playoffs. They're in trouble if he can't go. As was recently pointed out by SB Nation’s Mike Prada:
The Wizards played well initially without Nene against a soft schedule, but missed him on their unsuccessful four-game road trip. The difference is felt defensively in particular: the Wizards have allowed 105.7 points per 100 possessions since his injury compared to 102 points per 100 possessions before it, per NBA.com's stats page.
From Jan. 13 to Feb. 23, Washington’s starting lineup of John Wall, Bradley Beal, Trevor Ariza, Nene and Marcin Gortat had the team in a solid groove. This unit crushed everyone with an imposing interior defense and outscored opponents by an impressive 10.7 points per 100 possessions.
Then Nene sprained his MCL.
With Trevor Brooker in his place, Washington’s defense tumbles over a waterfall. If Nene isn’t healthy enough to give Washington consistent minutes throughout a playoff series, all the heroics from Wall and Beal won’t save this team from making an early exit.