Photo: Ned Dishman/NBA and Getty Images
Photo: Ned Dishman/NBA and Getty Images

Washington Wizards Must Grit Through Slow Start

The Washington Wizards haven’t quite enjoyed the storybook season some fans saw just around the corner after last season’s furiously exhilarating finish. Despite bowing out of the 2017 NBA playoffs in the Eastern Conference semifinals to the Boston Celtics in a climactic seven-game series, there was plenty to be optimistic about looking toward the future.

For fans and players alike, the future is still very much just that: a promise for a better tomorrow. The current iteration of the Wizards still seems to be stuck in the mud, as yet another promising season has started slow, including puzzling losses, injuries and plain old bad luck. The team with aspirations of reaching the third round (or even the NBA Finals for those true optimists) are sitting at a remarkably unspectacular 11-10.

Some of this can be chalked up to uncontrollable factors, such as starting power forward Markieff Morris being injured in training camp or John Wall hurting his shoulder, which caused him to miss an elongated period of time. However, not all of it can be attributed to poor health.

“Sometimes the issues are self-inflicted,” Wizards Color Analyst Kara Lawson says. “I think [where] they can improve the most is on the defensive side of the ball. They’re better than where they were a season ago. They’re still giving up too many points in the paint and in the defensive rebounds; those are areas that statistically stick out the most.”

Bullets Forever Editor Jake Whitacre also pointed out problems the team has in the clutch. According to a recent article, the team has routinely struggled with close games since the inception of the team’s current core of John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr.

“It looked like the team finally turned the corner last season, when they outscored their opponents in the fourth quarter after three years of being on the other end,”  Whitacre writes.  “So far this season, they’ve gone to old habits in a bad way. Their net rating so far this season is -6.6. The only teams who have posted worse fourth quarter numbers this season are the Heat, Bucks, Bulls and Timberwolves.”

Unlike fans, skeptics and the media, players on the Wizards are still confident. And for good reason, as much of the unit is unchanged from last season’s team, which shook off a near cataclysmic record of 3-9 to eventually win 49 games.

“I’m always confident in my team,” Beal says. “I feel like we’re the best team in the East, but we still have to prove it. I think we have all the pieces, and we’re an experienced team. We’ve been there before, so we know what it takes to get over the hump now. Hopefully, we can put it together.”

Despite their slow start, the Wizards have flashed basketball brilliance, dropping two close games to the NBA Finals contestants last season, falling 120-117 to the defending champion Golden State Warriors and nearly overcoming a tremendous performance by basketball savant – and likely half machine/half alien – LeBron James in a scintillating 130-122 contest against defending Eastern Conference champion the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Though the team has given fans glimpses of what they can do against the league’s best, they’ve also struggled against the cellar dwellers of the NBA as well, losing to the Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns. If any team personified the term “feast or famine,” it’s the Wizards.

Seemingly the only obstacle standing in Washington’s way is itself, as the team has clearly risen, and dropped, to the level of its competition. Consistency against bad and good alike is what’s required to help the team raise the bar.

“I still think they’re the second best team when whole,” Lawson says. “You have to start with Cleveland in the East; it’s just so difficult to guard LeBron James. I still think that’s the team the conference goes through.”

The Wizards are still arguably the first, second or third best team in the league, and offer three all-star caliber players in Wall, Beal and Porter Jr. when healthy. But in the standings, they sit at a disappointing seventh. There’s obviously still a tremendous amount of basketball left to be played, and it’s safe to assume the panic button has yet to be pressed in the nation’s capital. But at some point, the team will have to rebound from this start, and hopefully the players, coaches and fans can rally once more.

Learn more about the Washington Wizards and the team’s 2017-2018 season at www.nba.com/wizards.