Ahead of Sunday night's matchup with the Brooklyn Nets, an incredible statistic feels relevant. Per Cleaning the Glass, only three teams in the NBA have a .500 record against top-ten teams (by Net Rating). Two of those (Brooklyn and Utah) are championship contenders, while the other happens to be none other than the Washington Wizards. It's been the story of the Wizards' season; lose at home in embarrassing fashion to a dismal Sacramento team despite them employing the "Four Corners" offense to close the game (no field goals made for nearly seven and a-half minutes in the fourth quarter); then come out the next night and light up the Jazz.
Even though Washington is 8-8 versus the top-ten, it still sits at 12th place in the Eastern Conference, thanks to a miserable 7-17 record in all other games. So how just how rare is this?
The answer: very.
While some teams, most notably the 2001 Lakers and the some of the later Warriors juggernauts, get away with coasting during the regular season - often only getting up for big games - this luxury is usually reserved for the best of the best. Since 2004, here are the worst teams to have a .500 (or better) record versus the top-ten:
|Team||Record vs. top-10||Overall record|
|2021 Washington Wizards||8-8||15-25|
|2017 Chicago Bulls||15-13||41-41|
|2014 Brooklyn Nets||13-13||44-38|
|2018 Milwaukee Bucks||13-12||44-38|
|2011 Memphis Grizzlies||14-13||46-36|
Every single team to do this ended up .500 or better, and all of them save for the 2014 Suns qualified for the playoffs. Further, since 2004 only ten teams have finished with a better record against the top-ten than in all of its other games:
|Team||W-L vs. top-10||W-L in all other games||Difference (win%)|
|2007 Utah Jazz||20-7||31-24||+0.177|
|2005 Charlotte Bobcats||7-16||11-48||+0.118|
|2014 Miami Heat||16-6||38-22||+0.094|
|2021 Washington Wizards||8-8||7-17||+0.088|
|2017 Chicago Bulls||15-13||26-28||+0.054|
|2016 Golden State Warriors||21-2||52-7||+0.032|
|2006 Atlanta Hawks||9-18||17-38||+0.024|
|2012 Denver Nuggets||10-7||28-21||+0.017|
|2006 Detroit Pistons||19-5||45-13||+0.016|
|2018 Boston Celtics||15-7||40-20||+0.015|
|2013 Washington Wizards||10-18||19-35||+0.005|
So...five conference finalists (2007 Jazz, 2014 Heat, 2016 Warriors, 2006 Pistons, 2018 Celtics) who performed well regardless of the opponent, two dregs (2005 Bobcats, 2006 Hawks) who likely stole a few games from unsuspecting contenders. If you remember the 2013 Wizards, you'll know that it was a different team once John Wall returned from his knee injury in January (the win in Denver comes to mind, as well as his then career-high against Memphis).
The hope (at least for them) is that the analog for this year's Wizards is the 2017 "Three Alphas" Bulls, who also struggled with dysfunction and a poorly constructed roster in Fred Hoiberg's first campaign. It then eventually (somewhat) found itself as a slug-it-out defensive group that bowed out in the first-round to Boston in a semi-competitive series (going up 2-0 before Rajon Rondo went down). Coincidentally enough, that squad also relied upon Robin Lopez to a startling degree.
Unfortunately that appears to be the ceiling for this team. Overall, I was pretty bearish on the "playoff push" even prior to the 1-5 start post-all star. First off, the 72 game schedule means that Washington has far less time to gain ground than it would in a normal season. These past two days were the final time that the Wizards have more than a day off in-between games. I also don't believe that this team is very good - even on its best days.
Of those eight wins against the best of the best, how many of those were resounding victories? The Suns game right before Covid-19 ravaged them was the only one. Many of them were of the extreme comeback variety - a few plays here and there go differently and the Wizards are suddenly staring down even more losses. Six of those eight wins featured injury luck in Washington's favor (Nets without Harden, Lakers without Davis, Clippers without George, Jazz without Conley, Nuggets missing multiple starters both times).
Overall, the team's splits against the best and the worst is fascinating, but I view it as mostly noise - just a footnote in another forgettable Wizards' season where the brilliance of Bradley Beal is gone to waste. Let's just hope they don't end up with the 9th pick again.