No matter what happens in their next two games, the Washington Wizards have easily secured their best record entering the all-star break in the past five seasons. In two of those seasons, the Wizards played 82 games and still didn’t have the number of wins that they do right now.
Despite the tumult and dysfunction of the past, the Wizards are hardly content with their 25-25 record, tied with Chicago for fifth place in the Eastern Conference, a half-game behind Atlanta for fourth and just 11 / 2 games behind the Toronto Raptors for third.
“Listen, coaches are never satisfied. I don’t want them to be satisfied. We’re back to .500, we’re better than .500,” Coach Randy Wittman said after the Wizards defeated the Sacramento Kings on Sunday to reach even for the ninth time this season. “I want them to believe that. They believe that. Have we done some good things? Yeah. We’ve made some strides. We’ve made some improvements and we’ve gone on the road, we’ve won on the road, and we’ve done some really good things. There are some things that I would like for us to tighten up in the last 32 games. If we can do that, we can put ourselves in a great position. If we don’t, what’s going to happen? That’s up in the air.”
John Wall has already won two more games than his rookie season, five more games than his second season and he was on the floor for 24 of the Wizards’ 29 wins last season. Both he and Trevor Ariza described the Wizards’ performance to this point as “okay.”
The expectations within the locker room for this season are higher than just being average, and the Wizards believe that they have the talent and relative health to want more for themselves.
“I don’t care about .500,” said Nene, one of four members of the team to have played on a team that has advanced to at least the conference finals. “We need to win everything we can, that’s the mentality. If you’re going to think small like that, it’s fine, just stop right there. If you want to go for the gold, the championship, make the team better, you need to think forward. I don’t like to talk about .500.”
Wall has matured into an all-star and started every game. Nene has only missed seven games and the team is 17-11 when he starts. And while he has been held back by a minute restriction after missing nine games with a leg injury, Bradley Beal still plays enough to make his presence felt and has had a hand in closing out a few wins.
With Marcin Gortat giving the team steady production at center, Ariza having the best season on both ends of the floor in his career and Martell Webster continuing the success of his career year last season, the Wizards believe that their record isn’t indicative of the quality of the team.
“We’re not close,” Webster said, when asked if the team is where he thought it would be after 50 games. “We’ve given up too many games against teams that we should’ve won. We should be, honestly, seven, eight games over .500. We let those teams walk out of here, and even on the road, walk out with wins that we should’ve taken home and you can’t pride yourself on that. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
The Wizards could sit back and ponder the many reasons why they have been nothing more than an average team this season. But aside from a rough schedule to start the season and their recent struggles at home against inferior competition from the East, the numbers actually support their current lot as an “okay” team.
They have scored 4,964 points while surrendering 4,969. They have grabbed 2,137 rebounds while allowing 2,137. They have shot below 44 percent from the field 24 times, going 6-18 in those games. They have held 24 opponents below 100 points, going 18-6 in those games.
“I think this team is better than okay and we haven’t played to our full potential, I don’t think, individually. We just got to keep working to get better every day,” Ariza said. “These last 32 games are going to be a learning process. Hopefully, we win more than what we lose and we’ll be able to get into the playoffs, and in the playoffs anything can happen.”
Washington is 13-13 at home and 12-12 on the road, with a back-to-back set coming up in Memphis and Houston before the players and coaches go their separate ways for a few days. The Wizards have gone 5-3 in their past eight games against Western Conference teams.
“So far so good,” Beal said. “We know we wish we could have had at least 10 more wins, but at the end of the day, we really cannot complain where we are at. We are in a solid position playoff-wise, but we still have a lot of moves to make.”
If not for residence in a weaker-than-usual East, the Wizards might be a little more flustered by their inability to go on a run of more than three consecutive wins, something they have done three times this season.
“You’re seeing different teams going back and forth and it’s like a three- or two-game spread at what spot you can be in,” Wall said. “The main thing with us is trying to get on a streak, finish these last two games before the break and try to get over .500, then come back with a vengeance and try to get on a streak.
“It’s simple with us. We already know,” Wall added. “We can only play one way as a team and that’s move the ball offensively, different guys leading us with double-figure shots, and somebody leading us in scoring any given night. And playing team defense. When we play team defense, we’re a tough team and we’re a good team.”
The Wizards have trotted out their desired lineup of Wall, Beal, Nene, Gortat and Ariza just 18 times, with the team winning 10 of those games. A team that isn’t accustomed to winning is bound to stumble a few times before experiencing a breakthrough. But Wittman also feels that the players have to refuse to succumb to complacency.
“That’s how I want them to believe,” Wittman said. “A coach is never satisfied. If we were 50-2, or whatever, I would still say, ‘Those two, we shouldn’t have lost.’ ”