How bad are the Wizards right now?
Bad. If you've watched the last four games you don't need numbers to tell you that, but here they are anyway:
- Record: 6-8
- Conf. Standing: 12
- Avg. Point Differential: -5.9 (24th in the NBA)
- Playoff Prediction Odds (via basketball-reference.com): 2.5 percent chance of making the playoffs (projected to stay #12 in the East). For comparison, the Magic, at #10, have a 40.5 percent chance of making the playoffs.
- Offensive Rating: 98.5 (25th)
- Defensive Rating: 103.3 (23rd)
- Field Goal Percentage: 49.2 (24th)
- Opponent Field Goal Percentage: 46.0 (24th)
There really isn't a positive way to spin any of that. According to Basketball-Reference, the Wizards have played the third toughest schedule in the East so far, but the counterpoint to this silver lining is that basketball-reference.com's Simple Rating System, which takes into account point differential and strength of schedule, still puts the Wizards as the 12th-best team in the conference.
How did the Wizards get here?
First, the style change - the Wizards switched from being a defensive-minded half court team to pace and space team (emphasis on the pace) that supposedly didn't even work on defense in training camp.
With this came rotation changes: Nene moved from starting power forward to backup center, and Kris Humphries (who spent his first ten NBA seasons crashing the boards, not driving from behind the arc) moved into the starting lineup and started shooting threes. These aren't small changes, and some growing pains were to be expected. However, even accounting for that fact, the Wizards are under performing, and a lot of that comes from the uncharacteristically bad play of John Wall, who by his own admission needs to play better for the Wizards to win.
It will get better. John Wall will not continue to play this badly. The coaching staff will find a defensive system that works, and the rotations that get the most out of their roster. The Wizards will stop being an utter disaster. But will they be good enough? To judge that, we need to look at the context of the franchise.
What is the Wizards' organization trying to do?
The Wizards aren't a rebuilding team anymore, but they aren't exactly in "win now" mode either. With big 2016 free agent dreams, the Wizards need to end this season with three things: Cap space, franchise respectability, and an All-Star level backcourt.
The offseason acquisitions of Jared Dudley, Alan Anderson, and Gary Neal were all perfectly reasonable additions to the team, but they are not the best players Ernie Grunfield was capable of acquiring this summer. However, they were probably the best players Grunfield could acquire on one-year deals.
The Wizards want space to sign Kevin Durant to a max deal, should he choose to return home. It's arguable whether this was really the best plan, but it's not an awful one, either. Barring a shocking change of course, the Wizards will go into the 2016 offseason with plenty of cap space, at the expense of having the best possible team they could this year.
What matters: Making the playoffs.
Unless you're either a rebuilding team or get unlucky with injuries, missing the playoffs is an embarrassment. The Wizards are attempting to become a perennial playoff team, and with more or less the same core they had in their last two playoff appearances missing out this year would look bad.
Ideally, the Wizards won't just make the playoffs, but they'll do enough to avoid a 1-8 matchup with Cleveland. Avoiding the Cavs in the first round makes a respectable-looking second round appearance much, much more likely. Yes, losing in the second round feels like treading water. It is treading water. It's also a million times better drowning.
When is it appropriate to start panicking about the Wizards?
At the end of the month, if we don't see improvement. Last year, the average Eastern conference team ended up +/-2.6 seeds from their November position (the West was even tighter, at +/-1.93). Nearly every team was within one of their final seed by the end of March. Two of the three big outliers had major injuries or major trades (Miami and Boston, respectively). The third outlier was Cleveland.
It is doable, but there is a lot of ground to make up. The Wizards are just a game and a half behind Orlando and Boston (currently tied with the eighth-best record in the conference). If they don’t improve their positioning between now and the end of December, it's time to worry. If we don't see any improvement by the end of January, buy yourself a pint of ice cream to eat and get super excited about draft scouting reports.
What else matters: John and Brad playing well.
As long as Wall and Beal are playing well, the Wizards have a bright future and are an appealing place for All-Star (or MVP) level free agents. Beal has already shown us flashes of major improvement and seems to understand what aspects of his game need tweaking over the summer. Wall is currently having his worst performance in years, but he insists he is healthy, so there is no reason to think his level of play won't return to All-Star-level this season.
When to panic: After the All-Star break. The NBA season is long. Narratives matter, and pre vs. post All Star break is a convenient way for people to divide up the season. If Beal's breakout continues and Wall returns to his old self for the second half of the season, expect everyone (except Cavs fans) to just shrug off Wall's poor start as a fluke.
What to take away from all this?
It isn't time to panic...yet. The 2015-2016 season was a planned sacrifice to the alter of 2016-2017 and beyond. But even if the Wizards don't build on their past success the way fans want them to it's important not to lose too much ground either. Even if Durant stays in Oklahoma City (or elsewhere), the Wizards are at a point as a franchise where they need to be an attractive free agent destination. The Wizards have cultivated the narrative of a team on the cusp, just a key piece or two away from "contender" territory, and it is critical that the narrative still feels real when the cap explodes in 2016 and 2017.
All data from nba.com unless otherwise noted, and current as of 11/30/15.