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The Wizards’ run of .500 or better basketball ended after five years — don’t expect another for some time

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Sure, the Wizards were and still are on the Treadmill of Mediocrity. But oddly enough, it’s also been a sign of progress for the franchise given their poor run in the 1990s.

Toronto Raptors v Washington Wizards
Scott Brooks probably didn’t expect to see the Wizards slump to their first sub .500 season since 2012-13.
Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

On Monday’s Daily Digits, the magic number is:

5

That’s the number of consecutive regular seasons of .500 basketball the Wizards had heading into the 2018-19 season. That streak is now over.

Currently, the Wizards are 30-44 and clinched their first sub .500 season since 2012-13.

First, let’s celebrate the streak for what it was. Between the 2013-14 and 2017-18 seasons, the Wizards did a number of good things. They include:

  • A 223-187 combined regular season record
  • The 2016-17 Southeast Division championship
  • Four second-round playoff appearances in five overall playoff appearances
  • Six seasons of .500 or better regular season basketball

Why the five-year streak was a sign of success for the Wizards

For many NBA franchises, these aren’t accomplishments. They are baseline expectations. However, the Wizards are the only NBA team with a 40-year streak of sub-50-win seasons dating back to the 1978-79 season. And the Wizards often had long streaks when they were just flat-out bad with nothing much to play for. This six-year streak of .500 or better basketball was a sign that the Wizards’ baseline expectations are higher than they were in the past. That’s a good thing.

For example, Washington only made the playoffs once between the 1988-89 and 2003-04 seasons after attempting several rebuilds that never panned out to anything. The Wizards’ peak was a quick first round sweep to the Bulls in the 1997 NBA Playoffs.

OK, maybe I’m being harsh. The Wizards, then the Bullets were also known for having some cool music videos during those lean years in the 1990s.

But still, it’s better for an NBA basketball team to be known for winning games consistently. Washington couldn’t do that back in the 1990s. They have done a much better job of doing that in the 2000s and 2010s.

When was the last time the Wizards had more than five consecutive seasons of .500 or better basketball?

The Wizards had seven consecutive .500 or better seasons from the 1972-73 to 1978-79 as the Bullets. Washington also won their only NBA championship during the 1977-78 season.

Does celebrating five consecutive seasons of .500 basketball vindicate Ernie Grunfeld?

Yes and no.

Grunfeld, for better and for worse, has been Washington’s best general manager since Bob Ferry in the 1970s. Grunfeld has made the Wizards a perennial playoff team with the talent to advance and give higher-seeded opponents hell in a seven-game series at their peak. He deserves credit for that.

At the same time, Grunfeld has been the Wizards’ President of Basketball Operations since 2003 and Washington has yet to make an Eastern Conference Finals or win 50 regular season games. Grunfeld has drafted some epic draft busts like Jan Vesely when Klay Thompson and Kawhi Leonard were available.

If you want to say that Thompson or Leonard would have been busts in Washington if they came anyway, fair enough. Then perhaps Grunfeld didn’t have or wouldn’t have put the right player development system in place for players who weren’t surefire Top-3 picks like John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter.

Finally, Grunfeld mismanaged the salary cap as poorly as one could do. The 2016 NBA free agency period, trading away two consecutive first-round draft picks to “undo” past mistakes and John Wall’s upcoming supermax contract extension for a team that won’t contend for a championship are just some of the moves that will haunt Washington for years to come.

The Wizards may not be one of the NBA’s doormats next season. And they have the talent to avoid being that terrible in terms of their wins and losses. But barring something crazy, it’s hard to see Washington getting another .500 season anytime soon. The next few years will likely be quite forgettable even if the Wizards begin to rebuild in earnest.