There is only one lock-in playoff contender among the four major D.C. sports right now—and that would be the Washington Capitals.
Yet, it's players from the other metro-area teams that are making grandiose promises of playoffs and championships. Just last week, Washington Redskins' backup quarterback promised that the perennial cellar-dwellers of the NFC East would make the playoffs.
In a less-publicized interview following a late-season Washington Wizards win over the Boston Celtics, John Wall pledged to lead the Wizards to the playoffs this upcoming season (he was, of course, not taking into account the fact that there may not be a season).
The world's collective reaction was to suppress a laugh. I mean, this was a team that went 3-38 away from the Verizon Center—and two of those wins came against the Charlotte Bobcats and Cleveland Cavaliers, the two (other) laughingstocks of the league.
It's been a few months since season's end and we've spent that time reflecting on Wall's promise. Moreover, with John Wall's nationwide hoops tour coming back to D.C., it seems like this is a good time to weigh the plausibility of Wall's guarantee.
In an age of advanced stats and sabermetrics, there are an infinite number of details one could analyze in predicting the success of an individual or a team. However, I think the three most helpful criterion in predicting a team's future success can be based on the team's recent history (i.e., its successes and/or failures), individual players' developments (especially within a system), and strength of competition. This final criterion is especially important in any sport that uses a playoff system where a team doesn't have to be good—just good enough (more on that in a moment).
The easiest way to measure where you're going is to trace a path marking where you've been. By that measure, the Wizards are in a terrific position. They finished 6-4, which is by no means extraordinary, but much better than their 28 percent winning record. Moreover, two of their six wins came against playoff teams, while three more were against contenders fighting for a playoff spot. More importantly, they were more competitive down the stretch period—win or lose.
Of course, none of that would mean anything unless we could be certain that the Wizards were going to build on that finale (read: improve) in the upcoming season. And, if nothing else, we can be certain the Wizards' core will improve.
First, the obvious: Rashard Lewis and Josh Howard—the Wizards' two big mid-season acquisitions last year—have yet to log any significant play time for Washington. Both players missed most of last season to injuries, but will be healthy for the upcoming season. If nothing else, the Wizards will now have veteran depth on a team that lacks it.
Second, the Wizards' core improved tremendously down the stretch. Wall's improvement was the most marked. He stayed healthy after All-Star Weekend and, if not for early injuries (and Blake Griffin's explosive play out the gate), ROY voting would have been much less one-sided. But for Wall, it isn't enough that he plays well. He is obsessed with getting better and being one of the best. He has spent this summer playing basketball nationwide non-stop. If that wasn't enough, Wall and his trainer claim he never recovered from his injuries last year. He thinks he was playing close to 80 percent. Now he says he's back up to 100 percent and it's clear his explosiveness is back.
Nick Young, too, had his breakthrough year. It's not clear if he's working hard to improve on last season's performance this offseason, but it looks like the Wizards have found themselves a shooting guard regardless of whether or not he improves.
Maybe most importantly, Jordan Crawford will have a year of the Wizards' system under his belt. It's not clear if he will play as a backup to Wall or compete with Young for shooting guard—perhaps both. Either way, he adds another dimension to the Wizards' backcourt.
The individual and collective growth of those three offer potential for a strong season, relatively speaking. However, there are two other players whose individual development can make or break the Wizards' season. First, we have Javale McGee, the athletic freak who still hasn't developed a full arsenal of post-moves. Honestly, no one knows how or if McGee will work on his game this offseason. We do know that he has been playing on the west coast with Nick Young, and that they're both returning to D.C. to play in the West Coast Drew League against the Goodman League and John Wall.
The other core player, though, is a player whose name sets the teeth of Wizards' fans on edge. Andray Blatche is known for his bone-headed antics, both on and off the court. On the court, he will try to dominate the ball or drive in on defenders even though his skill-set more closely resembles that of a big man. When he is heavily guarded, he will look for a fade away jumper instead of the pass. Some Wizards fans can even ignore his ridiculous on-court plays except the city of Washington firmly believes he is a waste of talent. Fans recognize that when he is in shape (big emphasis on "when"), he represents a strong physical presence. His skill and talent is undeniable, yet too often he comes off as lazy and unmotivated. However, Leonsis and the Wizards organization believe he can be good and, with his help, the Wizards can become a playoff threat (see the huge contract extension).
But their trust has gone unrewarded—until now, maybe. Rumor has it that Blatche is in shape and working hard. He sponsored a camp featuring Josh Howard and is spending his time getting ready for the season. Oh, and he's organizing offseason workouts. Andray "I'm going to sponsor a Lap dance night at a club" Blatche. If he is indeed growing up and working hard, he may be poised to break out. If that's the case, the Wizards may have themselves five solid players to fill out the top six positions.
Finally, it's conducive to Washington's success that the Wizards play in a watered-down Eastern Conference. There are the elite teams—the Bulls, Heat, Celtics and Magic (sometimes). And then there's everyone else. While the West no longer has the dominant teams it did in the past (Lakers, Spurs), the competition is more tightly packed top-to-bottom. There it's more difficult to crack the playoffs when any of the top eleven or so teams are one small winning streak from being a fifth seed or higher. In the East, the bottom half of teams are a lot weaker and therefore easier to overcome.
The Eastern Conference has fourteen other teams. Barring a miracle, the Wizards won't catch the Bulls, Heat or Celtics. They might be able to steal a couple of games from the Magic (especially if Dwight Howard is traded within the season), and stealing a couple of games from the Celtics or Hawks is also not out of the question. The Knicks are a huge wild-card, but—all things considered—are still going to make the playoffs; it's just their seeding that is unpredictable. Provided that D12 remains with the Magic, the top five spots are a lock.
The rest of the field is highly uncertain. The Pistons, Bobcats and Cavaliers are a couple of years away from competing, so the other two spots would be a battle between the Wizards, Bucks, Sixers, Pacers, Nets and Raptors. Facing stiffer competition, it's not out of the question that the Sixers and Pacers fall closer to the pack. Meanwhile, the other three teams (Nets, Wiz, Raptors and Bucks) will have had another year to develop together. And honestly, I expect the Bucks to make some huge strides this year, especially since Brandon Jennings is working hard to become one of the better point guards in the league, thereby becoming a strong complement to Andrew Bogut. They should come up just ahead above the competition. It'll be a cut-throat battle for those last three spots.
Basically, when Wall pledges to make the playoffs, he is promising to be better than the seven worst Eastern Conference teams. Taking into account what we've mentioned above, is it really that unbelievable that the Wiz Kids will push for the eighth seed? They'll struggle, sure. The Bucks have Bogut as a bona fide star and Deron Williams can help the developing Nets become a playoff threat. I'm not saying the Wizards will make the playoffs. I am saying that it's not impossible. I am pointing out that they are going to make it interesting down the stretch, and I am telling you don't be too surprised if they're still hanging around at the end of April.