Can we give a shout out to the Washington Wizards? Can we take time out of our busy schedules to give up the props like Prodigy, Evil Dee and Buckshot? The putrid brand of basketball that fans of this moribund franchise have been forced to suffer over the years has been among the very worst in the NBA for the better part of four decades. Yes, it has been thirty five years since the Washington Wizards have been in serious contention for an NBA title. The last time the Wiz went to the playoffs was in 2008 when they were dismissed by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavs also swept them in the first round the year before that, and they were dismissed in the first round by the Cavs the year before that as well. Before that they were shown the exit by the Miami Heat in the second round.
There must have been a whole lotta high-fives up in the owner’s suite from 2005 through 2009. Aside from being beaten by the Seattle Seahawks for the NBA Championship in 1979, those four consecutive playoff births were something of an age of rebirth in Washington. However, no one really expected them to beat the LeBron James led Cleveland Cavaliers or a Dwayne Wade led Miami Heat team that featured a still very effective Shaquille O’Neal to advance. But these days the expectations are a little bit different at Verizon Center. You see, the Washington Wizards have been building up to this very point in time ever since they drafted guard John Wall with the third overall pick in the NBA draft back in 2010. Since then general manager Ernie Grunfeld has carefully drafted players and free agents that would, in theory, mesh well with the speed and otherworldly athleticism of John Wall. There have been some misses in the draft, like Shelvin Mack and Chris Singleton, but that’s expected in the draft. But there have also been some legitimate NBA starters like Bradley Beal.
The franchise has largely exorcised the demons of immaturity and malaise that once haunted them as well. Veterans like Marcin Gortat, Trevor Ariza, Andre Miller and, when he’s healthy, NeNe have stepped into the void of leadership that was once as apparent in Washington’s locker room as a gaping chest wound. Currently in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, the Washington Wizards are ready to return to the playoffs for the first time in three years. Though they haven’t been playing their best basketball as of late with losses to the Chicago Bulls and Charlotte Bobcats, the beacon of hope is shining brighter in the hearts of Wizards fans than at any time in recent memory. If the playoffs were to start today the Washington Wizards would face either the Chicago Bulls or Toronto Raptors, who are tied in the win-loss column at 46-32, in the first round.
Though few teams in the NBA can match Washington’s back court man for man, the cupboard is bare on the wings and in the paint once you get past the starters. Marcin Gortat is arguably top five at his position in the NBA, Trevor Ariza at small forward can hit some open shots and can guard his position however, with the possible exception of a healthy NeNe, Washington does not have anyone else up front who can turn the tide in a playoff series. Yes, Martell Webster has been known to heat up off the bench, but he can shoot you in the game just as quickly as he can you shoot you out of it and 2012 draft pick Otto Porter is still getting acclimated to the speed and athleticism of the NBA game. Grizzled veteran F/C Drew Gooden has always been able to put the ball in the basket but he has never been a defensive stopper and can be something of an uninspired rebounder as well. Trevor Booker is a starter, but he doesn’t give you anything at a high level or with consistency.
If Washington were to face the Chicago the matchups down low would favor the Bulls with Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, and Carlos Boozer each able to score and rebound. Noah is also a premiere defender both on and off the ball. Couple that with Mike Dunleavy bombing away at small forward and the stark contrast between the two front courts is easy to see. The Bulls are versatile and defensive-minded, the Wizards are limited outside of Gortat and NeNe.
The back court of D.J. Augustin and Jimmy Butler is pretty decent in and of itself. Kirk Hinrich has been known to his big shots as well. However, John Wall just puts so much pressure on defenders when he’s pushing the rock and I don’t see anyone on Chi being able to slow him down. Bradley Beal is athletic on the wing and shoots a high percentage from downtown. Conversely, the matchups posed by the Toronto Raptors present some entirely different problems altogether. The issue here is Toronto has several extreme athletes of their own at the wings with All-Star 2-guard DeMar DeRozen and Terrence Ross.
Lest we forget the power point guard that is Kyle Lowry. Toughness in the lane, clutch free throws, pull up jump shots…you name it and he brings it. Back up guard Greivis Vasquez is nice as well. However, when your platoon of big men include names like Jonas Valanciunas, Amir Johnson and Tyler Hansborough, players who are decent but not exactly top-flight, the pendulum swings back in favor the Washington Wizards. The Wizards are actually at a disadvantage on the bench. There’s Martell Webster, and not much of anything else. Who you gonna call in a jam? Gooden? Al Harington?
With four games left in the regular season, Head Coach Randy Whitman needs to start cracking the proverbial whip of motivation ASAP. Whether they know it or not, you can’t sleep walk into the playoffs. Teams are ready to pounce upon and exploit every weakness. Washington’s primary weakness is its inability to put the ball in the basket. Can Wall remedy that by exploding night after night? Is Bradley Beal ready for the big time? Only time will tell, but whatever the future holds for the Washington Wizards, a culture of professionalism has been injected into the Chocolate City franchise. Only time will tell if it is a cure for all that ails them or merely a placebo.