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In chase for playoffs, Wizards need to stay focused on the future

NBA: Rising Stars-World at U.S.
When it comes to chasing the playoffs, the Wizards should rely on young players like Rui Hachimura.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The Wizards are not a good team. They’re not close to being a good team. That’s not going to stop them from trying to reach the postseason this year, which is actually not a bad goal. However, how they pursue that goal could be akin to the difference between laying a foundation for a well-structured renovation or spackling over flood damage.

When the Wizards fried Ernie Grunfeld and promoted Tommy Sheppard, they made it clear their goals for this season would be developing youngsters into NBA contributors and creating financial flexibility to reload next season when John Wall would presumably be healthy.

Currently three games out of eighth in the moribund Eastern Conference, the playoffs seem tantalizingly within reach. It’s good to keep in mind how remote their chances really are. Basketball-Reference pegs their odds at about 3%. FiveThirtyEight is more optimistic at about 7%. My own forecast is about 4%.

Think about like this: if Orlando plays at their current level, they’ll go 12-15 the rest of the way to finish the year 36-46. For the Wizards to match, they’d need to go 16-13 over their final 29 games. That would be a 55% winning percentage — the level of a 45-win team. Basketball-Reference, FiveThirtyEight, and my own projection all have the Wizards at 30-52.

To have a shot at reaching the postseason, the Wizards will have to transmogrify into a team about as good as the Pacers have been this year. Impossible? No. Likely? Also no.

Understand, this is not about crapping on the Wizards or taking a flamethrower to optimism. Washington has a semi-realistic chance of seizing the 8th seed and they should pursue it. But, they should be disciplined in how they make that pursuit.

Back in 2012, the word that came to mind when Grunfeld traded for Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor was “cynical.” In that move, Washington swapped cap space for a decent veterans who could help them reach the playoffs over the next couple seasons. But the move felt cynical because it also put a cap on their potential. They weren’t going to be able to use cap room to acquire young players with potential — they had solid guys who weren’t going to become All-Stars and were limited to whatever growth they could coax from their young core.

What worries me is that the goal — “make the playoffs” — is short term and does little to set the team on a long-term path for success. Unless they go about pursuing it the right way.

What’s the right way? To me, running down Orlando should be done by players who they expect to be part of the team next season and into the future. In other words, get Ian Mahinmi out of the starting lineup. Give point guard minutes to Troy Brown. Rely on the youngsters and let them succeed or fail. And coach them hard either way.

If the Wizards make the playoffs — or just come close — being led by Brown, Isaac Bonga, Thomas Bryant, Moe Wagner, and Rui Hachimura (as well as Bradley Beal), they’ve laid one hell of a foundation for the future. If they do it by relying on Mahinmi, Ish Smith and Shabazz Napier...well...I wouldn’t use the word “cynical,” but “fool’s gold” comes to mind.

By all means, they should shoot for the playoffs. They’ll probably miss, but the attempt is worthwhile and could provide a terrific developmental opportunity for their young players. If they reach the postseason, so much the better because then those youngsters get to see what it’s all about. But do it the right way, not by riding veterans who will be somewhere else next season.