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How Far Can the Washington Wizards Fall?

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistMarch 9, 2015

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There are limits to how far the fast-fading Washington Wizards can fall.

But only because the NBA season doesn't last forever.

Having dropped 13 of their last 17 games, including eight of 10, the Wizards are free-falling—the only end in sight being the early playoff exit they're streaking toward. They are losers of nine straight on the road and have not defeated an opponent with a winning record since Jan. 14.

Only the Denver Nuggets (4-14) own a worse record over this span. The Wizards have indeed tallied a lower winning percentage than the top-pick-contending New York Knicks, Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers through their last 17 games.

This is what rock bottom should look like, but Washington can still fall further and faster.

That much became obvious in Saturday night's 91-85 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. The Wizards played their way out of the contest, caroming shot after shot off every part of the rim, unable to close a 17-point deficit after showing signs of third-quarter life.

It was a reminder that this isn't some phase they're going through, some extended stretch they're enduring. They have been bad for a while and are now guaranteed nothing.

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WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 16: Marcin Gortat #4, Paul Pierce #34, Martell Webster #9, Bradley Beal #3, and John Wall #2 of the Washington Wizards talk on the court during the second half of their 102-80 loss to the Brooklyn Nets at Verizon Center on January
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More than six games separate the Wizards from lottery territory with 19 left to play. Though it's a large enough cushion to survive this months-long descent, Milwaukee is a mere 1.5 games away from displacing Washington's ownership of fifth place, a once faint possibility that's growing stronger, if it's not inevitable.

After all, this team has now spent more time trudging through a tailspin than as a purported powerhouse. That latter distinction died 30 games into the season, with Washington at 22-8, firmly positioned to contend for the Eastern Conference's No. 2 seed and finish with the best regular-season record in franchise history.

Since then, the Wizards are a dismal 13-20 and fielding a bottom-10 offense. Given the larger sample size, their downswing isn't really a rut they can bust so much as an identity they're still trying to escape.

Washington's Wormhole
Wizards...Win%RankOff. Rtg.RankDef. Rtg.RankNet Rtg.Rank
First 30 Games73.34104.41499.245.26
Since Dec. 3039.422100.022101.714-1.721
Since Jan. 2823.52997.627101.917-4.326
Source: NBA.com.

Even when breaking down their performance by month, the Wizards' regression isn't abrupt. Their journey from contender to pretender to off-radar lemon has been steady:

Nothing about their most recent efforts suggest they're on the verge of turning things around, either.

Bradley Beal is still banged up and was forced to sit out against Milwaukee. The Wizards nearly blew a 35-point lead against the Miami Heat's sixth strings on Friday night, pulling out a narrow 99-97 victory in which both their offense and defense flamed out. They lost to a Chicago Bulls outfit that didn't have Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler or Taj Gibson on March 3.

The offense itself has been a mess all season. While no one person is ever to blame, head coach Randy Wittman is entering Mark Jackson country. His offensive sets are uninventive, often devoid of ball movement and spacing, heavy on mid-range jumpers and light on pick-and-rolls—the latter of which is inexplicable.

Ethan Strauss @SherwoodStrauss

The Wizards seem like a lot of untapped potential. And while I hate being fire the coach guy...yea

Washington runs pick-and-rolls 20.4 percent of the time. That ranks 21st in the league.

And that's unforgivable.

Wittman has one of the most explosive point guards alive in John Wall at his disposal, along with two of the more deft pick-and-pop towers in Nene and Marcin Gortat. The dearth of screen-and-roll usage is poor game-planning.

If the Wizards aren't going to force-feed those plays down opponents' throats, there's little point in running the traditional, dual big-men lineups that maim their floor spacing. They rank seventh in three-point percentage (35.9) but 27th in attempts per game (16.7). Of the six other teams that fall within the bottom seven of deep-ball usage, only the Memphis Grizzlies rank in the top 15 of offensive efficiency.

Stretching defenses is important nowadays, with the three-ball more popular than ever. Washington cannot afford to marginalize one of the few offensive areas in which it has found success. Even its efficiency stands to suffer slightly.

Employing this moderately paced, mostly war-worn offense is on Wittman more than anybody else. And as SB Nation's Tom Ziller points out, this is nothing new:

Wall himself is also in the middle of an individual slump. He boasts the NBA's third-highest assist rate (46.1), and the Wizards offense is noticeably better with him on the floor, but his shooting percentages have plummeted since Washington began this season 22-8.

CSN Washington's Ben Standig has more:

Overall, just like team [sic], Wall's performance on both ends has gone south. In his case, it speaks more to the MVP candidate level he performed at earlier in the season than suggesting he's the reason Washington looks nothing like a playoff team over the last 17 games.

Wall and others helped cover up the team's flaws earlier this season. Nothing seems to work against these current blemishes...The Wizards need Wall's best every night to win, but maybe that MVP candidate level only returns if he stays off his feet at some point.

Rest isn't an option at this point—not with Beal battling ailments of his own, Martell Webster and Paul Pierce underperforming, Otto Porter falling asleep defensively and the team itself in dire straights. The Wizards need their best player to play, injured or not.

And for the record, that will be injured.

“Everything,” Wall said when asked about what was hurting following Washington's loss to Milwaukee, per The Washington Post's Jorge Castillo. “I can’t even name a specific thing to be honest with you.”

These problems, these fatal flaws and potentially campaign-crippling injuries, will not go away overnight. They will linger, just as they have for most of this season, forever threatening to derail the Wizards' quest to improve upon last year's second-round exit.

It's time to sound the alarm in Washington.
It's time to sound the alarm in Washington.Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

Twelve of their final 19 games come against East and West playoff teams. They are 10-20 when facing those squads this season and winless in their last 11 tries.

That chasm between them and the lottery looks and feels safe, but consider this: The Wizards lead the eighth-place Indiana Pacers by 6.5 games. Since Feb. 1, those same Pacers are an NBA-best 11-2—a full eight games better than the Wizards (4-11).

So while they can only fall as far as their remaining 19 contests will allow, the last few weeks, the last few months, are nothing if not proof their basement is bottomless.

Ergo, the Wizards are not safe from anyone—not the Bucks, not the seventh-place Charlotte Hornets, not the Pacers.

Not even the lottery.

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com and are accurate as of games played March 8.

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