It's already March! Can you believe it? The season has gone by so fast that I can hardly make sense of it all. Luckily Thomas, Bullet Nation in Exile, Umair, Albert, Satchel, and Mike have come together to help us (or me) understand what's ahead. #LEGGO
1. Washington is 33-30, with 19 games left. Will this team end the season above .500 for the first time since 2008?
Thomas: Barring catastrophic injury, yes. Hell, even then, yes. Nene's absence hurts like a mug but the additions of Miller, Harrington and, I can't believe I'm saying this, Gooden have been transformative. Washington was basically a six person team that saw their leads shrink and deficits grow whenever more than two or three starters came out. Now the bench is basically break-even and maybe even slightly above average when the team is at full strength. tl;dr they're going to be fine and it's thanks to improved depth.
BNIE: Yes. The Wizards enjoy one of the easiest schedules in the league from here to the finish line. How far they rise above .500 will depend on how they respond to the 1-2 gutcheck delivered by the near-debacle in Milwaukee and choking away the game against Miami.
Umair: Yes, the schedule really doesn't get any easier than this, though I worry a drop-off (at least offensively), is looming. I've never really said it out loud (or typed it, whatever) in fear of jinxing it, but Trevor Ariza can't possibly hit nearly 60 percent of his threes like he's been doing lately, and if Monday's loss against the Heatles is any indication, he's on the cusp of a regression to the mean. The extra shooter on the floor is nice, but the loss of Nene is really felt against the other playoff teams.
Albert: The Wizards only need nine more wins to get past .500 and they have a pretty light schedule from hereon.
Satchel: Given the schedule, finishing at least 9-10 should be no problem. To .500 and beyond!
Mike: Yes, because the schedule is so easy down the stretch. Heck, they could approach the 45-37 record they achieved in 2005, which was the best mark since the 70s. There are only three games left (at Portland, vs. Phoenix, vs. Indiana) where the Wizards should be significant underdogs.
2. The team has overcome a bunch of hurdles this regular season: injuries, a weak bench, chemistry-impacting trades, shooting slumps, and so on. Are there any major hurdles on the horizon for this team in its final regular season games?
Thomas: I worry about the durability of Harrington and Beal, plus Wall, Gortat and Ariza have played an insane number of minutes. Even if everyone is active come playoff time, I'm afraid of a decline in teamwide performance due to nagging injuries and simple wear and tear.
BNIE: John Wall wasting possessions factored heavily into the MIL and MIA hair-pullers. If Wall continues redlining it when the offense needs to be settled down with Nene still out, who is going to provide the playmaking? So far, the answer is 'no one'.
Umair: Establishing an identity on offense. Are they headed to the playoffs with an emphasis on small-ball and spreading the floor out with shooters for Wall? Or do they revert to running the offense through Nene, if/when he makes his return? We'll get a better feel for the offense after this stretch of games, but Wall's uptick in turnovers of late isn't inspiring much confidence, at least to me.
Albert: I think their number one hurdle at this point is becoming more consistent on offense every night, in particular during the third quarter, where they have seen a number of leads evaporate rather quickly.
Satchel: I really, really want to talk about meaningful hurdles this team might overcome, but I'm not sure what else the Wizards have in them. It's nice that they're doing so well without Nene, but does anyone think they've really solved the problems that existed in November? This is still a team destined for a mid-level seed in the Eastern Conference, and we all know what that's likely going to mean once Indiana or Miami comes to town. Could they polish things up on offense? No diggity. But they're still not reaching the Eastern Conference Finals regardless.
Mike: Reintegrating Nene is going to be interesting once he gets healthy. Other than that, they need to continue managing minutes so that John Wall, Bradley Beal, Trevor Ariza and Marcin Gortat aren't worn out by playoff time. If the AARP unit can continue to shine, they should be used heavily, especially against subpar teams the Wizards should beat anyway.
Geoff Burke/USA Today Sports
3. Which team do you want them to see in the first round, and why? Which team do you think they'll actually see? Will that matchup be a problem?
Thomas: I think Washington would beat anyone other than Toronto, Miami and Indiana. Of the remaining teams, the Wizards have more talent and/or better chemistry than all of them other than possibly Brooklyn, so I'd be happy with any of them. I imagine the Wizards will see the Bulls or Raptors in the first round, with Chicago being the underdogs to the Wizards and the Raptors being slight favorites. Really, though, the only teams that could be considered truly problematic are Miami and Indiana.
BNIE: Welp, I'm going to wager it's going to be the Raptors or the Bulls. Between the two, I'd rather see the Raptors. Wall has a tendency to let opposing PGs go off, and I like to imagine a mini-rivalry between him and Kyle Lowry. I see the most growth potential in that matchup that could translate into some momentum if the Wiz made the second round. The obvious problem with Chicago will be Joakim Noah, Destroyer of Worlds...not sure Marcin Gortat can hold his own there, and Kevin Seraphin definitely can't.
Umair: I'll go with the Bulls, despite the fact that they may very well be playing the best basketball in the Eastern Conference. Joakim Noah is going to terrorize this offense, and heading into a 7-game series against Tom Thibodeau is no easy feat. But they're also the most likely to put up a few stinkers in a playoff series, and that's enough to sway me.
Albert: I want them to play the Toronto Raptors. This team, like the Wizards has made some significant improvements after several straight years of missing the playoffs. If things could play out right, these two teams could have a rivalry against each other as well.
I think they will end up playing the Chicago Bulls. I think that the Wizards will have trouble beating this team over a seven game series because even though Derrick Rose is out due to injury, this roster has been playoff tested annually.
Satchel: Well, a matchup against Atlanta or Charlotte might be nice since those are highly winnable series, but we all know a matchup against the Bulls would be simple madness. It's the possible matchup I'd least want to see from the Wizards' perspective, and yet, I don't know if there would be a better first-round test of the team's ability to withstand adversity and a true playoff atmosphere. There are big-time games, and then there are big-time games against Joakim Noah and the Bulls. Nobody could rest for a second, and I'd drool over the entire series.
I think they'll play Chicago, Toronto or Brooklyn; either way, it's gonna be really tough.
Mike: All three potential matchups are tough, because Chicago, Brooklyn and Toronto are all playing very well right now. Of the three, Brooklyn seems less scary because much of its success is due to their weird small/long lineup that'll be less of a gimmick in the playoffs, when everyone is heavily scouted. But the Nets are tough to guard and their defense does a great job of pressuring the ball while also shutting off the paint. That won't be an easy series. I think they'll actually see the Bulls at the end of the day. Chicago is a good matchup for the Wizards, but it's difficult to bet against the collective wisdom of Tom Thibodeau and Joakim Noah in a playoff series.
4. Looking into the offseason, who is your ideal (and realistic) free agent signing?
Thomas: Trevor Ariza? I'm actually getting to the point where I'd be completely comfortable with keeping Ariza and Gortat and trading Porter for a future pick or something. Of the people available, no one really jumps out at me and I'd rather the team attempt to swing a trade for a defense-first center like Robin Lopez, even though I doubt Portland would give him up, or Bismack Biyombo.
BNIE: Here's my ultra-aggressive and totally reckless plan. Sign Greg Monroe to the max offer sheet, immediately. If Ernie elects to tread water by re-signing Gortat to a long term deal (which is what he both wants and will get), the ceiling of this team before John Wall's third contract depends on Bradley Beal making the leap and Otto Porter making the leap off the bench. The reason for immediately is, should Detroit elect to match as they likely would, go after Gordon Hayward. Hayward is looking for max money himself, and while that number might go down a bit with a player option or some such, I don't think it's as risky as signing Gortat to a 4-year deal. Would I actually do this, banishing Otto to the bench forever barring a Martell Webster trade? I'm not sure, but the rest of the FA field doesn't move the needle por moi. Unless there are some unexpected opt-outs.
Bill Spooner/USA Today Sports
Umair: Ideally, I'd want Chris Bosh, though I don't really think he leaves Miami. I'm slowly convincing myself that resigning Gortat and letting Ariza walk is the best way to go. Look, I love Ariza and am terrified of replacing his playing time with say, Otto Porter, but he's definitely commanding a multi-year deal, which just isn't feasible given the reality of the franchise's situation. Martell Webster's had a so-so year in terms of defense, but I think there's a lot more to his injuries and playing with a substandard second unit than we're letting on.
Albert: Re-signing Marcin Gortat is a high priority, and he's had an excellent year helping the Wizards get to where they are. While LeBron, Wade, and Bosh are technically available, it's not realistic to see any of them here in my opinion. As for Trevor Ariza, I would like to see him back here actually, but at the same time, he may want to sign for more money than the Wizards want to pay him given the year he's having.
Satchel: They can probably retain Gortat -- he clearly likes the franchise -- but I still think the Wizards need to take a run at Greg Monroe. He's young, super-talented and a really, really great fit with the backcourt. As a restricted free agent, the Pistons probably won't let him go for nothing, but the frontcourt with Andre Drummond and Josh Smith simply isn't working, and I'd love to see Ernie make a big run at getting Monroe. He's already a great rebounder with some serious post scoring skills, and a different environment might coax better defense out of him. If the Wizards end up with Gortat, that's fine, but dreaming bigger means someone younger like Monroe, who could still develop into an elite player.
Mike: Ideally, Chris Bosh signs a godfather offer to be this franchise's David West. He can play with Nene and give the Wizards' offense much-needed spacing. That's unlikely, though, so the best of the tricky situation the Wizards have put themselves in may be to keep Marcin Gortat and Trevor Ariza and move Martell Webster for a useful role player. Perhaps the Bucks would revisit discussions on Ersan Ilyasova if some other assets are thrown in.
5. With a potential playoff berth, the Wizards will be on the national stage again. How do you think the playoffs and the national attention will translate to attendance next year? How many Wizards games will be nationally televised next season?
Thomas: Either way, there are going to be more fans in attendance next year. As far as how many, that will likely depend quite a bit on how far they go in the playoffs. If they lose in six in the first round to Toronto the amount of coverage (and thus free publicity) and fan intensity won't be too significant. At the same time, if they make it out of the first round and put a scare into someone like Miami or Indiana, we could see a much larger spike in fan interest and attendance. And if they actually make the conference finals, regardless of how they do it, we could even see something akin to the way everyone seemed to become a Caps fan overnight a few years ago.
Regarding nationally televised games, I imagine Washington will be in a lot more next year but, unless they massively over-perform in the playoffs, they're not going to be on national television more than once a month. If Wall can lead them into the second round and Beal has a breakout series, both of which are very possible, they should be on TNT once a month, NBA TV every other week and might even make the Christmas Day lineup for the first time in who knows how many years.
BNIE: Depends on what the Wizards show. Some fans only watch what's on national television. Hard to see a big uptick in nationall televised games if Wall submits several stretches in the playoffs where he looks disinterested, sloppy, and ends up blowing games. If Wall is making huge defensive plays and burning it up from the floor like the previous post-ASB games? Could see 6-10. RE: attendance...if the Wiz show poorly with the ticket increases...ugh.
Umair: I'm eager to see John Wall blowing up in the playoffs. He's a lightening quick point guard with insane athleticism, and if his jumper is on, there's no stopping him. You can't tell me a few dunks on Kevin Garnett wouldn't have the basketball community longing for more national exposure. You already have Charles Barkley raving about B-W Parkway (that's still a thing, right?) whenever he can, they're bound to get at least a handful of games on ESPN and TNT. As for attendance, it's always at the middle of the pack, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but they aren't going to sell out games unless Kevin Durant makes his way over.
Albert: If the Wizards make the second round of the playoffs and then at least give the Miami Heat or Indiana Pacers hell though they probably will lose then, that could significantly increase attendance and national TV games. However if they are eliminated in the first round, there will be no significant increase in attendance next year unless they hit the ground running very early.
I say the Wizards have four games on ESPN or TNT next year if they can make the second round this year. But if they're eliminated in the first round, My guess is maybe two games on ESPN or TNT.
Satchel: One playoff appearance isn't going to lead to national relevance without some wins or a John Wall explosion, but things should at least take a step forward next season -- more folks in the stands, more games on ESPN/ABC, more national coverage of a team that's going to make the playoffs consistently for the next few seasons. It's hard to say how many games the Wiz will play on national TV when so many big-market teams lock up those spots, but they won't get ignored like the past few years.
Mike: They will see a marginal increase in attendance next season. I'll say seven national TV games.