Imagine a world where the Washington Wizards built big leads, maintained them and then walked off the court with the spoils of their hard work. Just think how different this season would be if the Wizards didn’t treat some double-digit leads like hand grenades ready to blow.
Instead, that version of the 2022-23 Wizards might resemble something that looks a lot like progress. Had those seven games in which the Wizards led by 15 points or more but lost turned out differently, the experiment with their three stars (Kuzma, Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis) would justify a long-term commitment. The coaching staff would be applauded for turning a strange brew of old and young pieces into something more palatable. Most importantly, the Wizards would be the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. Not in 10th place. Not a 31-35 team living with the threat of teetering out of the play-in picture and into the lottery. But because they can’t seem to help themselves, the Wizards sit atop the NBA in blown leads of at least 15 points, according to Sportradar.
With a chance to gain ground against the eighth-ranked Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday, the Wizards smoked a 15-point lead at home and fell, 122-120. Down the stretch, they bungled layups, committed turnovers and fumbled away the game. Beal, particularly, would want his performance from the fourth quarter stricken from the record. He missed a game-tying layup with 31 seconds to play. Later, with his team down four, Beal had the ball in his hands and was called for traveling. The ending of the game was tough to stomach, but that’s the reality of this group.
“If we have a 15-, 20-point lead — we don’t want to lose a 20-point lead or 15-point lead, obviously — but we got to figure it out on the court, right? And then same thing, coaches. They don’t want to blow the leads, too,” Kuzma said Wednesday night. “But s--- happens, I guess.”
Recently, that kind of stuff keeps happening to the Wizards.
Big leads come and go; that’s the beauty of the NBA. Professional ballplayers can make runs and, just like that, erase what seems to be a comfortable lead for the opponent. Especially this season, when scoring seems to be on a sugar high, no lead is safe. However, the Wizards have a bad habit of glancing a potential knockout blow before getting leveled themselves.
On Nov. 16, the Wizards built a 17-point lead against the Oklahoma City Thunder but lost the game. A month and a day later, they fumbled a 15-point lead to the Los Angeles Clippers. Both losses happened earlier in the season, so no real cause for alarm. Besides, Beal didn’t play in that Dec. 17 loss while he nursed a hamstring issue.
But the habit of playing too loose with leads has worsened over the past month, just as Washington should be locked in and fighting for a play-in spot. Since Feb. 3, the Wizards have lost five games in which they led by 15 or more. If you flip all seven of those losses into wins, the Wizards would live comfortably above the .500 threshold with a 38-28 record. That would rank one win better than the new-look Brooklyn Nets, who are currently in sixth. In the NBA’s new format, the top six seeds do not have to play into the postseason, unlike the fate now awaiting the Wizards — if they even can make it that far.
“We can find excuses for everything that doesn’t go our way. In the end, the reality is what it is,” said Porzingis, whose career-high 43-point night went wasted against the Hawks. “We have to keep digging, keep finding that energy when things are not going right and try to win these games.”
Oh, and more: On Wednesday, the Wizards’ top three players logged their 30th game of the season together. That certainly isn’t a long time; injuries and a dearth of full practices have disrupted the rhythm. But 30 games should provide enough time to evaluate how the core works and whether it impacts winning — and the Wizards are a pedestrian 15-15 when Beal, Kuzma and Porzingis start and play together.
After the loss to the Hawks, I asked Kuzma for his thoughts on how the “Big Three” has performed. Besides being a runway model on game nights — and during New York Fashion Week — he’s also a stickler for words.
“Well, I don’t necessarily think it’s the Big Three. None of us are all-stars, that’s one,” Kuzma corrected.
He’s right. This is not a “Big Three.” Instead, the Wizards have a trio of exceptionally talented individual players who look great on paper but haven’t resulted in the team making a leap in the standings. And since there’s no good nickname for a core like that, let’s just call them what they are: three really good players and that’s all.
After Porzingis, Kuzma and Beal, the roster construction of young guys still on their rookie contracts and serviceable journeymen allows Washington to be competitive. But with a ceiling. Good enough to build sizable leads. Not mentally strong enough to always hold them. So talented that the three top guys can light up the scoreboard for 92 points. And yet not secure enough to hold off a team such as the Hawks in the fourth quarter.
“We can fill up points, but are we defending enough? Are we helping make others better?” Kuzma said in an honest self-evaluation of the Wizards’ three really good players. “That’s our next progression for the next  games. We can score, we can do this, but we’ve got to defend, and we’ve got to make others better, plain and simple.”
On Friday night, the Wizards have a rematch with the Hawks. The consecutive meetups will make this feel like a playoff series. In an alternate reality, the Wizards would have at least one of those fun spring showcases in their future. In this real life? They might already have blown their chance.