The Washington Wizards got out to as good of a start as any team in the NBA, shocking the masses to take first place in the Eastern Conference through the first month of the season.
Following Thursday’s loss to the Miami Heat, the Wizards have surrendered their spot atop of the East, failing to pick up a win in one of their toughest tests early on.
They still own a strong 10-5 record and have some quality wins on their resume – they beat both of last year’s Conference Finalists in the Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks, the Boston Celtics twice, the Toronto Raptors on the road and a blowout win over the Memphis Grizzlies. But along with the loss to the Heat, they also failed tests against the Brooklyn Nets and Charlotte Hornets.
With almost an entirely new roster following the trade that sent Russell Westbrook to the Los Angeles Lakers, the Wizards pieces have clicked quickly.
Is this team good enough to make the playoffs, though? Three members of our Sporting News staff discuss.
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Will the Wizards be a playoff team?
Kyle Irving (@KyleIrv_): I’m a believer. The Wizards will be a playoff team.
Going into the season, I thought this was just a roster of misfit toys. Returning Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in the trade for Westbrook and signing Spencer Dinwiddie, they brought in four solid players, but I wasn’t convinced it was a group who could make any noise in the improving East.
Turns out, I was very wrong. Yes, they’ve failed a few tough tests, but they’ve also beaten some good teams.
Harrell looks like the player who won Sixth Man of the Year back in 2018-19, averaging over 17 points and eight rebounds per game with five double-doubles in 15 games. Kuzma is thriving in a new situation with a bigger role, nearly averaging a double-double, and Dinwiddie has complimented Bradley Beal perfectly in the backcourt.
They also have dealt with a handful of injuries and absences, and their starting forward and former lottery pick Rui Hachimura hasn’t even taken the floor yet for personal reasons.
The craziest part is after being one of the worst defensive teams in the NBA last season, new head coach Wes Unseld Jr. has this team ranked in the top-five in the league in defensive rating so far.
There’s still a lot of basketball to be played this year, but I don’t see why Washington can’t maintain this hot start and stay in the playoff picture.
Yash Matange (@yashmatange2694): Despite the loss in Miami, which is now three straight for the Wizards, I believe they are a playoff team.
They might not go too far in the postseason but I believe they could make it to the playoffs by avoiding the Play-In Tournament. I see them finishing behind the Heat, Nets, Bulls, Bucks and maybe the Celtics or Hawks (whichever makes the better recovery after their rough start) in the East standings.
Their depth, acquired as a result of the Westbrook trade this past offseason, is a huge reason why they have done so well. Players from that trade like Harrell (bringing it every night off the bench), Kuzma (high-volume rebounding, small-ball big), Dinwiddie (good complementary guard to Beal), Caldwell-Pope (3-and-D wing) and Aaron Holiday (bench guard) have all played key roles in the team’s games so far, especially the wins.
Why I believe the Wizards can carry this form all through the regular season is the play of Beal. While the 2021 All-NBA player is scoring 23.4 (through 11 games) on shooting splits of 41.1 percent from the field and 28.0 from beyond the arc, it’s nowhere close to his level from last year when he averaged a near league-high 31.3 points on 48.5 percent shooting from the field and 34.9 percent from beyond the arc.
His slump (if you want to call it that) is on track with a few other superstars finding their way with the new ball and officiating rules. So, I see him bouncing back.
Also, I have to give a huge shoutout to Unseld Jr., a coach with 16 years of experience as an assistant, for making this team with tremendous depth click. Of course, GM Tommy Shepherd as well. Having said that, with the East being top-heavy, I don’t see them going too far in the postseason. If everything falls their way in a best-case scenario, it could be a Conference Semifinals appearance. Otherwise, I see them bowing out in the first round.
Nick Metallinos (@NickMetallinos): It’s still early in the season, and I will wait until I’ve seen more to make a final call, but the Wizards’ loss to the Heat is another example of coming up short against championship level opponents in 2021-22. I think they’re a playoff team, but they won’t make any noise when they get there.
As mentioned in the intro, two of the team’s five losses have been against the Nets and Heat, two certified powerhouses in the East.
However, they will continue to be steady throughout the regular season because they are getting contributions evenly from their roster. From Beal to Kuzma to Dinwiddie, they’re getting solid offensive numbers, but once the postseason begins they’re going to need more firepower than that.
Their defense is currently fourth-best in the league in terms of defensive rating, but they will definitely need more offense when teams inevitably focus on slowing down Beal on the road to the playoffs.