For all their frustrating multiple personalities, the Washington Wizards can be whittled down to two competing identities. They’re the reckless young team that still considers time to be merely a suggestion and performs with traces of entitlement. And they’re the irascible underdog that loves to tangle with the big-name opponent and performs best when undermanned or undervalued.
The Wizards are dangerous, to themselves and to the opponent. As the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference, they enter the playoffs as an incredible contradiction. After winning 49 games a year ago and falling one quarter short of the conference finals, they have been one of the NBA’s biggest disappointments this season. Still, they wound up going 43-39 this season and making the postseason despite having all-star point guard John Wall, their best player, miss half of the season because of knee problems. There’s something admirable about that. But 17 of their 39 losses came to lottery teams. There’s something infuriating about that.
Now the Wizards face Toronto, the East’s top seed, while still attempting to complete the task of finding themselves, which might be a greater challenge than the daunting opponent. They lost five of six games to end the regular season. Over their final 10 games, they were 2-8. Over their final 21 games, they were 7-14. You could attribute some of the struggles to running out of gas and magic tricks while playing without Wall. You also could speculate that, with Wall back, they’re searching for the right chemistry after reinventing themselves in his absence. The tricky question is whether it all can come back into alignment: Wall playing at his all-star best, the team functioning properly and freely with him and all players in the rotation having enough life in their legs after a taxing season.
“If you look at the big picture, we’ve struggled this past 10 days or so,” Coach Scott Brooks said. “But prior to that, the story to me was that we battled and fought and put ourselves into playoff position, and we did it with John missing half of the season. For some strange reason, we didn’t finish the job. These last 10 or 12 days we’ve been up and down. We’ve let go of the rope a little bit.”
The postseason isn’t a place for self-discovery, but this is the Wizards’ cumbersome position. And for as set as this roster seems — or trapped in lucrative long-term deals, depending on how you see it — the verdict on this 2017-18 season could mean much for how the Wall/Brooks/Bradley Beal era is viewed moving forward.
A year ago, the Wizards reclaimed their status as one of the NBA’s rising young teams. In the offseason, they looked at their sunny forecast and pledged continuity. They matched a max offer to keep Otto Porter Jr., making him the third max contract on their payroll. They signed Wall to a four-year, $170 million super-max extension that doesn’t begin until the 2019-20 season and enables the Wizards to retain his services through the 2022-2023 campaign. Consider that they spent to the salary cap in the summer of 2016, when they had about $30 million in space, and you’re looking at a roster built to stay together.
It’s a good thing when you see steady progress. But how big a deal should be made of this season’s regression? The issue is larger than just Wall’s injury misfortune. The Wizards still need more to be a true championship contender: More consistency from their core and more (or better) role players. And the latter is a predicament for a team that is now in luxury-tax land.
The Wizards have lost in the second round of the playoffs in three of the past four years. If they don’t upset Toronto, they won’t stay on that level. If they happen to get past the Raptors, they figure to see Cleveland and LeBron James, which means they’ll probably run into the second-round wall again.
Throughout NBA history, plenty of good teams have had trouble clearing obstacles, and some of the best stories are of squads that stayed together and finally broke through.
The Raptors have been a decent example of that during their run with Coach Dwane Casey and all-star guards DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. In their first two playoff appearances, they lost in the first round, including being swept by the Wizards three years ago. Then they started winning series, losing to Cleveland in the conference finals in 2016 and in the second round in 2017. Now, they are the best team in the conference and have their best chance at making the NBA Finals despite a potential matchup with Cleveland again in the second round. Overall, the Raptors have kept winning, growing and improving the roster. They have remained patient. The plan is slowly working.
The Wizards want to do the same, but a fourth playoff run that ends in the first or second round would cause greater concerns about the franchise’s growth rate. They’re going to have to do something to keep up with the most ambitious teams in the East. Despite injuries, Boston improved this season, and its young core will get only better. Philadelphia has gone from a tanking franchise to a 52-win squad seeded third and set up to add even more talent.
Compared to those teams, the Wizards don’t look as young and blessed with potential. This was their season, especially with Cleveland in flux, to stand out and make teams start chasing them. They couldn’t do it.
Now what? The playoffs will clarify whether the Wizards are surviving the turbulence necessary to become a consistent winner or just idling and enduring their destiny to be a 40-something-win squad that bows out to a true contender every postseason.
The bold-talking team that refuses to back down must show up immediately. Otherwise, the Wizards will be branded an underachiever again, and from now on, being young isn’t an excuse for that, not when younger peers are showing greater maturity and consistency. The Wizards don’t have a lot of time anymore. Progress is urgent.
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