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Three reasons why the Wizards still face an uphill challenge to make the playoffs

Detroit Pistons v Washington Wizards Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Everything is coming up Wizards. After a rough, injury-plagued start, they’re now back at .500 and tied for sixth in the Eastern Conference standings. They just finished a strong December where they went 10-5. They picked up a signature win against the Clippers, and also picked up key wins against the Bulls, Bucks, Pacers, Pistons, and Hornets, which could prove useful in April when it’s time to sort out the final Eastern Conference standings.

However, it’s still way, way too early to talk about the Wizards like they’re a lock to be a playoff team. Yes, there are reasons for hope, yes their point differential has indicated they’re better than their record shows, and yes they just feel like a much better team than earlier this season. That said, here are three reasons why you may want to pump the brakes on the hype train before it gets out of control:

Missed opportunities against bad teams

If you wanted to be an optimist, you could point out how if the Wizards had simply taken care of business against some of the weaker teams in the NBA, like the 76ers, Heat, and Magic, they’d be in a much better spot right now. They Wizards are 1-5 against those squads, who are all in the bottom-third of the conference. If they had gone 4-2, they’d have the fourth-best record in the East right now. If they have swept those six games, they’d be a game behind Toronto for the second-best record in the East.

But here’s the thing: Those gimme games aren’t coming back. They’ve only got one more game against the Magic this season, two against the Heat, and two against the 76ers. It might not seem like much now because they’ve clawed their way back into the playoff race, but winning those gimmes gives you the leeway to handle some of the tough losses the team will inevitably face against tougher teams later in the season.

That’s really important because...

The Wizards’ schedule gets quite a bit harder moving forward

Washington has only played 13 games on the road so far this season, tied with Philadelphia for the least in the NBA. That means 28 of the final 50 games of the season will be on the road. The schedule gets especially daunting after the All-Star break, when they’ll play 17 of their final 27 on the road. Even when they’re at home during that stretch they won’t be able to settle in because none of their homestands are longer than two games. Worse yet, one of those two game stands is them hosting the Warriors and the Jazz.

This is where taking care of business earlier in the season would have helped.

It only takes one injury to send them spiraling

The Wizards are 14-12 when their starters play, and that includes a loss to Miami where Markieff Morris missed most of the game after suffering an ankle injury. Conversely, that means they’re 2-4 when anyone from the starting lineup is missing, or 2-5 if you loop in that Miami game.

As WindyRindy detailed earlier this week, the Wizards’ performance plummets if you take Bradley Beal out of the lineup and sub anyone else in to take his place. They were able to survive his absence at home against the Nets, but it will get a lot harder if they have to go without him next week on the road against the Rockets and Mavericks.

The same truth applies to a slightly lesser extent with the rest of the team’s starters. While the bench has shown improvement in recent weeks, there’s no way they’ll be able to replace what the starters bring to the table over an extended period of time. Even if one of their starters is only out for two weeks, that stretch could be the difference between making or missing the playoffs in a very tight Eastern Conference.

This post isn’t to say that the Wizards can’t or won’t make the playoffs. Their recent play has been encouraging, and if they can make a good move or two later this season, that could certainly raise their profile as they enter the tough part of their schedule. Plus, some of the other teams in the hunt for the playoffs could tail off if they have some bad injury luck or decide to pack it in and focus on next season.

Still, there’s a reason why most NBA playoff projections think the Wizards have something close to a 50-50 shot of making the playoffs. For as good as they’ve been as of late, the next few months will tell us quite a bit more about the team’s true mettle.