It’s been a wildly unfamiliar beginning to the season for Wizards fans. Forget the jarring 10-3 record and first seed in the East for a quick second. Numbers and logic don’t fully capture what this start to the year has been like.
At its core, doesn’t it just feel so utterly foreign to watch this team enter crunch time with the game close and actually expect them to win? There have just been way too many #SoWizards moments in the past for fans to ever feel completely comfortable with a lead late in games.
Sure, most middle-of-the-pack fan bases act like their teams let them down more often than they pull through. It’s human nature to dwell on the failures while downplaying the successes of your hometown squad.
But if you’re a Wizards fan, it hasn’t just a cognitive bias. It’s an absolute fact.
The very un-clutch Wizards of yesteryear
Washington hasn’t had a winning record in clutch games (that is, games within five points in the final five minutes) in 15 of the last 16 NBA seasons.
Save for an anomalous 2016-17 when the Wiz won 32 clutch games out of 55 total chances, both high marks in the NBA that year, D.C. has been in dire straits trying to produce when it matters most.
They’ve gone 291-384 in clutch games dating back to the 2005-06 season, meaning the team has lost them around 57% of the time. A crunch time L has been a statistical probability.
And that snapshot strikes even more stark given such a massive 16-season sample size, half of which were teams with a .500 record or better.
Neither Bradley Beal now, nor John Wall before have been renowned for late-game takeovers. But apparently even during the Gilbert Arenas heyday, the Wizards were losing more than they won. The wins just felt way more emphatic, for reasons unknown.
D.C’s new blood is bucking the trend
The new-look Wizards don’t care about precedent.
They own a spotless 7-0 record in clutch games, the first team in the NBA with seven such wins and one of two remaining undefeated teams. This roster has no plans of emulating the mistakes of its predecessors.
Spencer Dinwiddie has been the team’s late-game maestro in the purest sense of the word, perfectly orchestrating the symphony of Washington’s offense with his harmonious balance of scoring and passing.
Dinwiddie has either scored or assisted on 41 out of the Wizards’ 67 points in the clutch through 13 games thus far. That’s good for 61% of total production.
Among all players who have played in at least five clutch games this season, Dinwiddie ranks third in clutch points per game (4.0 ppg) and fifth in total points scored (24).
He’s also tied for the league lead in total clutch assists (7) while being the only player in the NBA who averages over one assist (1.2 apg).
Kyle Kuzma has arguably been just as clutch, especially lately. He’s shooting a career-worst 41.9% from the field this season, though it certainly doesn’t feel like it because his buckets have been so timely.
Kuz has converted on 50% of his clutch shot attempts and has also connected on a handful of threes at crucial junctures that don’t fall within the parameters of the clutch metric. He’s also one of just five players in the NBA with double-digit rebounds in clutch situations.
Montrezl Harrell, Aaron Holiday, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope have all had their moments as crunch time catalysts as well.
And let’s not forget coach Wes Unseld Jr. He’s instilled the team’s new defensive identity and has shown an ability to adapt his lineups even in close games without Dinwiddie, Bradley Beal, and Daniel Gafford at different points in the young season.
Is this late-game sorcery sustainable?
While the Wizards won’t bat 1.000 for the entire year, there’s reason to believe that their 4th quarter excellence can be sustainable.
A big reason why the team has been winning these clutch games is because they’ve been doing their work early. Washington has entered the fourth quarter with an average lead of +4.6 and has mostly played from a position of strength.
The team hasn’t been shooting the lights out en route to improbable comeback victories. The Wizards rank a mediocre 16th in overall offensive rating, but dip to a dreadful 26th in fourth quarters, even worse than the one-win Houston Rockets and the two-win New Orleans Pelicans.
Instead, D.C. has been doing it on the other end of the floor. It’s during the final 12 minutes that their defense is at its most suffocating, ranking as the team’s best individual defensive quarter and the biggest reason why Washington is stifling teams at a top-five rate.
While their defensive intensity is already white-hot, the ice in their veins on offense can still get even more frigid. It’s easier to believe that Bradley Beal will improve from his 36% shooting in clutch situations than it is for this team to start losing its will to defend.
Statistically speaking, Washington is bound to falter in a few of these frantic affairs sooner rather than later. But here’s to hoping the Wizards manage to stave off the specter of probability for as long as humanly possible.