They’re Struggling Right Now, but the Wizards can Win the East

Posted: 03/01/2015 by levcohen in Basketball

Before I get started on the Wizards, I want to note that, just as I predicted, the 13 teams I thought could win their respective conferences when I started going through those teams have shrunk to 12. I still think each of the four teams I’ve gone through (San Antonio, OKC, LA, Cleveland) have a shot at winning, which leaves nine teams. And the team I’m eliminating is the Dallas Mavericks. Part of it is the fact that Rajon Rondo and coach Randy Carlyle aren’t getting along. Part of it is that Rondo has been absolutely atrocious since being traded to Dallas. Part of it is the fact that Tyson Chandler and Chandler Parsons have had recently injury problems. And perhaps most importantly, it seems as if Dirk Nowitzki has finally started to really decline. He’s averaging just 14 points per game over the past month at just 43% from the field. For a player who put the team on his back en route to the championship four years ago, that’s a precipitous decline. And the Western Conference is so brutal that there’s very little room for error. I just think the Mavericks don’t have the horses to go toe to toe with three straight Western Conference giants, and since they are in line to be a 5-7 seed, that’s exactly what they’ll have to do. Anyway, on to the Wizards.

If I told you right now that the Wizards would make the NBA Finals, you’d probably shocked. That’s what recency bias does, as the Wizards have lost 11 of their past 14 games including back-to-back losses against Minnesota and Philadelphia, two of the worst teams in the NBA. As a result, they’ve gone from being the two seed in the Eastern Conference to being in a dogfight for homecourt advantage, which is especially important to a team that’s 21-10 at home and 13-16 on the road.

It’s true that Bradley Beal missed all but four games in the month of February, but can the Beal injury really mean that much for the Wizards? They’d better hope so, because that would suggest a return to their 2014 selves upon Beal’s return. The injury certainly has something to do with the team’s decline, but the offense has gone from averaging 102.6 points on 48% shooting in December to 92.5 points on 43% shooting in February. Besides Beal, Paul Pierce and Nene have also declined, not surprising given that they are both well past 30 and have played in 1379 and 785 career games (regular and postseason) games respectively. Largely because of Beal’s injury, the Wizards have also gone from shooting 41% on three pointers in December to 29% in February. That’s obviously a huge difference, but it also provides hope that Washington’s February is just a short slump.

This team will go in the playoffs as star point guard John Wall goes. Wall, like the rest of his team, has slumped in February to a sub-40% field goal percentage. But he’s a lot better than he’s played this month, and I expect him to return to his All-Star form with his backcourt mate back. Beal returned tonight against the Pistons, and while he didn’t shoot well, the team immediately benefited; they ended a six game skid thanks to a much better offensive performance than the one that saw them put up 158 points COMBINED in their previous two games (against Minny and Philly).

When they’re healthy and rolling, this team will be able to cause the rest of the Eastern Conference a lot of problems. Their bludgeoning PF-C combination of Nene and Marcin Gortat can destroy teams that play stretch fours, while Paul Pierce has the killer instinct and Wall can dominate against slower teams. The Wizards have shown that they can play the top four teams in their conference close. They have two wins against Chicago, the team that would seemingly match up best against their big frontcourt. In an already-weak conference, Washington also has to be happy about the Derrick Rose injury and Toronto’s five game losing streak. So while the Wizards sure don’t look like a contender right now, they are still a threat to win the Eastern Conference. I’d put them well behind the odds-on favorite (Cleveland) and also behind Atlanta and Chicago, but I think they have about the same chance as Toronto of winning the Eastern Conference. It’s all about the matchups; right now, the Wizards would play the Cavs in round one, which probably wouldn’t end well for them. But if they end up with a home series against Milwaukee or Toronto, I could see them winning a series or two fairly easily. It won’t likely take them past the Eastern Conference Finals, but can they win the Eastern Conference? I think the answer is yes, because Wall can carry them and because they have both shooting (this is where they really rely on Beal) and size.


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