The Washington Wizards entered the week barely two games over .500, tied with the Pistons for the sixth-best record in the East.
The only reason you haven’t heard many hitting the panic button on a team expected to compete for the No. 1 overall seed in the conference is they continue to lead a disappointing Southeast Division where no one else enters the week with a winning record.
Miami is likely to provide Washington’s stiffest competition this season, but has lost center Hassan Whiteside indefinitely to a bone bruise in his left knee that’s likely to keep him out at least another week. The Heat have surrendered over nine points per game more without him clogging the middle and have been out-rebounded.
As a result, they’ve been able to make up no ground on the Wizards, who have been without John Wall for eight games but are likely to get him back for Tuesday’s visit to Brooklyn or Wednesday’s home date against Memphis. Wall practiced over the weekend for the first time and reportedly felt great, which bodes well for the team’s prospects of gaining some separation and joining the Cavs and Celtics among the East’s elite.
Boston put together a 16-game winning streak while Cleveland managed 13 straight wins, and that kind of run is one the Wizards are quite capable of accomplishing over the rest of the month given how the schedule lays out. Washington now settles in to play 13 of its next 18 at home, with short road trips to Brooklyn and Boston making for a very cozy stretch.
The Cavs, Celtics and Rockets are among the teams the Wizards will face between now and Jan. 15, but for the most part, they’ll be facing opponents with losing records and should be favored on most nights. This appears to be the perfect point for Washington to start living up to its potential.
Wall has been out three weeks after undergoing the popular procedure of placing platelet-rich plasma into his left knee, a pick-me-up of sorts.
He’s been bothered by knee soreness this season and banged knees with a Dallas defender on Nov. 7, leading to his absence. The All-Star point guard has also dealt with shoulder pain and sprained an ankle, but has still averaged 20.3 points and 9.2 assists. His return means Tim Frazier can return to the backup role he’s best suited in, but a major development in Wall’s absence is one the Wizards hope to carry forward. Bradley Beal enters the week on a run where he’s averaging 36.7 points over his last three games, having scored a career-high 51 on Dec. 5.
There’s no guard tandem in the East more lethal than Wall and Beal, who are up there with Golden State’s Steph Curry and Klay Thompson and Portland’s Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum in terms of production. Having them back intact should provide a major boost, especially since they’ll make the game easier for a frontcourt that has largely struggled. Otto Porter has shown flashes of last season’s brilliance that led to him signing a 4-year/$107 million offer sheet from the Nets that Washington quickly matched, but he’s been inconsistent.
Center Marcin Gortat’s averages (9.2 ppg, 8.6 rpg) are his lowest since joining the Wizards in 2013, while power forward Markieff Morris has been incredibly disappointing since returning from offseason hernia surgery. Although he was on a minutes restriction early on upon making his season debut, he’s scored in double-digits in just three of his last eight games.
His season-high rebounding total is just eight and there’s no question he’s been incredibly flat without Wall to get him going. The Wizards were 4-to-9 to win the Southeast at Westgate just before the season began, which looks to be a smart bet given the fact they’ve maintained their advantage despite not being whole or sharp. Miami played its best basketball after January last season and can’t be written off, but there’s no question the Wizards are the superior team when healthy.
Charlotte has been incredibly disappointing despite Dwight Howard performing better than expected, winning only one of its first 11 road games. Orlando started fast, but has an uphill climb to even reach the postseason, so don’t expect them to challenge in the division. Atlanta is rebuilding.
All of this puts little pressure on Washington in terms of a sense of urgency, but you can expect them to start performing better with Wall returning to the mix feeling spry.
Now is a great time to take a shot at them winning the Eastern Conference, since the 15-to-1 available at Westgate will likely never be more lucrative. The same can be said about 50-to-1 to win the NBA title, although I don’t see any way the Warriors are coming up short there if they stay healthy.
Keep an eye on the Wizards as a team to back consistently over the next few weeks. They should start living up to their billing.