Can the Washington Wizards Make the Playoffs?
About two weeks ago, the Washington Wizards were winners of four straight games. After a highly disappointing start for a team that had advanced to the second round of the playoffs in each of the past two seasons, they had managed to claw their way back to .500
But since that winning streak, the Wizards have gone 1-5 and are now losers of three straight, including blowout losses to the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors earlier this week.
The Wizards aren’t just a team suffering through a losing streak; they’re also suffering an identity crisis just past the midpoint of the season.
Coming into this year, the Wizards were expected to be one of the teams copying the Golden State Warriors' playing style: pace and space.
The Wizards started the season with the intention of playing small, replacing Nene in the starting lineup at power forward with Kris Humphries. After Humphries flamed out in a stretch-four role and Jared Dudley had only moderate success, the Wizards have recently reverted back to starting Nene and Marcin Gortat together in the frontcourt.
Injuries have certainly hindered the Wizards' transition to their new style of play, but 44 games into the season and with Randy Wittman experimenting with his starting lineup, can the Wizards turn their season around to make the playoffs for a third straight year?
An Injury-Riddled Campaign
The Wizards have been beset by injuries this season. Bradley Beal, Drew Gooden, Otto Porter, Gortat, and Humphries have all missed time this year. Alan Anderson, who the team signed this offseason, has yet to see the floor since he had surgery on his ankle in October.
According to ManGamesLost.com, a site that tracks the number of games missed by players, the Wizards are by far the most injured team in the NBA this season. Wizards players have missed a total of 50 more games than the team with the second most games missed, the Denver Nuggets.
Beal especially has struggled to stay on the court this season, missing 21 games. He has missed time with a myriad of injuries this season, including a stress reaction in his lower right fibula and most recently a concussion and broken nose that he sustained in Monday’s loss to the Celtics.
Having Beal consistently in the starting lineup -- he’s second on the team in scoring with 18.5 point per game, trailing only John Wall -- could go a long way in getting the Wizards back on track.
Porter, who has been battling a hip injury, left Thursday’s game against the Nuggets with hip tightness and could be looking at an extended absence.
Transitioning to Pace and Space
After playing a traditional lineup with two bigs in past years, the Wizards were looking play a smaller lineup and employ their a pace-and-space strategy.
But did they have the right personnel to make that move?
Instead of starting Nene, the Wizards first tried Humphries at the four. He struggled, averaging only averaging only 6.7 points per game in 17 minutes, and was subsequently benched.
The Wizards tried to turn Humphries into a stretch-four, a role he’s never played.
Prior to this season, Humphries had only fired up 26 three-point attempts in his first 13 seasons. But in 27 games this year, Humphries has shot 66 threes making 34 percent of those. Lately, Humphries has been out with a knee injury since January 3, and a return date has not been set.
With Humphries struggling early in the season, the Wizards then turned to Jared Dudley to play their stretch-four. Dudley has since started 26 games -- some at center replacing an injured Gortat -- and has seen some success, playing better than Humphries. Dudley is averaging 8.6 points per game to go along with 3.7 rebounds, all while shooting 47 percent from behind the arc.
As a team, the Wizards are playing at a faster pace than in years past, averaging more points per game and firing up more three-pointers on the year.
|Season||Points Per Game||Pace||3-Point Attempts|
But while the pace and space style has increased the tempo and scoring on offense, the Wizards' offensive efficiency is still lacking. Washington has never been a highly rated offense in terms of Offensive Rating, but in a year where their new mentality was supposed to bring more offensive success, they rank only 16th in Offensive Rating (102.3).
Where’s the Defense?
In each of the last three seasons, the Wizards have been a top-10 defense, per Defensive Rating. They’ve also allowed fewer than 100 points per game each year, but both of those stats have taken a turn for the worse this year.
The Wizards are now allowing 104.1 points per game, 24th in the league, and own a Defensive Rating of 104.3, ranked 18th in the league. Both are the worst they've been since WIttman's first full season as head coach.
|Season||Defensive Rating||Points Allowed Per Game|
The team’s defensive struggles aren’t lost on Wall, who expressed frustration after Tuesday’s 106-89 loss in Toronto.
"Our defense is terrible right now," Wall told reporters. "Probably the worst defense in the league to be honest. Until we start playing defense we're not going to win games."
Additionally, Wizards opponents are shooting 46.8 percent from the field, third highest in the league, and 38.2 from the three-point line, which is the best percentage in the league.
Meanwhile, the Wizards are the worst rebounding team in the league, pulling in 40 rebounds a game, although they’ve acknowledged their pace and space style puts less emphasis on crashing the offensive glass.
Can They Turn It Around?
According to numberFire metrics, the Wizards own a 42.5 nERD rating, which is a metric that is predictive of the team’s ultimate winning percentage based on efficiency. We’re projecting the Wizards to finish with a 38-42 record, placing them 10th in the East, about five games behind 8 seed Indiana and out of the playoffs. They own an 11.5 percent chance to reach the playoffs.
The Wizards have maintained throughout the season that, once they were at full strength, they’d be able to make the pace and space style succeed and find themselves in the playoffs for a third straight season.
But with the injuries continuing to pile up, a roster lacking the personnel to fulfill their pace and space dreams, and a defense that is no longer the strength of this team, perhaps Wittman is finished with pace and space and going to back to what has made the Wizards successfully in years past.
If so, the Wizards' traditional lineup is off to a slow start in attempting to turn this season around. With the All-Star break looming, time is beginning to run short.