It was only two years ago that the Washington Wizards came within sniffing distance of the Eastern Conference Finals. After crushing the hopes of Toronto in a first round sweep, the Wizards stormed into the East Semis by taking Game 1 in Atlanta. Many doubted whether or not those 60-win Hawks could keep it going in the playoffs, but after Atlanta settled in and took Game 2, the rest of the series was excruciatingly tight. Both fanbases were in dire need of playoff success. Both teams were clearly hungry. The young backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal were torching fools. The Hawks' spread-the-wealth offense doled out points to all who were willing to hit a corner three and keep the ball moving. DeMarre Carroll thrived. Kyle Korver’s range stretched opposing defenses beyond what they could handle. The final four games of that series were all determined by five points or less. The Wizards steamed ahead in Game 3, leading by 19 after three-quarters, D.C. fans enjoying a taste of unbridled enthusiasm and dreams of a Cavs East Finals matchup. However, after blowing the lead, the aging-but-always-clutch Paul Pierce broke a 101 tie with an elbow jumper as time expired. The Wizards were two games away from advancing.
Unfortunately for Randy Wittman’s crew (you'll want to click his name to watch the way he spun that dry-erase, play-calling whiteboard), the Wizards franchise would not be fully resurrected in 2015. The Hawks' incredible balance and offensive spacing led to four starters (Al Horford, Carroll, Jeff Teague and Paul Millsap) averaging between 15 and 17 points per game and enough team defense to corral the blinding speed of Wall. Two heartbreaking losses later, the Hawks would advance in six games. Paul Pierce’s would-be game-tying 3-pointer in Game 6 didn’t count. Time expired.
The Wizards hype grew that summer. October 2015 brought the highest expectations the team had seen since the Wes Unseld days. The offense would play a fast-paced style, ideally suited to their franchise point guard. What they weren’t expecting to deal with was Beal’s ongoing stress fracture in his lower right leg, which limited him to 55 games last season. A five-game losing streak in mid-March ended any real hopes of a playoff push. The team limped to a 41-41 finish. Wittman would be replaced by Scott Brooks.
Which takes us to our current season. The team’s veteran leadership, Paul Pierce, and Nene, was long gone. The team acquired stretch-four Markieff Morris, and the staff believed in the growth of lanky small forward Otto Porter. The role players acquired to fill out the bench left much to be desired. Nobody knew what to expect of the Wizards this year, but the memory of that 2015 run still flickered, embers from a dying fire.
October 2016: Ugly First 10
Washington opened the season facing some of the best in the Association. Among their first eight opponents, only Orlando would have been a predictable win. Still, a record of 2-8 after 10 games is quite the crater to crawl out of. Three of those losses came with Beal back on the sideline. A cloud of uncertainty wafted over all of the D.C. area in early November. The Wizards were submerged in the swamp, but records can be deceiving, and too often we are quick to forget success if disappointment follows it. But the Wizards, perhaps buoyed by the underrated Brooks and the leadership growth of Wall, resisted the infighting and bickering that often comes with an ugly start.
In the spirit of brevity, let’s zoom up to the present. Since that 2-8 start, Washington has gone 26-12, which includes the hottest recent stretch of any NBA team, winning 12 of their last 14. So, what happened?
Their starting lineup has developed trust and chemistry, but in a few words, here’s what has happened:
- John Wall is RIDICULOUS and spreading the love.
- Bradley Beal is HEALTHY and happy.
- Otto Porter has ARRIVED and is in rhythm.
- Marcin Gortat SOLDIERS ON with the grunt work.
- Markieff Morris has settled into his role as the jack of all trades: team defender, hustle, rebounds, and corner threes.
Over the last fourteen games, when these five starters share the court, each player's usage rate splits up something like this: Wall (25.1), Beal (24.0), Morris (20.3), Gortat (16.9) and Porter (14.5), per www.nbawowy.com. This balance is reminiscent of the Spurs-Hawks-Warriors trend of the last three years. The ball is moving, and defenses are bending to the point of breaking. Porter’s 69.2 percent True-Shooting Percentage over that stretch is the one stat that leaps off the screen. His looks are almost the ideal shots: open catch-and-shoot threes or backdoor cuts that lead to dunks and layups.
In other words, the starting puzzle pieces fit seamlessly.
On the season, the Wizards are turning opponents over (third in turnover percentage), getting out in the open court and out-shooting most teams, good enough for sixth in effective field goal percentage.
The lanky Porter has benefited the most from the offensive flow. He has raised his 3-point percentage from 36.7 percent last year to a league-leading 46.8 percent this year. Wizards fans are holding their breath to see how long Porter can sustain it, but a closer look sees that the more threes he’s taking, the more the Wizards are winning. The Wizards are 15-3 when Porter makes three or more from deep. With Wall and Beal on the court, Porter is getting wide-open looks and draining them at a 57 percent clip (48 percent from deep). Beal has connected on 39 percent of his seven 3-point attempts per game. The green light has never been greener in D.C.
Trust is a powerful weapon, isn’t it? We'll see how far it takes the Wizards this time.
Upcoming Match-Ups to Watch
Mon, 2/13 vs OKC (TNT)
Tue, 2/28 vs GSW (NBATV)
Wed, 3/1 @ TOR
Fri, 3/3 vs TOR
Mon, 3/20 @ BOS
Sat, 3/25 @ CLE
Sun, 4/2 @ GSW