The Wizards picked a bad time to lose four of their last five games—only one of which was against an above .500 team. A week ago it seemed like a given that they would win 50 games for the first time since 1979. They now have to go 8-4 the rest of the way to reach that arbitrary (but oh so important) milestone. 8-4 is very doable—they’ve been winning two thirds of their games since December after all—but they have to do so against a difficult schedule.
Eight of their final twelve games are on the road, and that includes a five game road trip against the Cavs, Lakers, Clippers, Jazz, and Warriors. Four losses could come on that trip alone. To win eight more games they absolutely need to take care of business tonight at home against a Hawks team without Paul Millsap and on Friday at home against the Nets. If they can survive their five game road trip from hell with 50 wins still in reach I believe they can make it happen with their final five games all against below .500 Eastern Conference teams.
If the push for their first 50-win season since the year ESPN was launched isn’t enough for you, here is a rundown of what else is at stake down the stretch run.
The 3-seed: On March 11th the Wizards moved ahead of the Boston Celtics and briefly occupied the 2nd seed in the East. I took a screen shot because moments like that cannot be taken for granted. As of right now the Wizards are back in 3rd and are only a half game up on the Toronto Raptors, who sit in 4th. The Raptors, by the way, have a remaining schedule that is easier than mocking a Donald Trump tweet.
The difference between the three and four seeds is important because if the first round goes chalk the three seed will likely play the Celtics in the second round (who the Wizards can beat) while the four seed will likely play the Cleveland Cavaliers (who the Wizards cannot beat). In a rare turn of events March NBA games actually matter.
Developing a rotation: One reason the Wizards have struggled since the All-Star break is because Coach Brooks is incorporating three new pieces into his rotation. Ian Mahinmi, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Brandon Jennings will all be important in the playoffs, but Brooks needs to figure out the best way to use them.
For most of the season Brooks used a tight 8-man rotation of the starters plus Kelly Oubre, Jason Smith, and Trey Burke. Everybody knew exactly what their roles were and how much playing time they could expect. Recently he has been playing ten guys a night and has allowed the minutes of Otto Porter, Marcin Gortat, and Oubre—three key players during Washington’s scorching mid-season run—to fluctuate wildly. Hopefully he will not be going ten deep in the playoffs and will use the final twelve games to determine who deserves minutes. I don’t envy Brooks’ position—Jason Smith, for example, has certainly earned his extra minutes even if they complicate the rotation—but he needs to find a way to play Otto 32+ minutes a night.
Statistical milestones: Finally, a couple individual milestones are at stake that only matter to nerds like me. John Wall has a chance to become the fifth player to average at least 23 points and 11 assists a game for a season (he’s currently averaging 22.9 ppg and 10.8 apg). The four players who’ve done it: Oscar (three times), Magic, Tiny Archibald, and James Harden (this year). He has most likely locked up an All-NBA spot already, but if he can go 23&11 there is no way he gets snubbed.
Bradley Beal is on pace to be the first 23 year old or younger to average 23 points and 3 made threes a game. He is also on pace to be the first player not named Steph Curry to put up 23 points and 3 threes while shooting above 48% from the field (to be fair Beal’s only shooting one tenth of a percent better than Peja Stojakovic did in 03-04 when he put up 24.2 points and 3 threes in one of the great forgotten seasons in recent memory).
Otto Porter needs to finish the season strong to justify the max contract he is going to get in the offseason. It will be awkward when he makes more money than Wall next season, but in my opinion the Wizards absolutely need to keep him—whether by maxing, matching, or negotiating. The ideal outcome for me would be five years at slightly below the max. If he is able to finish the season maintaining his current shooting percentages of 52% from the field and 44% from three paying him $100 million will be a less bitter pill to swallow.
* * *
The Wizards have laid it all on the table this year and it has been thrilling to watch. They’ve invested too much to enter the playoffs slumping and I, for one, am pretty damn pumped to watch these last twelve games.