On January 27, the Washington Wizards sat firmly in the top four of the Eastern Conference with a 31-15 record, their best start by far in 35 seasons. They appeared to be headed for a 50 win season without a shadow of doubt.
If you had told me at the beginning of the season that we would have won 31 of our first 46 games, I would have not only been ecstatic but I would also be expecting the team to win its first division title since 1979. But even back then in January, it was pretty apparent that the Southeast Division was likely lost, with the Atlanta Hawks having won 16 in a row (later 19 in a row) to post a 37-8 mark through their first 45 games.
Despite the hot start through the end of January, there were some troubling signs. This is a team that had Eastern Conference Finals, if not NBA Finals, aspirations but in four meetings to that point with the Atlanta Hawks and the Toronto Raptors, the Wizards had produced zero wins. Still, there was a long way to go and to that point the team had taken two of three from the Chicago Bulls and split their two games with the Cleveland Cavaliers, with each team winning at home, so that seemed promising.
There were other less significant issues with the team's performance through the end of the third full month of the NBA season. Despite losing no more than three consecutive games, and having only done that once, the team demonstrated an alarming lack of focus in some games, almost seeming over confident or disinterested, most notably in a road loss up in Toronto that was effectively over in about the first five minutes and in a home loss to Phoenix just before Christmas in which the Suns just manhandled the frontcourt of the Wizards and our guys seemed to put up little fight.
There were also the excessive number of mid-range jumpers that the team was living off seemingly defying the old live by the jump shot, die by the jump shot adage. And it was still painfully obvious sometimes that when the starters sat, there was nobody who could unquestionably crack a starting rotation for the poorest team in the league coming in to replace any one of them. Despite the fact that the bench had undergone a significant upgrade in the offseason, there were still some nights with a discouraging lack of production. Still, the team sat in a great spot to open a first round playoff series at Verizon Center.
Now it's about six weeks later, and there are about five weeks until the end of the regular season, and the Wizards are in trouble. They have lost 13 of their last 17 games, including a pair to the lowly Minnesota Timberwolves and Philadelphia 76ers, and have slipped perilously close to sixth place. Before tonight's game, the Wizards sit one game ahead of the Milwaukee Bucks in the loss column, although they do have the season series win to break a tie if they end up with the same record as the Bucks at the end of 82 games.
In the last month and a half, the team has endured a five game losing streak and a six game losing streak. They have seen minor injuries to some key players in the rotation and they have seen their scoring decrease notably as their jumpers have not fallen and they have struggled to adjust. They have traded Andre Miller away to the Sacramento Kings in exchange for Ramon Sessions, who is now our backup point guard and doesn't appear up to the task in any way. It may have helped us on the defensive end but certainly not when we are trying to score the basketball.
The offense got so bad recently that the team almost blew a 35 point lead at home to the visiting Miami Heat with a team on the floor consisting primarily of Shabazz Napier (rookie), Michael Beasley (10 day contract), Tyler Johnson (10 day contract), Henry Walker (played six games this year before Friday night's game) and James Ennis (rookie). The Wizards' fourth quarter offense from my seat in Section 109 of Verizon Center appeared to consist of John Wall dribbling to kill time, crossing over his opponent and then re-crossing over his opponent (so the defender was right back in front of John) and missing a contested fall away 20 footer with five seconds to go on the shot clock. That may be unfair; emotions may have been getting in my way there.
So the question is, could the Wizards actually miss the playoffs? Right now the only team with a winning record in the East behind the Wizards are the Milwaukee Bucks. Behind them, there are a whole host of teams struggling to get into the seven and eight spots, including the Charlotte Hornets, Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat, Brooklyn Nets and Boston Celtics. Six weeks ago those team were clearly going to finish behind the Wizards. Now, the only thing the Wizards have clinched is 13th place.
The answer to the question in the previous paragraph is YES! Including tonight's game in Charlotte, the Wizards have 10 road games and nine home games remaining. Six of those 19 games are against Western Conference playoff teams. Of the other 13, four are against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Atlanta Hawks and the surging Charlotte Hornets. Combine all that with the fact the Wizards haven't won a road game since January and the team better start playing as if they are in the group of teams behind the Milwaukee Bucks.
Finally, consider this. If you project each Eastern Conference team's regular season record by taking their current win total and multiplying their remaining games by their won-loss percentage over their last ten games, the Wizards finish ninth, with a 39 game win total and that's rounding up (see above). The Wizards would finish a game behind eighth place Miami and two games behind sixth place Milwaukee and seventh place Charlotte. The Indiana Pacers under this scenario would actually finish fourth.
Before you automatically dismiss this as an unlikely scenario, try to identify the four games the Wizards might win between now and game 82. Right now the four easiest games on paper are home vs. the New York Knicks, home and road games vs. the Philadelphia 76ers and Saturday's home date with the Sacramento Kings. After that, I have to count on the Wizards beating the Kings, the Utah Jazz or Brooklyn Nets on the road. Remember the Wizards haven't won a road game since they were 31-15 all the way at the beginning of this post.
Get it together, Wizards, or you might find yourselves cleaning out your lockers on April 15th instead of preparing for a first round opponent. It's probably time to start thinking about panicking.