By: Joe Pohoryles
In the 2019-20 season, many things have been certain from the jump: the two L.A. teams are western conference favorites, Giannis Antetokounmpo seems likely to repeat as MVP, and the Warriors dynasty is over – for now, anyway.
Yet through all the certainties, one thing remains unclear, and that is the Washington Wizards. On the surface, there’s nothing strange about them. A John Wall-less roster floundering at the bottom of the conference, not at all relevant on the national scale outside of Bradley Beal lighting up the scoresheet from time to time.
They will likely miss the playoffs yet again, wind up with a top-ten pick, and continue to slug tediously through the remainder of Wall’s giant contract. As unremarkable as they seem, they stand as one of the biggest enigmas in the entire league.
Sitting at 12-24 upon the publishing of this article, they have lost exactly twice as many games as they’ve won at this point in the season. Yet they have more success with the basketball in their hands than the vast majority of the league. They’re more potent than LeBron & AD’s Los Angeles Lakers, more prolific than the defending-champion Toronto Raptors, and more lethal than the revamped Boston Celtics.
Yet they would get smacked in a seven-game series against any of them.
So why am I making these claims? Well, statistically, I am correct. The Wizards are currently fifth in points per game in the entire league. They are among the best offensive teams this year. They score more on average than all the teams I just mentioned, and every other team except for the Houston Rockets, Milwaukee Bucks, Dallas Mavericks and LA Clippers.
Those four other teams are all in playoff positions. They are led by at least one superstar (James Harden, Giannis, Luka Dončić, and Kawhi Leonard/Paul George). Milwaukee and LA have legit championship aspirations, and both of the Texas teams are capable of making a run. What makes the Wizards similar to these teams in terms of production, yet so different when it comes to results?
The Wizards do not have a transcendent superstar at the helm. Beal is one of the best players in the league, but he’s certainly not in the top 10 like the other four teams’ stars are. The Wizards will not even make the playoffs, but they still score at the levels similar to a contender.
It’s not like the supporting cast is carrying the weight. Sure, Davis Bertans is shooting the ball really well, and the mix of youth and veterans have shown flashes, but there’s hardly been anything sustainable. Plus, practically every relevant player on the roster has spent some time on the injury list so far. There’s just no real foundation to rally around.
Of course, the reason why they’re not a playoff team is no mystery: they allow the most points per game across the entire league. You can’t have sustained success if you can’t play defense. What’s more confusing is the fact that this cast of characters, continually shuffling on and off of the injury list, can still produce on offense at a high level.
Even more confusing is their game-to-game track record, especially in their most recent games. Some nights they look like the worst team in the league, the next day they inexplicably topple playoff teams.
On Dec. 26, the Wizards lost by 30 points to the Detroit Pistons, who improved their record to a measly 12-20 with the 132-102 win. Just one Piston scored over 20 points (Christian Woods with 22), so there was no monster performance to attribute the loss to – it was just an all-around beat down. Two nights later, the Wizards fell 107-100 to the lowly New York Knicks, just days after they beat them 121-115.
After two losses to two poor teams, the Wizards rebounded to slam the resurgent Miami Heat 123-105. It was Miami’s ninth loss on the year, and their starters did not even play poorly. Jimmy Butler poured in 27, and three other starters scored at least 14.
It was Wizards’ guard Jordan McRae that shocked with 29 points, and two-way player Garrison Mathews added 28 of his own. (That’s two-way player as in, “also plays in the G League,” mind you.) Miami is a playoff team, and the Wizards blew them out of the water.
The team then lost 122-101 to the mediocre Orlando Magic on New Years Day, and fell 122-103 to the Portland Trail Blazers two days after. Two underwhelming opponents, two blowout losses.
Right after, they turned things around again, this time against two playoff teams. First they beat the Denver Nuggets 128-114, overcoming a 39-point night from Jamal Murray and a Nikola Jokic double-double. Journeyman Ish Smith had a career-high 32 points for DC, and Troy Brown Jr. brought 25 points and 14 rebounds off the bench. It’s different guys every night.
In their most recent game, a Wizards starting lineup consisting of Isaiah Thomas, Jordan McRae, Isaac Bonga, Gary Payton II and Ian Mahinmi beat the Celtics, who had every one of their top players available except for Kemba Walker. Smith and Brown Jr. each had another stand-out game, and the team allowed just 94 points in the 99-94 win.
We’ve seen teams rise and fall to the level of their competition, but having such drastically varied results against teams at every point of the competitive spectrum, in such a condensed amount of time, it’s something I’ve never seen.
The Wizards don’t have much to play for this season (except for a few things I pointed out in one of my last articles), but the results they have had this season, especially in recent weeks, make them among the most interesting teams in the NBA, and not for the best reasons.