The Washington Wizards are treading water. A glance at the schedule tells an unsettling story: a successful 12-4 December was followed by a mediocre 9-8 January and a 1-3 record in February, leaving the Wizards with a 10-11 overall record in 2015.
The Wizards, who were once in the conversation for the second seed in the Eastern Conference Playoffs, have seen that possibility virtually eliminated. The Cleveland Cavaliers are back to performing at a high level and the Chicago Bulls and the Toronto Raptors are poised for success.
While many explanations are abound — whether this is a natural regression for the team or a result of injuries is debatable — the slump is concerning because Washington has struggled against the league’s top teams.
Since the start of January, the Wizards have lost twice to both the Hawks and Thunder. The team’s losses also include games against Portland and San Antonio, but the culmination was a five-game losing streak from Jan. 28 to Feb. 7, which was punctuated by two losses to the Hornets in three days.
That second loss to the Hornets, who currently have a 27-24 record, on Feb. 5 was when the alarm bells started going off, and deservedly so. A contender cannot drop two games in a week to a team that went on to lose to a lowly Philadelphia team that is sitting with a 12-40 two days later. What should have been relatively routine wins slipped away.
A cursory look at the box score often does not lend itself to immediate identification of fixable problems. The team is losing in the most frustrating ways because things are just a little bit off.
While pundits and fans may try to explain away the Wizards’ difficulties, no single problem explains all of their issues. Nene is always dealing with injuries, and while Bradley Beal means a lot to the team, he simply does not take enough shots to be a standalone determinant in a long slump like the Wizards’ current slide.
So, what does this mean for Washington? Is the team simply not ready to contend with the top teams of the league yet? Is the roster’s depth insufficient? Is the form from November and December gone for good?
The short answer is yes, their record of-late means something, but it does not mean that the team is destined for disaster. The Wizards, like any other team, should be expected to tread water at certain points in the 82-game marathon of the NBA season.
Two losses to the Hornets are bad. Getting blown out 120-89 by the Hawks is bad. But, even since Jan. 1, there are reasons for comfort. Washington played close games against the Thunder twice, taking them to overtime at Verizon Center in one of those games. The Wizards earned satisfying wins over the Pelicans, Spurs and Bulls (twice), along with two good old-fashioned blowouts of the Nets and 76ers.
Ultimately this tough stretch of the schedule has served as a test for the Wizards. In the weak Eastern Conference, every team can afford a period of difficulty and Washington has taken that opportunity to find its weaknesses. As cliché as it sounds, if a slump has to happen, this may be the best time in the season for it.
Despite all the worry, the Wizards still sit at 32-20, good for third place in the Eastern Conference. Injuries are always a concern, but right now the Wiz have the luxury of time. They absolutely need to turn the corner. If they continue to play at or around the .500 level, they will slide into the lower echelon of Eastern playoff teams.
Nevertheless, the team has shown signs of life even with players missing time due to injury. In Saturday’s 114-77 win over the Nets, former Georgetown star Otto Porter stepped up in Beal’s absence, scoring 12 points in 21 minutes. Whereas Paul Pierce was only able to muster 2 points on 1-of-8 shooting, Rasual Butler stepped in for 15 points on 6-of-11.
This is a versatile team. Recent experiences have proven that more than ever. Since January, only two of Washington’s losses have been by more than 10 points. With 30 games left to play and a nine-day All Star break to rest tired limbs, there is no reason to believe that the Wizards are going to continue to fade as they finish the season. When they are healthy and in sync, this team can be formidable. That form will return well before this season wraps up.
Matt Raab is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service. AROUND THE DISTRICT appears every Tuesday.