When a team goes to the Eastern Conference Semifinals, you expect them to come in the next year motivated and hungry to take the next step. That’s exactly how things looked to play out as the Wizards started the year going 3-0 and they beat up on rising Philadelphia, a Pistons team that has proven to be legit good the first 3 weeks this year, and a Denver squad that had all the makings of a deep playoff run after the addition of Paul Millsap. Since then, it has been terrible loss after terrible loss to the dregs of the NBA. Sure, they’ve mixed in a couple of solid wins against the Knicks and Raptors, but in losing 5 of their last 7 the Wizards have shown us what they are….A flawed, inconsistent team who talks a bigger game than what they show night to night.
Don’t believe me? Just look at the quotes from Bradley Beal and John Wall before their game with Cleveland last Friday night. Claims by both of them that Cleveland ‘tanked’ to avoid the Wizards in the second round last year or that they view themselves as the best team in the Eastern Conference. This from a team that had lost to Phoenix (PHOENIX!) a couple of nights prior and then promptly went out and got smacked around by LeBron to the tune of 57 points and a near triple-double. Not to be outdone, the Wizards, after beating Toronto, went out and laid an absolute egg against the Mavericks, a double-digit loss to a bottom-feeder in the Western Conference. Dallas came in and embarrassed the Wizards on their home floor and left with twice as many wins as they had coming in. So that’s two losses to the worst that the Western Conference has to offer along with a failure to back up their smack talk against LeBron. Even Lavar Ball disrespected the Wizards and instead of doing something about it, they lost to his son’s team, the Lakers, just as Lavar had predicted.
It’s early so it’s easy to get caught up in bad losses and focus on those negatives instead of the positives. Hell, Cleveland has gotten beaten up pretty badly over the first weeks of the season suffering bad losses to some of the worst teams in the league. The difference? Cleveland has 3 straight trips to the finals and a Championship trophy to hang their hats on. What do the Wizards have? Other than a couple of trips to the second round, absolutely NOTHING. When you don’t have a track record, you need to set your sights on earning one before talking a big game. The Wizards instead seem set on establishing a track record through their words; making them an entitled team that hasn’t won anything to speak of. Just like the rest of D.C. sports, they talk a big game, but don’t do anything on the field or court to back up that talk.
This year, the East is as wide-open as it has ever been. There seems to be one near-complete team, the Celtics, and a bunch of teams trying to wiggle their way to the top. Cleveland, despite the Celtics 10-game winning streak, is clearly the favorite even with their shaky start to the season. Then there is a second tier where the Wizards belong, but instead they see themselves as a favorite, not a second tier team. That’s a good mentality to have sure, but at the same time you have to beat someone before you think of yourselves that way. Milwaukee is rising fast due to another leap by Giannis and a smart trade to get him some help in trading for Eric Bledsoe. Toronto is still here, but no one expects them to seriously challenge Boston or Cleveland. A bunch of teams have surprised early on like the aforementioned Pistons and 76ers as well as the Magic and Pacers, but again they are first-round fodder for the top teams in the Conference. It gets late early as they say so the Wizards better get their act together if they want home-court advantage at least in the first round.
Not all hope is lost, however, despite the terrible losses. Markieff Morris is back healthy and contributing which unlocks a lot of what the Wizards want to do in terms of downsizing their lineups. Otto Porter has taken his game to another level early on and has been the most consistent starter so far this year. Even Bradley Beal has taken a mini-leap, being more assertive and taking his drives to the basket instead of pulling up for a deep jumper in years past. An encouraging development has been the play of Kelly Oubre early on. With better focus and consistency, the Wizards can start to rely on him for bigger minutes down the stretch. The possibilities for a lineup with Wall, Beal, Oubre, Porter, and Morris are mouth-watering to think about given the overall length and speed that this lineup possesses. It could be a great closing group if everyone maintains their early season improvements throughout the course of the year.
Who do the Wizards want to be? That’s the question that these guys have to answer. Do they just want to be a second-round team for the next few years? That’s certainly possible given the lay of the East. To go deeper, the Wizards will have to dig deeper and find that next gear that only shows up in certain games. Good teams are good night-to-night and not just on the nights that they have something to prove. The East is there for the taking, it’s on these guys to go out and take it.