It’s been six full years since the Washington Wizards were above .500 this late into a season. It’s been over 39 months since they were over .500 at all, and it’s been decades since the team was considered a championship contender.
Nobody should consider the Wizards a contender this season, but as of the team’s most recent win, Washington is over .500 and well on their way to the team’s first playoff berth since 2008. Warmingly, the Wiz managed to cross the winning threshold at home against a very good Portland Trail Blazers club on Monday night, holding the league’s best offense in terms of offensive efficiency and points per game (108) to 90 points in a ten-point victory, with the crowd going nuts along the way.
How nuts? Wizards fans were chanting “M-V-P” near the end of the game as John Wall shot free throws. That chant was directed at John Wall. John Wall is great, an All-Star and one of the league’s great guards, but … John Wall. “M-V-P.”
Washington’s defense has fallen off this season in comparison to last year’s fifth-ranked turn; especially in comparison to the stretch run of 2012-13, when a Wizards team that was far out of the playoff hunt turned in a defense that rivaled that of Memphis and Indiana in the season’s closing months. What was once a gradual improvement after a disappointing 2-7 start, though, has turned into an all out blitz of late. From the Washington Post’s Michael Lee:
The Trail Blazers (34-14) came to Washington as the NBA’s highest-scoring team , but the Wizards have made a habit in recent weeks of shutting down some of the league's most explosive offenses. They held Phoenix to 95 points, Golden State to 85 and Oklahoma City to a season-low 81 . Those teams all average more than 100 points per game.
“We’re playing for each other, rotating for each other and just wanting to win, the flat-out will to want to win,” Trevor Ariza said after scoring 20 points. “You’ve got to play defense. You got to help each other out. You got to fly around and get stops, and that’s what we’ve been doing.”
While we can’t lock the Wizards into the playoffs yet, only a monstrosity of a collapse or a major injury would knock them out at this point. The squad is currently fifth in the East, and five games ahead of the ninth-place Detroit Pistons and Lottery Land. That’s a good thing, because this team dealt its first round selection this year and just about went all in on becoming exactly what they are – a mediocre team that will claw into the playoffs in a terrible conference.
A conference that still has pride, at least on Twitter. Witness this interaction from Monday night:
— Washington Wizards (@WashWizards) February 4, 2014
“A mediocre team that will claw into the playoffs in a terrible conference” is a bit of a putdown, but Wizards fans know where they’re at. This is a team that is just $1.5 million away from paying the luxury tax, yet still working at 24-23, and without a pick in this June’s loaded NBA draft. The goal, all along, was to eschew the slow rebuild and win right freaking now.
The team's selection from 2013, forward Otto Porter, has looked out of sorts for most of his short season, and is currently shooting less than 30 percent. The team’s lottery pick from 2011, Jan Vesely, played for the first time in two weeks on Monday and missed both his shots. Other lottery picks like Wall and Bradley Beal (currently shooting over 41 percent from long range) have done well to raise the team’s 21st-ranked offense from the doldrums, but this is a franchise that hasn’t exactly taken advantage of those six years in the wilderness.
Still, longtime general manager Ernie Grunfeld has to be pleased to be playing in this terrible conference, because his win now philosophy should end up paying off, if you submit that a potential first round series against the Toronto Raptors and possible second round thrashing by the Indiana Pacers would be “paying off.”
Grunfeld can now sell Wizards owner Ted Leonsis on the idea that he can rebuild his Wizards on the fly this summer, when the team could have nearly $20 million in cap room should it decide to decline the options on big men Kevin Seraphin (possibly) and Trevor Booker (less likely). Re-signing the very good Marcin Gortat, the player they sent a draft pick to Phoenix for, will cloud that cap space, but there is the fair chance that Grunfeld could snag some more age-appropriate players to stick alongside Wall and Beal. This particular roster has hit its ceiling, but there is honest-to-goodness potential here if Grunfeld scouts and signs properly.
(Wizards fans at first disliked, then liked, and then immediately disliked that last sentence after reading the last six words.)
The point, in the interim, is to enjoy this. Coach Randy Wittman has helped shape this group into a mindful, active team that in spite of some goofy missteps and rough patches offensively, remains a tough out for any opponent. That’s par for the course for all teams around the .500 mark, but working above the .500 mark is not par for the course for the Washington Wizards. They’ve finished there just four times since changing the team’s name to the “Wizards” in 1997, and just six times overall in 30 years.
“Win now?” Yes, please. Wizards fans will take it. And the rest of us will enjoy watching it.
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