Watching this year’s playoffs from the perspective of someone who plays close attention to the Wizards, I’m left with one strong takeaway: this team has a long way to go to become competitive.
This isn’t exactly news — they’ve missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons and just finished 2019-20 with the 8th worst record and the 6th worst strength of schedule adjusted scoring margin. Their offense was okay and their defense dead last. They stunk. The stinkitude was by design, of course, but the idea peddled by Ted Leonsis and new GM Tommy Sheppard was that this was a one-year reload and they’d somehow be relevant again.
Watching players Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks or Kawhi Leonard with the Los Angeles Clippers or Jayson Tatum with the Boston Celtics makes that idea seem hopelessly naive.
Their theory is that the return of John Wall will combine with the scoring derring-do of Bradley Beal, the elite shooting of Davis Bertans, and the development of youngsters to do...something the team could claim was competitive. I’ve been trying to see things from their point of view, and I even kinda got to a point where I could at least understand their logic, even if I disagreed with their conclusions.
But their strategy is absurd.
Wall was a very good player before injuries swiped the better part of the past three seasons. They’re not likely to get that guy back though.
- Players like him tend to decline significantly around age 30. He’s about to turn 30.
- All-Star caliber players who miss at least half their team’s regular season games in two or more consecutive seasons lose a lot when they get back. He’ll have missed at least half in three straight years.
- Players who suffer torn Achilles are typically much worse when they return to action. Ahem.
That’s an awful lot for someone to overcome at all. The chances of him somehow returning as good as he was before all this — as good as he was in 2016-17 — are remote. To compete with even the good teams in the East, the Wizards will need All-NBA Wall, and more.
Beal just finished a season that was borderline All-NBA worthy. But the difference between first team All-NBA and being arguable for third team is gigantic.
The Wizards have two major stumbling blocks in their plan to compete for something bigger than nabbing the 7th or 8th seed and pushing a series to six games. The first: Wall and Beal aren’t elite. Beal is very good, but that’s not the same thing. Wall used to be very good, but it’s way more likely he’ll be closer to average than to All-NBA or even All-Star level.
The second: the rest of the roster. It’s too young, too unproven, too untalented to even form the outline of a team that could crack the top four or five in the East next season. Their resources for turning the roster over to acquire proven players are limited.
Building a good team in the NBA takes elite performers or a bunch of good players. The Wizards don’t have either, and they really don’t have a way to acquire them.
For the Wizards to have a prayer of doing more than scraping into the playoffs, they need Sheppard to make a big transaction that somehow consolidates youngsters they’d rather keep and draft picks to get another at least very good player. And then he needs to hit on a series of small free agent pickups to fill out the roster.
Or, they need to get lucky in the draft and land someone very good with the mid-level exception, and land someone really good with the biannual exception. These can’t be of the Ish Smith “hey, not bad for the money” pick-ups. Think more like: “That guy should be an All-Star. Hard to believe they got him for the BAE.”
If you think I’m just a cranky pessimist, re-watch Doncic’s game four against the Clippers and remind yourself that a) he’s just 151 days older than Troy Brown Jr., b) he’s two years younger than Jerome Robinson, and c) he’s a great player on a team that needs a lot of work on its roster before it can hope to contend for a title.
Real talk: the Wizards aren’t close. They need to figure that out quickly so they can start trading for young players and future assets to rebuild for the future.