The Washington Wizards' dichotomy of past futility and current stability muddles what to think of this strange season. They're in the middle of a period in which they're better and more reliable than they have been in nearly 40 years, and there must be some comfort in knowing their problems aren't as onerous as they used to be. On the other hand, if judging them solely on whether they can maximize the present, it's impossible to ignore concern that they're fumbling a precious opportunity.
Who are the Wizards?
The franchise with responsible stars in John Wall and Bradley Beal and an evaluated level of competitiveness? Or the team several pundits considered the NBA's most disappointing squad at midseason?
They're both, actually. Consider the lows the Wizards have experienced since making back-to-back NBA Finals appearances in 1978 and 1979, and it's hard to gripe too much about the success they have been able to sustain recently. But realize that the 2017-18 season is supposed to be theirs to conquer — or, at least, to rise another notch in status — and you have to gripe plenty about their inconsistency and inability to do the little things to beat some of the pedestrian teams, wins that could have provided them with a top-tier NBA record.
Welcome to the era of dissatisfying progress. The Wizards aren't a joke anymore. They're a safe playoff bet every year now as a mid-level seed in the Eastern Conference. But that's also where a lot of promising NBA teams fall into a rut. This season, Year 2 under Coach Scott Brooks, was hyped as the one in which the team — now with three maximum-contract players that the Wizards drafted and developed — entered another phase of growth. It hasn't happened yet. If anything, the Wizards have regressed.
Last week, they finished the first half of the season at 23-18, which is a 46-win pace, slightly off last season's 49-33 record. Do you know the last time the Wizards won at least 46 games in back-to-back seasons? It was 41 years ago, when they went 48-34 during both the 1975-76 and 1976-77 campaigns.
So why does a four-decade wait to repeat this caliber of performance seem so blah? Because anything below 50 victories always seems blah. If the Wizards are to break free and introduce a truly special new era, the context of their mediocre history must be thrown out of the conversation. That time is now. If they want to pursue greatness, good has to become an enemy they dislike more than the Boston Celtics.
After last season, it seemed the Wizards were ready to win 50 or more games for the first time since they went 54-28 in 1978-79. But right now, they are your classic 45- to 48-win team. For several weeks, they have been on that pace. This season has presented some challenges, including injuries. The Wizards' starting five missed a combined 17 games a season ago. Through 44 games, the unit has already had 23 absences. And that's with Beal and Marcin Gortat playing every game. Wall (11 games missed), Markieff Morris (eight) and Otto Porter Jr. (four) have been out more than usual, and if you factor in the games that they've labored through or been out of sync while playing their way into a rhythm, most of the season has been a grind.
But injuries only explain so much. Golden State, for instance, has played without a complete starting five for way more games. So has Cleveland. And Boston. And Houston. Yes, that's the elite of the NBA, but the Wizards aspire to be measured against those teams. Even with the injuries, the Wizards could have five or six more victories and easily be on pace to break 50 wins if they played with the focus of the teams they are chasing and performed at better than a .500 clip against teams with losing records.
All season, Brooks has tried to balance tough love with patience. He has admitted that this Wizards team frustrates him, but mostly he has taken an even-keeled approach to guiding the players through the season.
"That's the art of coaching," Brooks said when asked about the challenge of how to get more out of this team. "You have to figure out when to push them along, when to hug them along. They're all wired differently, but we have a tough, competitive team."
However, Brooks did say, "There are definitely some times when they have to be pushed a little harder."
Now that the Wizards are healthier than they have been all season, Brooks should push harder than he has. The Wizards border on complacency too often. While it's important to be cool because perspective can help a squad through the long, 82-game season, the Wizards are too cool. They say otherwise, but they're still just happy to be a good team, and they still think they're guaranteed to have a long run of success. Yet these should be urgent times.
The Wizards match up well against just about any team in the East, especially in a best-of-seven series. They know that. They feel comfortable because of that. But the real challenge is playoff positioning. It would be ideal if the Wizards won enough games to have home-court advantage for at least two rounds, but the way they're playing, they would be lucky to get it for one. It's starting to feel as if the Wizards will be punished for their uneven play with a monster of a first-round series against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks, who have now beaten them at Capital One Arena twice in 10 days. They're doing everything possible to earn that headache.
The Wizards should feel the need to maximize their chances this season. But they act too much like a team that believes it can turn it on in the playoffs. That's a dangerous assumption.
"Just be locked in," Wall said when asked how the Wizards can improve their consistency. "Be a locked-in team. Move the ball offensively, trust guys cutting and trust passing the ball and trust playing team defense. We've already shown that we're capable of it. It's the same thing that we've been saying the last four or five years — I know y'all are tired of hearing it, and I'm tired of saying it. But it is what it is. Until we prove that we can do it on a nightly basis, we're going to have these same conversations."
The Wizards are 25-19, and you're inclined to react as if they're 19-25. Over the past 41 years, it has rarely felt this disappointing to watch a pretty good team.
In historical context, it's a wonderful problem to have. But make no mistake: It's a problem. And it threatens to stunt the growth of a good run that should be better.