There’s been a lot of discussion this summer about where the Wizards stack up in the Eastern Conference hierarchy and what it could mean if the Cavaliers start to crumble with Kyrie Irving and LeBron James’ futures up in the air. But for the sake of discussion, let’s flip the script and talk about how the Wizards would fare in the more top-heavy Western Conference.
Just going on their won-loss record, the Wizards would have finished sixth in the West last season, two games behind the fifth-seeded Jazz and two games ahead of the Thunder. But of course, teams play 52 games each season within their own conference and only 30 outside, so records naturally favor teams in the weaker conference. According to Basketball-Reference’s Strength of Schedule, the eight easiest schedules this season were played by teams in the East, with Washington playing the second-easiest schedule in the league behind Toronto.
That said, the Wizards held up quite well when they faced teams in the other conference. Washington finished 17-13 against Western Conference teams last season. That mark tied them with Boston and Toronto for the best record by a team in the East against their Western foes. The only teams in the West who had a better win percentage against teams in the West were the Warriors, Spurs, Rockets, Clippers, and Jazz, who took the top five spots in the conference last season.
Of course, it’s important to keep some caveats in mind when comparing how teams play within their conference and outside their conference. Since teams play outside their conference less often, little scheduling quirks can sometimes throw off these small samples, and random player absences can throw off records quite easily both ways.
For instance, the Wizards were fortunate enough to face the Warriors without Kevin Durant at home, they dodged Nikola Jokic on the second night of a back-to-back in Denver, and were lucky enough to play the Clippers at home in a Sunday afternoon tilt that naturally favors the home team. On the other hand, they lost fluky games on the road in Oklahoma City and Memphis thanks in part to ridiculous shots in the closing seconds of regulation, and lost a game in Minnesota at the end of a grueling road trip which they likely would have won otherwise.
Analytics also have something to say here about overall performance and where the team would rank out west. If you use Basketball-Reference’s Simple Rating System, which factors in point differential and strength of schedule, Washington was the ning-best team in the league, which would put them sixth in the West, right ahead of Oklahoma City. ESPN’s Basketball Power Index also had them sixth in the West and ninth overall. If you go off FiveThirtyEight’s CARMELO, the Wizards were the 7th-best team in the league and performed slightly better than the Clippers, but worse than the Jazz, so make of that what you will.
Slotting the Wizards somewhere between sixth and eighth seems like the safest bet. Anecdotally, it just seemed like the Warriors, Spurs, Rockets, Clippers, Jazz were just a little bit better than Washington last season when they played head-to-head (even though they beat the Warriors and Clippers) whereas their games with Oklahoma City and Memphis were much more evenly contested on a talent level. It’s one of those things where Washington probably had the best performance of the three teams in that tier last season, but if we were actually playing this scenario out, you could envision how a few twists and turns here and there could put Washington behind Oklahoma City and Memphis in the standings.
So what about this upcoming season? The Thunder have vaulted ahead of Washington thanks to the Paul George trade, but the Jazz, Clippers, and Grizzlies have all taken steps back thanks to free agency departures. If you were putting things in tiers, you’d probably have to put the Wizards in that third tier of the West, behind the Warriors (In Tier 1 by themselves), Spurs, Rockets, and Thunder. After that, Washington is on fairly even ground with the Clippers, Jazz, Nuggets, and Timberwolves until we have a better idea of just how good those new-look rosters will be next season.
The bottom line is that as good as it is to see the Wizards moving up in the East, we can’t lose sight of the fact that the Wizards haven’t done much to move up in the overall league rankings. Unless they can find a way to move up into that next tier, they’re effectively capped as a team whose best hope is to win the Eastern Conference and hope for a miracle in the NBA Finals.