The Wizards have strangled and then revived their playoff chances more times than I can count. Most recently, they imploded in Chicago, then won four straight games. Then they lost five straight — including three on a brutal West Coast swing — before rebounding with three straight wins, two against playoff contenders. Don’t worry about these details: just know that when they reach the absolute precipice of disaster, they recover just enough to keep us interested until the next disappointment.
Washington’s schedule still looks forgiving; seven of its final 14 games are against truly awful teams. But only an extreme optimist could continue to have total faith in this team after the past few months.
Ted Leonsis is an extreme optimist.
During a radio appearance this week, Leonsis was asked serious questions about the Wizards future: about how this team could both miss the playoffs and lose its first-round pick, about his commitment to patience, and about how he would decide whether General Manager Ernie Grunfeld and Coach Randy Wittman deserve to be back.
“We’re going to make the playoffs,” Leonsis told Grant Paulsen and Danny Rouhier on 106.7 The Fan. “We have to believe that. We have to be focused on that. That’s all we’re looking at.”
Leonsis said this on Wednesday afternoon. That was before the Wizards beat the Bulls and Sixers to pull within a 1.5 games of the eighth seed. It wasn’t necessarily pretty; Washington tried like crazy to lose to Philadelphia on Thursday night. And the Wizards would still need to pass two teams to make the postseason. But Leonsis, like most of us, at least sees a path.
“This has been an outlier year, mostly because of how many injuries we’ve suffered,” Leonsis said. “We had a very poor road trip — Bradley Beal didn’t play at all — and then Bradley Beal plays 24 minutes [against Detroit] and the team just looks different. John Wall looks like a different player when he doesn’t have to be the first offensive scoring option, he can set other players up.
“And so we’ll take a look at how we end the season in the offseason,” the owner said. “But right now, we’re just focused on do we have our full contingent of players, can we play the kind of system that we want, can we amp up the energy defensively. And it seems trite, you hear this all the time, but we truly are in the mode of you’ve got to play one game at a time, and be totally focused and conscious of just that one impediment that’s in front of you tonight.”
This matter of the injuries is a potential sore spot for some fans, who are already debating the future, playoffs or no playoffs. The Wizards have been by far the most injured team in the league this season. But some dissatisfied fans would point out that many of the lost man-games sidelined bit players, and that the repeated injuries to Bradley Beal might be less bad luck than a fact of life.
Still, Leonsis pointed out that this week the team “had our starting five that I thought would be our starting five after the trade deadline. And I think when we have that starting five and then we can bring Nene off the bench and can bring some of our other players off the bench, that we’re a pretty good team. And so now we have only  games or so to prove it, but we have to go into every game understanding what’s a stake.”
Leonsis’s mantra in recent years has focused first on qualifying for the playoffs, which he continued this week when asked about the Capitals.
“Never take making the playoffs for granted,” he said. “We see that with the Wizards. The Wizards, every game now is like a playoff game, because we let so many games during the regular season slip away, and you can’t make a championship unless you make the playoffs. … We set out every year saying the Mystics and the Wizards and the Caps need to make the playoffs. Well, the Mystics did their end. The Caps did their end. And now we’re focused on the Wizards.”
For the record, some of the better-known forecasters say the Wizards have a 13 percent or 15 percent or 29 percent chance of making the postseason. All three of those models suggest the last playoff team in the East will have a record of 42-40. The Wizards would need to go 9-5 to get there.