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Assessing the Western Conference road trip: Are the Wizards really among the NBA's elite?

The Wizards have come a long way, but how much more do they have to go in order to be considered an elite NBA team?

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The Wizards have lost three of their last four games and are now just 5-5 in their last 10 games. After a hotter than hot start in December and a franchise best 19-6 start to the season, the team has fallen back to Earth a bit. Akbar and I react to the road trip and discuss the Wizards' place among the NBA's elite.

Michael Sykes: Alright, so here we are going into the final game of a five game Western Conference road trip against the Pelicans after two devastating losses to the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder. I'm not sure how you feel about the road trip, but I have to say I'm pretty disappointed and here is why. Through four games, the Wizards have only beaten one opponent and it was not as soundly as you'd like to see it.

They're going to have opportunities soon with the Bulls and Hawks coming up on the schedule to regain the ground they had in the Eastern Conference standings, but it's so disappointing to see them unable to grab just one win between Oklahoma City and San Antonio.

Coming into the road trip I thought grabbing three games was completely possible and, really, it was! They just could not pull out close wins against two of the West's elite teams. Maybe I shouldn't be so disappointed, but I am.

Akbar Naqvi: The last two losses were definitely soul crushers. Keeping a lead against two title contenders and then losing the lead at the end to championship like execution hurts. However, it's fair to realize that the 3 Wizards losses were to title contenders, and 2 of them were 2nd nights of back to backs. This is just how an 82 game season works and it's in stretches like these were teams go through adversity.

I think we were all in a bit of euphoria after that 19-6 start

I think we were all in a bit of euphoria after that 19-6 start. We have to realize that we were on a 60+ win pace and there was no way this was sustainable. It's especially important to note that the Wizards had one of the easiest schedules in the league, and won A LOT of close games, which have historically tended to gravitate towards .500.

I think the stretch where the Wizards play Atlanta and Chicago twice are important. Both these teams have already beaten them in Verizon Center and are currently both rising stars in the East. It's imperative that the Wizards prove that they are at least at their level and up there in the conversation with the East's elite, because these are the teams they'll possibly be seeing come playoff time.

MS: That is definitely an important stretch. The Wizards have to beat both Atlanta and Chicago, probably both times, if they want to keep their ground in the East.

The second Chicago game comes on the road on a back-to-back after facing the Spurs at home. That's a rough three game stretch for Washington between Atlanta on the road, the Spurs at home and Chicago once again. It will tell us what level they're really on, and if they can pull out a couple of wins I'd be satisfied with that. Preferably, they'd be wins over their counterparts in the East, but they should take them where they can get them.

AN: Yup, the Atlanta game interests me because they were right there from the get go despite losing Nene. In fact, their biggest issue in that game was the interior defense, since Jeff Teague destroyed them. I believe both teams are better than when they both played last time, so we should see a better game. Horford hasn't even been at his usual level yet and they're still the best team in the East, that's just scary. Teague has cooled off a bit, but his ability to drive and attract defenders bodes well for Atlanta's 3 point shooting. Mike Budenholzer has done a terrific job.

Chicago is also intriguing, given how much they physically outmatched the Wizards at home. It begs to see whether this team can punch them back in the mouth despite their difficult road back to back schedule. We can't use that excuse forever.

Losing some games to title contenders in those conditions are fine, but the Wizards need to eventually show themselves as the class of the East. The Wizards matched up really well with the Bulls last year, but they now have enough firepower to outscore them along with playing their usual lockdown defense. Derrick Rose has struggled lately, but he destroyed the Wizards the last time they played, especially in the 4th. I personally really want to get them back, badly, for that last game.

MS: I think we all do, really. But it feels like we can beat both teams. The late game execution is the recurring problem here. And that's a huge issue here and probably the reasons why the Wizards can't be considered an elite team at this point. There have been so many fourth quarter debacles and so many comeback efforts from different teams on different levels.

Did you know the Wizards have the second worst offensive efficiency in the league in the fourth quarter? They allow 111.2 points per 100 and have a net rating of -3.2 in the fourth. That's pretty alarming at this point.

AN: Yikes. The biggest reason I see for that is that the Wizards take FOREVER to get in their sets. With teams tightening up their defense in crunch time, the Wizards offense becomes too complicated and defenses are able to feast on the fact that they get slow and lethargic in the halfcourt. They would be better served simplifying the offense and doing more of a free flow, letting Wall and Beal attack off pick and rolls and having Pierce spot-up or establish mismatches to take advantage of.

The defense is something I don't have much explanation for, I would guess it's just execution breakdown. It needs to be fixed given that it's been their calling card for so long now.

MS: The defensive issues probably have something to do with playing an all-bench to start the fourth quarter. Last night the quarter started with Butler, Humphries, Miller, Seraphin and Porter. Only one of those guys is a solid defensive player and Nene did not check back in until just over the 7 minute mark of the quarter.

I just think they are too predictable offensively. But that is another conversation we could have for another thread. The way the Wizards have been outplayed late is an issue and it can't happen to elite teams. I don't know if it is a coaching error or a player error, but something has got to change there.

AN: The rotations are definitely the most confusing part of the 4th quarters. It just doesn't make sense to have your entire starting lineup out of the game at any point. I know we've been raving about the Wizards depth, but I just don't think their bench is that good. If you want to win games, you should be able to stagger lineups based on matchups and be able to win games that way. It's what makes coaches like Rick Carlisle and Gregg Popovich succeed. They know how to tinker with lineups and adjust on the fly when needed.

There is plenty of season left and plenty of time to recover ... but I can't say I have the most confidence in this team right now

MS: Definitely. I feel kind of bad because this team is pretty good and it feels like, with myself in particular, we're just finding every little thing to harp on. But the fact of the matter is that championship contenders take care of all of those little things--that's why they are champions.

I'll close my remarks by saying this. There is plenty of season left and plenty of time to recover from this awful road trip, but I can't say I have the most confidence in this team right now when putting them up against their peers. They've got key losses to Toronto, Atlanta, Chicago and even one against Cleveland. Hopefully they catch their stride soon, but for now I think I'll have to lighten my expectations a bit.

AN: I've always thought this team was a step behind Toronto, Atlanta, and Chicago. Obviously we wish to see them among the elite in the East, but they've definitely got some kinks to clean up. But who knows, maybe by the end of the year the standings change. The Wizards are still only 3 games behind the 1 seed and get to play Atlanta twice. There's still so much basketball left and the team still has a lot of room to grow.