The debaculous start to the Wizards season has stretched to 10 games, and they continue to show few signs of competitive life. Their win against the Knicks was oddly discouraging and the thumping they got from Dallas was downright depressing. But, history says there’s still hope for an interesting and entertaining season.
First, the bad news: While the season is still young, teams that begin this bad generally remain so. Thus far in 2018-19, the Wizards have an average scoring margin of -10.3. Since 1983-84, 24 other teams have staggered out of the gates at about the same level of futility. As a group, those teams remained terrible. Collectively, they completed their seasons with a .304 winning percentage—an average record of 25-57.
Overall, the 24 teams had a strength of schedule adjusted scoring margin of -5.9. Throwing out a few of the oddballs (teams that were tanking or expansion teams in their first few seasons of operation), and the numbers improve only slightly: 27 wins and an adjusted scoring margin of -5.1. Fourteen of the 24 teams fired their coach during the season or replaced him when it was finished.
The 2009-10 New Jersey Nets went nuts, firing Lawrence Frank, then replacing interim Tom Barrise with GM Kiki Vandeweghe, and then replacing Vandeweghe as coach with Avery Johnson, and as executive with Billy King. Yikes.
But, here’s the good...well...better news. Most of the teams that started this bad were just bottom-feeders—franchises on a binge of losing that extended for years. That’s not the Wizards.
Two of the 24 teams entered the season with an overall profile more similar to this year’s Wizards: the 1996-97 Phoenix Suns and the 2004-05 New Jersey Nets.
The Suns opened the year with eight straight losses, at which point they fired head coach Cotton Fitzsimmons and replaced him with Danny Ainge. They lost the next two under Ainge, but rallied to finish the season 40-42. They made the playoffs, but lost in the first round. The Suns had a lengthy postseason history at that point — it would be their ninth consecutive appearance, and they weren’t just bowing out in the first round. That playoffs streak lasted 13 seasons and included a trip to the Finals.
The Nets were in the midst of a rare period of relative excellence for the franchise. This was the same core that reached the Finals twice and were in their first full season under Lawrence Frank. They were in decline from their 52-win peak (they’d fired head coach Byron Scott after a 22-20 start the previous season), but were still stocked with postseason veterans. After a 2-8 start, they righted the ship to finish 42-40 and lose in the first round.
One other team, the 2003-04 Miami Heat began a season like the Wizards (2-8 record with a scoring margin of -10.9), but rallied. The Heat finished out the year 42-40, which preposterously was good for the fourth seed that season. They won their first round series against the New Orleans Hornets. That team had a different profile than the Suns, Nets and this year’s Wizards, however. The Heat had missed the playoffs two straight seasons, and were in their first season with Stan Van Gundy coaching instead of Pat Riley. Their roster was an interesting mix of youth (including rookie Dwyane Wade, Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, and Udonis Haslem — all 24 or younger) and solid veterans like Eddie Jones and Brian Grant.
Back to the Wizards, their poor start is worrisome, not because of the record, but because of their lethargy and fracturing locker room. The reality is that their record is probably not far from what it would be if they played at a normal level for them. The first nine games are probably going to be the toughest part of their schedule this season. If I take their performance from last season as their “real” level and apply it to their first 10 games, their expected record would be 3-7. According to this hypothetical, they have two bad losses: the opener against the Heat, and last night at Dallas. And, they have one good win — the overtime victory against a Blazers team that’s been playing well.
At this point, the team should be concerned, not panicked. The season is far from over and they have a chance to be relevant, but only if the poor effort, me-first attitudes, and careless play can be excised. Otherwise, the season could degenerate into an expensive catastrophe that would leave the franchise in a shambles for the foreseeable future.