The Washington Wizards trounced the Detroit Pistons, 101-87, at Capital One Arena on Monday, a dominant team-wide performance. Seven Wizards reached double-digit points, and Washington’s defense held Detroit to its third-lowest output of the season, earning a fourth win in five games while adding hope for a playoff spot.
“I thought the defense was outstanding on all parts of the game,” Coach Scott Brooks said after the game. “We got into the ball, we did a great job on pick and rolls, and we rebounded the ball. We were really good. We give ourselves a chance to win every night if we can win the rebounding game.”
And therein lies the problem: The last thing the Wizards should be doing is winning. Yes, owner Ted Leonsis met with reporters before Thursday’s game in London and declared, “We will never, ever tank,” but that’s a mistake, considering the franchise’s state of affairs, both now and in the future.
According to Basketball Reference’s playoff probabilities report, the Wizards have a 21 percent chance to make the playoffs. FiveThirtyEight is more optimistic with a 58 percent chance. If Washington does secure a playoff berth, its likely first-round opponent would be the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers or Indiana Pacers, giving it, at best, a 24 percent chance to win a seven-game series against one of those foes — and that assumes the Wizards end the season with a 42-42 record; they are 20-26 as of Tuesday.
A loss in the first round of the playoffs would be problematic for two reasons. The first is a failure of the club to advance past the second round. Since 2003, the first year Ernie Grunfeld served as president of basketball operations, the organization has eight playoff appearances: four first-round flame-outs and four second-round exits. The second is receiving a non-lottery pick in the draft — according to data from Tankathon.com, the Wizards have a 61 percent chance of securing the No. 10 pick in the draft; if they make the playoffs, they would pick no higher than 15th.
Grunfeld’s draft record, outside of high lottery picks, is spotty. Nick Young and JaVale McGee (2007 and 2008 selections) were traded away early in their careers. Two of the three picks in 2011, Chris Singleton and Shelvin Mack, lasted just three years with the club and are no longer in the league. Tomas Satoransky was a find in 2012, but after him came Arsalan Kazemi and Nate Wolters (2013), Jordan Clarkson (2014), Aaron White and Jerian Grant (2015) and Issuf Sanon (2018); of those, only Wolters (84 games), Clarkson (248 games) and Grant (253 games) have played in the NBA with a majority of their time with other teams. Wolters and Kazemi were traded on draft day. Clarkson was traded for cash a day after the draft to the Los Angeles Lakers, with whom he blossomed. And Grant was part of a three-way trade on the day after the 2015 draft. Grunfeld did hit on the selection of Kelly Oubre Jr. in 2015 but dumped him earlier this season, illustrating again how this organization favors short-term gains over long-term goals. The early returns on Troy Brown Jr. (2018) are encouraging, but Grunfeld’s draft record leaves a lot to be desired. And don’t forget: The franchise won’t have its second-round pick until 2023.
Their low potential to find an impact player in this year’s draft also leaves the Wizards little room for improvement this offseason. The team’s core — John Wall (out for the year after undergoing season-ending surgery to remove bone spurs from his heel), Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr. — will earn more than $92 million next season. Add in $15.4 million for Ian Mahinmi, $3.2 million for Brown and Dwight Howard’s $5.6 million player option, and the Wizards have $116.4 million already allocated for next season, putting them approximately $7 million over the cap.
Wall, Beal and Porter have been productive when sharing the court. Since 2013-14, Washington has outscored opponents by 5.2 net points per 100 possessions, which is equivalent to the performance of this year’s Denver Nuggets and Raptors. But when all three are on the bench (or unavailable), the team is outscored by 8.7 net points per 100 possessions, output on par with the 11-37 Phoenix Suns. That lack of depth is a weakness for any team hoping to make a splash in the playoffs, if it qualifies at all.
It’s understandable why a coach or owner would never say the team is going to lose on purpose, but if the franchise wants to be a threat in the East for the foreseeable future, losing, and losing often, is the way to go.
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