After beating the Chicago Bulls in five games and pushing the Indiana Pacers to six games in last year’s postseason, the Washington Wizards appeared poised to take the next step this season. An early injury to shooting guard Bradley Beal could have been a setback, but the Wizards went 7-2 before Beal returned to the lineup in mid-November.
Washington’s stellar play continued throughout the first half of the season. John Wall looked like an MVP candidate. Paul Pierce made everybody forget about Trevor Ariza. The two-headed monster of Nene and Marcin Gortat was dominant down low. Even veteran journeyman Rasual Butler enjoyed a resurgence, thanks in large part to the brilliant passing of Wall, who is one of the best in the NBA at finding open three-point shooters.
The Wizards got off to their best start in 40 years, and on Jan. 27, their record was a superb 31-15. Washington looked like one of the beasts of the Eastern Conference, ready to make a deep postseason run in a conference that was wide open.
But everything has gone downhill since then.
The Wizards are 2-8 in their last 10 games, with the last loss an embarrassing 106-89 defeat against the Detroit Pistons. The game before that was a 127-89 shellacking against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Beal has missed the last five-plus games due to a mild stress reaction in his right fibula, the same right fibula that has given him problems in the past. The young shooting guard is expected to resume basketball activities this weekend, but it’s unclear when he’ll return to game action, according to Jorge Castillo of The Washington Post.
Washington could really use Beal back, because the offense has gone in the tank during the recent slide. The Wizards scored just 100.2 points per 100 possessions over the last 10 games, one of the worst marks in the league during that span, according to NBA.com. In the last six games (Beal played just 11 minutes six games ago), Washington’s offensive rating was just 99.2.
Poor three-point shooting has been one of the culprits for the offensive downturn. The Wizards haven’t been a prolific three-point shooting team all season in terms of makes and attempts, instead taking a good chunk of shots from mid-range. (A staple of head coach Randy Wittman’s offense, and there has been some success with those shots.) But while Washington may not make a lot of threes per game, the percentage on the season is still at 36.8 percent.
However, that 36.8 percent is down from earlier in the season, as the Wizards shot just 33.5 percent from deep in the last 10 games. Not having Beal’s 43.6 percent mark from deep has hurt, as has the inevitable regression from Butler. The 35-year-old is shooting only 28.6 percent from three in February after his early-season tear, and nobody else has been able to pick up the slack. Pierce is struggling and Wall’s outside shooting has cratered.
Another major problem for Washington has been poor play down the stretch of games. The Wizards have the sixth-worst fourth-quarter rating in the league over the last 10 games, per NBA.com, and there have been issues on both sides of the floor. The fourth-quarter offense has been woeful, but the defense has been nothing special either, and defense has been Washington’s strength this year.
Making these struggles even more infuriating has been Wittman’s bizarre usage of Gortat. The big man has the second-best net rating on the team, per NBA.com, but he has seen his fourth-quarter playing time dwindle over the course of the season. It’s true that the Wizards haven’t exactly been world beaters with Gortat on the court in the fourth quarter this season, but the lack of crunch-time minutes for the starting center is strange nonetheless.
Washington’s slump has them at 33-23, which is fifth in the East and just 1½ games ahead of the Milwaukee Bucks for sixth. The Wizards traded Andre Miller for Ramon Sessions in an attempt to bolster the bench, but that move doesn’t move the needle all that much. Washington needs better play from its best players if they want to turn things around.
The schedule isn’t too brutal from here on out, although that might not matter if Beal can’t stay healthy and the fourth-quarter performance doesn’t significantly improve. However, there’s serious talent on the roster, so don’t count out Washington just yet. There still could be some magic left in these Wizards.