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A temperature check on the Wizards’ playoff chances

With whom are the Wizards competing to make the playoffs?

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Washington Wizards Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Wizards are a team built to win, much to the chagrin of a sizable portion of the fanbase. Whatever your feelings about the team’s construction, Ted Leonsis and Tommy Sheppard have assembled a unit that is — at least on paper — a playoff contender.

This season, parity in the NBA is at an all-time high. The way I see it, that means there are three tiers of teams in each conference — the playoff locks, the teams fighting for the playoffs and the tanking teams. Today I want to go through all the teams in the East that are fighting for the playoffs to analyze the Wizards’ chances at making a playoff push this season. I’m excluding the following teams: Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets and Cleveland Cavaliers (playoff locks); Charlotte Hornets, Detroit Pistons (tanking teams).

Please note that all records, statistics and standings are as of Jan. 20.

Miami Heat (25-21)

NBA: Miami Heat at New Orleans Pelicans Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Heat started the season with a 2-5 record and have hovered a few games above or below .500 ever since. The team that came within seconds of the NBA Finals last year has been shockingly inconsistent, largely due to Jimmy Butler missing 14 games and PJ Tucker signing with the Philadelphia 76ers in the offseason. Reigning Sixth Man of the Year Tyler Herro has been scoring the ball well, and Bam Adebayo is averaging a solid 22 points and 10 rebounds per game, so the Heat should be back to form when Butler is fully healthy.

The Heat will probably finish above the Wizards in the standings.

New York Knicks (25-21)

NBA: Washington Wizards at New York Knicks Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Knicks have been in the same position as the Wizards since the turn of the millennium, consistently underperforming and capping out as a second-round exit. Now it looks like, for the first time in a while, fans in New York have a team they can be excited about.

Immanuel Quickley and Quentin Grimes are breaking out as legitimate two-way threats, RJ Barrett is penciled in for 20 points on any given night and Julius Randle is posting nearly identical stats (other than three-point shooting) to his 2020-21 All-Star and All-NBA campaign.

Oh, and have you heard of this guy the Knicks signed this offseason? His name is Jalen Brunson.

The Knicks were scrutinized for giving Brunson a four year, $104 million contract this offseason; most fans and pundits viewed this as an overpay that would make a mediocre team marginally better. Through 43 games with the Knicks, Brunson is proving all doubters wrong. He is averaging a career-high 22.6 points per game and a career-high 6.3 assists per game on efficient 47/39.8/85.6% shooting splits for a team that has only experienced the joys of above-.500 basketball a handful of times since 2000.

In the month of January, Brunson is on a scoring tear — he is averaging 31.7 points per game in 2023, and has only scored below 30 points four times in this span. The last time he scored below 20 points was December 23rd.

The Knicks will definitely finish above the Wizards in the standings.

Atlanta Hawks (23-22)

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Dallas Mavericks Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Hawks are just a game above .500 right now, but there is little reason to believe they will not improve given their dramatic midseason turnarounds the past two years that propelled them into the playoffs. The experimental pairing of Trae Young and Dejounte Murray has not worked out so far, but once Young’s shots start falling (his field goal percentage of 42.4% is his lowest since his rookie year), the Hawks should start seeing improvement.

The Hawks will definitely finish above the Wizards in the standings.

Indiana Pacers (23-23)

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Indiana Pacers Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

The fact that the Indiana Pacers are currently weathering a five-game losing streak and still maintain a .500 record is a miracle. After all, they were my preseason pick to have the worst record in the Eastern Conference.

Much of this unexpected success can be attributed to Tyrese Haliburton, who looks primed to usurp Chris Paul as the NBA’s next Point God. In his third season, Haliburton is already the best player from the 2020 draft class, and he is averaging 20.2 points and 10.2 assists on shooting splits just shy of 50/40/90.

Haliburton’s stellar play is supported by three other Pacers averaging over 17 points per game — Buddy Hield, Bennedict Mathurin and Myles Turner. Mathurin, the recent sixth pick in the 2022 Draft, is particularly impressing. His resume already includes a number of thirty point games on good efficiency for a rookie. He would win Rookie of the Year in any year that didn’t include Paolo Banchero, who is already a contender to make the All-Star Game.

The Pacers will probably finish above the Wizards in the standings.

Chicago Bulls (21-24)

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Halfway through last season, the Chicago Bulls looked like borderline title contenders. Now it looks like the days of DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine and Nikola Vučević are numbered. The Bulls’ season outlook is entirely dependent on the Feb. 9 trade deadline. Will the Bulls keep their three stars, or will they ship them off and enter a rebuild?

With DeRozan’s consistently stellar play and LaVine’s gradual return to form after a slow start to the season, the Bulls front office could reasonably delude themselves into believing they have something special on their hands (sound familiar?). Alternatively, they could have an entirely different roster in just three weeks. The Bulls are the team to watch at the trade deadline.

I have no idea whether the Bulls will finish above the Wizards in the standings.

Toronto Raptors (20-26)

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Minnesota Timberwolves Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

This season thus far has been nothing short of a disaster for the Toronto Raptors. Despite Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby all being top ten in minutes per game this season, their nightly exhaustion often proves fruitless as the Raptors sit six games below .500. Toronto is in dire need of depth if they want to compete, especially since Otto Porter, Jr., underwent a season-ending surgery. Playing their top guys almost 40 minutes per night is not working, so the Raptors need to think long and hard about hitting the reset button.

Like the Bulls, the Raptors are the team to keep an eye on before the trade deadline.

The Raptors may or may not finish above the Wizards in the standings.

Washington Wizards (19-26)

NBA: Washington Wizards at New York Knicks Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

By now, we all know the story of the Washington Wizards’ season. With ownership and a general manager refusing to blow up the team, the fanbase can only hope the Wizards brass is active at the trade deadline. And they need to be active.

The roster needs some serious upgrades. Rui Hachimura is almost certainly out the door, and Will Barton should be too. Depending on other teams’ interest, the Wizards cannot afford to cling on to players like Deni Avdija and Johnny Davis if other teams are selling at the deadline.

Realistically, Hachimura will be the only player out the door, and my prediction is that the rumored deal with the Phoenix Suns for a forward other than Jae Crowder is completed. That, unfortunately, is not a big enough swing to catapult this team to anywhere higher than the lowest spot in the play-in tournament. The Wizards need to seriously test the market for Avdija, Davis and Corey Kispert and see what win-now pieces they can acquire from whatever team blows it up at the deadline. The Wizards roster now contains top-15 picks from four consecutive drafts that are, at the moment, average role players at best (Hachimura, Avdija, Kispert and Davis). It is in the best interest of both the Wizards and those promising young players that at least two of them move on to new teams.

Orlando Magic (16-28)

NBA: Washington Wizards at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Don’t look now, but the Orlando Magic are coming. They’re 11-12 over the last two months and have been playing some really solid basketball behind Rookie of the Year frontrunner Paolo Banchero.

Here’s a stat for you: the Magic’s starting five is one of the best five-man lineups in the NBA, with a net rating of +23.2 (per @NBA_University on Twitter). Is that something you would have guessed?

Obviously the Magic are in a rebuild, but they are a bit ahead of schedule. While they are not a playoff threat by any means, they are just two games out of the play-in tournament right now. If they manage to get there, they just need to win two games to make the playoffs. Just something to think about.

The Magic will probably not finish above the Wizards in the standings.

By my estimates, the Wizards will finish as either the best team outside of the play-in or the worst team in the play-in. If they do end up making a major move at the deadline, they have the potential to be a tad higher. Out of the teams mentioned, I predict they finish lower than the Heat, Knicks, Hawks and Pacers, and it’s a coin flip whether they finish above the Bulls and Raptors. At least they will (probably) finish higher than the Magic.

What did you think of my analysis? Let me know down below and I will respond to as many comments as I can to keep the discussion flowing.