Going into this season, most people agreed the Wizards would be fine. Some thought they would be fine in the sense that they’d get back to being a respectable Eastern Conference team with little hope of contending for a title this season. Others thought they’d be fine like a cartoon dog trying to reassure itself things would be okay in spite of the blaze surrounding him.
As it turned out, the season was more the former than the latter. They won 49 games and fell just one game short of advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals. John Wall earned his first All-NBA selection, Bradley Beal nearly earned All-Star consideration, and Otto Porter earned himself a lot of money with his performance this season. Any way you slice it, the Wizards just completed their most successful season since Wes Unseld retired.
Better yet, there’s a case to be made the Wizards weren’t all that far away from having the best record in the East this season. If the Wizards hadn’t rested John Wall early in the season on back-to-backs, they could have turned early losses on the road in Orlando, Chicago, Philadelphia into wins. Just flipping those three games would have given the Wizards a 52-30 record, good for second-best in the East. Plus, with the extra rhythm the team could have developed earlier in the season, maybe they could have avoided early losses at home against the Heat and Magic, which would have pushed them up to a 54-28 record and the top seed in the East.
Still, if you grant that to the Wizards, you also have to concede the teams that finished ahead of Washington could have improved through better health as well. The Celtics would have finished with a better record if Al Horford and Isaiah Thomas hadn’t combined to miss 14 games, the Cavaliers could have done better if Kevin Love and J.R. Smith hadn’t missed extended time, and the Raptors could have done better if Kyle Lowry hadn’t missed 22 games. In other words, the gap between the Wizards and the rest of the Eastern Conference contenders is both smaller and bigger than it looks.
This awkward balance can lead to ill-timed statements, like the one Bradley Beal delivered in an interview on Thursday with CSN Mid-Atlantic:
"Cleveland didn't want to see us. I always said that. I felt like that's the reason they didn't play us in the second round. They didn't want to see us in the second round. If they were going to go down, they were going to go down in the conference finals. They didn't want to go down in the second round. They knew we were going to give them that competitiveness and that challenge, you know?"
Beal’s confidence is understandable given how the starters performed this season. They outscored opponents by 8.1 points per 100 possessions in the regular season and 18.0 points per 100 in the playoffs. Plus, they had some success against the Cavaliers in the regular season, beating them on the road in March and nearly beating them at home in February. Still, it’s also understandable why Beal’s comments were mocked a bit around the internet:
[team that got destroyed by kelly olynyk in a must win game]— Brian Pickett (@BrianPickett) May 19, 2017
we could have challenged the cavs
While the starters might be able to hang with a fully engaged Cleveland team in a playoff situation, it’s hard to see how they could mount a serious challenge given the same bench issues that kept them from getting past Boston.
In the end, we come back to the discussion about what kind of fine the Wizards truly are moving forward. Certainly, Washington’s core is in great shape for now and the foreseeable future. John Wall is nearly two years younger than Isaiah Thomas, and over four years younger than Kyle Lowry. Bradley Beal is almost four full years younger than DeMar DeRozan. Otto Porter is two years younger than Jae Crowder. As long as Washington is healthy, they’ll be in the mix just on the strength of those three for a few years.
But after that, it gets murky pretty quickly. Markieff Morris fills some important gaps in the starting lineup, but he vacillates between starter and bench quality performance on any given night. Marcin Gortat is still solid, but he’s 33 and his future with the team is unclear. The bench was not good this season and save for Kelly Oubre, there’s little hope for it getting better internally or externally this summer.
The Wizards probably aren’t as close to Cleveland right now as Beal believes, but considering the age of the Wizards’ core, they should be around long enough to make a run when LeBron starts to tail off. But in order to do that, they’ll have to find a way to bolster their depth quickly just to get ahead of the Celtics. Don’t forget, Boston will either add a top overall pick or the star they net from trading that pick away this summer.
This season showed us that the Wizards have a trio that can hang with just about anyone, but that they also need more help to turn hypotheticals into reality. If they can’t figure out a way to get it, they’ll be stuck right near the top of the treadmill of mediocrity: Close enough to see the prize ahead of them with no way to take the necessary steps to grab it.
Either way, it’s probably fine.