For the past two seasons, the Washington Wizards have been a steady fixture in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Not only did the boys from the nation’s capital qualify for the postseason in both 2013-14 and 2014-15 (marking their first appearances in the playoffs since 2007-08), but the Wizards also won their first-round series in both instances. That playoff success raised expectations for the team entering this season, which led to a disappointing season as they currently sit outside of the playoff picture.
Despite their uninspiring start, there may not be a better pick for a “dark horse” team down the stretch. With a roster that still holds plenty of talent and a conference that is still inferior to its Western counterpart, let’s take a look at why the Wizards could be one of the most dangerous teams in the NBA, certainly in the Eastern Conference, for the rest of this season.
It starts with a dynamic duo
In each of the past four seasons (including this one), two familiar players, John Wall and Bradley Beal, stood at the top of the Wizards’ scoring chart. Both guys have improved their games over the years and are having solid campaigns in 2015-16 as well. Wall surged to 20.1 points per game to go along with nearly 10 assists and two steals per night. Those numbers earned him an All-Star berth for the third consecutive season.
Things haven’t gone as smoothly for Beal, who has played in just 38 games and started in just 20 thanks to injuries, but a guy who is scoring nearly 18 per night and currently coming off the bench is a valuable weapon for any team. Once he gets his rhythm back and starts playing like he has in previous seasons, Beal will easily raise the ceiling of potential for the Wizards.
Outside of Washington’s dynamic duo is another critical piece to their puzzle, Marcin Gortat, who provides a solid force down low, with nearly 15 points a night and more than 10 rebounds in the process. Gortat’s presence is crucial to Wall’s success, as he provides an option for the point guard to turn to. Other pieces like Otto Porter Jr. are important to this team as well, but the combination of Wall, Beal, and Gortat is what makes the Wizards operate efficiently.
A significant trade
The Wizards were one of the few teams to make a trade of any significance at the NBA trade deadline, as they acquired the emotional-but-talented Markieff Morris from the Phoenix Suns. Morris has played just seven games with the Wizards, but his potential to be an impact player down the stretch is already evident. He averaged double-digit scoring in his final 2.5 seasons with the Suns and also showed his ability on the boards during that time.
Washington traded two guys, Dejuan Blair and Kris Humphries, who were hardly utilized, so trading for Morris made a lot of sense. He strengthen the Wizards’ bench as they enter the stretch run. And he could even work his way into the starting lineup on a consistent basis, which he did in the team’s win over the Philadelphia 76ers for the first time (Morris scored 16 points). Trading for him could prove to be the one deadline move that will significantly impact a team’s success this season.
The Wizards’ season has been mostly one of immense frustration, if we’re honest. Late October and November saw them go 6-8. December lead to an 8-8 mark. Even January wasn’t inspiring, as the team went 7-8 in the month. However, Washington had a nice February, especially toward the end of the month, which could indicate the beginning of a serious late-season surge in D.C.
The shortest month of the year led to a 7-5 record for the Wizards, which improved their overall record to 29-30, the closest they’ve been to the .500 mark since January 20. The team finished the month on a 6-2 streak, including a current three-game winning streak as they roll into March. Washington is also 7-3 over their past 10 games, one of their best stretches all season long.
During their current three-game winning streak, they hammered the best team in the conference, the Cavaliers, at home, which may have been their most significant victory of the year. All of the Wizards’ good work of late hasn’t allowed them to rise into the Eastern Conference playoff picture just yet, as they still sit a game-and-a-half out of the No. 8 spot in the conference. However, that surge is a sign of good things to come in Washington.
Even though they have a difficult schedule for the remainder of the regular season — hitting the road for 14 of their final 23 games — the health of their roster and the amount of talent they have makes them a serious threat down the stretch. Should they find a way into the playoffs, don’t be surprised to see them pull of a first-round victory and be in legitimate contention for a trip to the conference finals.