With the Washington Wizards staggering to an 0-4 record — two coming to the mediocre Orlando Magic, one to the moribund Chicago Bulls — it’s tempting to echo head coach Scott Brooks’ bromides about it being a long season. Giving into that temptation would be a mistake.
At 0-4, the Wizards should be in a full-on panic. The history of teams that start this poorly should have everyone associated with the Wizards scared that they’re on the verge of a catastrophic failure. They should be studying film, optimizing lineups, shortening rotations, putting in extra work — maybe even holding a players-only meeting. This isn’t a time for rest or load management. The picture is bad enough at 0-4. It gets worse the longer the skid goes.
Over the past 20 seasons, 52 teams have started 0-4. This year’s Wizards is the fourth Washington team to achieve this dubious distinction — they had the same four-game start in 2007-08, 2008-09, 2011-12, and 2012-13. Their record those seasons: 43-39, 19-63, 20-46 (lockout shortened), and 29-53. The 2007-08 season may give Wizards fans a reason to believe that things can turn around, but the other three teams were bad.
The Wizards made in-season coaching changes in two of those seasons — replacing Eddie Jordan with Ed Tapscott, and Flip Saunders with Randy Wittman. In both cases, Washington improved from horrific to awful.
The “Trust the Process” Philadelphia 76ers did it three consecutive seasons (2015, 2016, 2017). Philadelphia leads the league with five 0-4 starts in the past 20 years.
Teams that start 0-4 tend to have hard finishes. The average 82-game record was 28-54, a .348 winning percentage — about 25 wins in the shortened 72-game schedule for 2020-21. The average finish: 11.9.
Seven of the 52 teams (13%) reached the postseason and only the 2003-04 Miami Heat made it out of the first round. They lost in round two.
The dream scenario would be to copycat the 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks, which won 67 games and took the top seed in the West. And the 2007-08 Wizards team made the playoffs. Both teams lost in the first round though.
Ten teams made in-season coaching changes. Three teams made two changes — going with an interim coach for a few games while they hired a longer-term replacement.
In general, coaching changes didn’t help much. The coaches that started the season had a combined record of 69-168, a .268 winning percentage. The replacement coaches went 199-430, a .316 clip. That’s an “improvement” from a 22- to a 25-win pace over an 82-game schedule.
Only one team that changed coaches reached the playoffs, the 2005 Memphis Grizzlies that replaced Hubie Brown with Lionel Hollins and then Mike Fratello. The Grizzlies had won 50 games the previous season.
Just 9 of the 52 teams (17%) managed a .500 or better record. Some of these teams entered their seasons expecting to be bad. Some were intentionally bad. The teams that bounced back from an 0-4 start to achieve a modicum of success were typically established teams that had a decent record the season before.
The 2006-07 Mavericks, that started 0-4 and finished 67-15, won 60 games the previous season. The 2007-08 Wizards were 41-41 the previous season and actually led the Eastern Conference at one point before injuries struck.
By now you might be thinking: this is a semi-interesting walk through yesteryear, but what’s the point? The Wizards have their own unique situation and personnel.
The answer: it’s useful to look at history because it’s easy to get caught up in rationalizations based on perceptions of this year’s team. Fans know and like these players and hope — sometimes beyond all reason — their team will somehow get it together and start winning. That’s true of owners, executives, coaches and players too.
They know how hard they’re working. They know the time they’ve put in. They know how bad they want to win. And so they think the next midrange shot goes in, the next risky pass goes through, the next leap into a passing lane gets the steal and the breakaway dunk.
Taking a step back and examining the outcomes for teams with a similar start can be a reality check for everyone. It’s a long season and the sample size is “only” four games. It doesn’t seem like it should mean very much, except — as this look at history reveals — it does.
Starting 0-4 signals that the team may be weaker than expected and the results could be worse than the team and its fans forecasted. If that’s the case, the effects will ripple through the franchise and change its trajectory over the next several seasons.
But let’s not go there quite yet. While the Wizards should be worried, the hole they’re digging doesn’t have to be a bottomless pit. Teams have recovered from bad starts to compile winning records and reach the playoffs. It’s rare, but possible.
This season, they only have to get to 10th to get into the play-in games, and 12 of the 52 teams (23%) managed to finish that high. A few more might have been able to reach 10th if there’d been a play-in game reward.
The Wizards have one thing in their favor that other teams didn’t — Russell Westbrook has been here before. In the 2018-19 season, the Oklahoma City Thunder recovered from an 0-4 start to win 49 games and earn the sixth seed. After the bad start, they won 7 in a row, and 10 of their next 11. They wouldn’t lose two in a row again until the 26th and 27th games of the season. They were beaten 4-1 in the first round by the Portland Trail Blazers.
Of course, the 2017-18 Thunder won 48 games. Last season, the Wizards won the equivalent of 28.
History says the Wizards are weaker than many thought. The future of this team isn’t written, though. They can make their own history by working hard, playing with effort, executing at both ends, making good decisions, and finding ways to win.