Less than a week ago, Wizards guard Bradley Beal was feeling rather confident following the All-Star break.
“We know we’re going to be a playoff team,” Beal said. “It’s always tough to win games, but at the same we know seeding is very important for us.”
From a fan perspective, Beal’s words hit on all chords. Initially it was a little weird hearing a young Wizards player talking with such confidence – and about the playoffs, no less. Then the reaction quickly shifted more toward a "that’s-what-this-team-needs" sort of attitude.
And then, of course, you come to the realization that earning a playoff berth in the Eastern Conference is like, well, earning a playoff berth in the Eastern Conference. You just happened to be the best team of pretty gnarly bunch.
Given the Wizards’ average of just 23 wins a year over the last five seasons, the playoffs are obviously a major accomplishment in a vacuum. Sure, the Wizards are on pace to be seeded higher than eight. Yes, John Wall and Bradley Beal are an exciting young backcourt. Yes, Trevor Ariza somehow made himself an invaluable asset. Things are looking up.
But then Sunday happened.
In the third quarter of an eventual 96-83 win over the Cavaliers in Cleveland, Nene went down after colliding with an opponent under the basket. On Monday, Nene was diagnosed with a sprained MCL in his left knee - an injury that will force him to miss the next 4-6 weeks.
We were all a tad crazy if we didn’t think something like this would happen. Not necessarily the Wizards hitting a bump in the playoff road far less traveled. But rather, expecting Nene to stay healthy - a feat the big man has conquered only four times in his 13-year career.
For a team that’s below-average offensively (104.8 offensive efficiency, 21st in the league), the Wizards will clearly miss Nene’s 14.4 points per game. Meanwhile, it’s never easy losing a big body, despite Nene’s lowest rebounding average in eight seasons.
But at least those are patchable areas. With a high-energy guy like Trevor Booker to help compensate for lost rebounds, as well as missing points, Uncle Al Harrington providing his own scoring support so long as his knees allow it, and Kevin Seraphin taking up space down low once he returns from a leg injury of his own, Nene’s points and rebound totals are replaceable. Hopefully.
The one area that isn’t fixable, however, is Nene’s underrated talent as a facilitator and focal pipeline in the Wizards offense.
In his surprisingly durable-ish 49 appearances before the injury, Nene was logging 31 minutes a night and averaging career-highs in assists (3.0) and usage percentage (23.6). He’s by far the team’s savviest veteran and his passing ability allows for plays to run through him - helping to create space and springboard his teammates - none of which is equally provided by the Wizards’ current cast of fill-in big men.
And just like that, Beal’s week-old playoff assurance is threatened.
But the Wizards’ playoff balloon hasn’t deflated. Head coach Randy Wittman will install some form of small ball and use the talent he does have to pester teams with speed and outside shooting. Not to mention, thanks to fortunate league alignments, a 29-28 record which would hardly sniff the playoffs on the other coast is currently good enough for a fifth seed in the East. So there’s some wiggle room.
But adjustments are required. And there’s no doubt the road just got harder for Washington. The key will be for the entire Wizards roster to embrace Beal’s initial confidence and attitude in order to overcome a large hurdle late in the season.