In playoff series, Sixers showed Wizards they have much work to do

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Sixers showed Wizards they have much work to do originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

As the Wizards-Sixers first-round matchup played out, it became increasingly clear it would be a measuring stick series for the Wizards, more than anything. They were overmatched, as many eight-seeds are, and they were served a reality check of sorts against a true contender and the top team in the Eastern Conference.

In a way, though, that's okay. At least the Wizards know now exactly how wide the gap is between them and the top of the East. There is no guesswork like there would have been if they fell in the play-in tournament. The unknown could have led to the Wizards thinking they are close to the Sixers. We know for certain now they are not.

The Wizards were nearly swept and may have been if Joel Embiid didn't get hurt in the first quarter of Game 4. Without Embiid, one of the NBA's best players, the Sixers closed out the Wizards with a 17-point win in Game 5.

Through that experience, the Wizards learned a valuable lesson about themselves entering an offseason where they would like to take another step forward. Really, it could be seen as simple as a single question: if the Wizards see the Sixers again in the playoffs one year from now, how can they make sure the result is different?

The same applies to the Bucks and the Nets, the two other true title contenders in the East who figure to play a factor next year as well. The Wizards are an ascending team that has shown promise, but clearly they need a lot more than they currently have to not only compete with the top teams, but possibly beat them.

There is some added urgency to the equation with the age and contracts of their two best players; Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal. Westbrook is 32, Beal turns 28 in June and both have player options in their contracts for the 2022-23 season. That means next year is a precious one in terms of the Wizards' competitive window. Westbrook won't be in his prime forever and Beal won't be under contract forever. Due to those factors, this may not be a situation to take the longview.

The Wizards need to determine just how much they need to go from where they are to contention. It could happen in a number of ways, though not that many. Maybe they can project Rui Hachimura to take another big leap next year. He was great in Game 4. Perhaps he, along with other young players like Daniel Gafford and Deni Avdija, can lift the franchise from within.

Maybe it's just depth the Wizards need. When you size them up against a team like the Sixers, which has a third star like Tobias Harris plus secondary scorers like Danny Green and Seth Curry, a defensive specialist like Matisse Thybulle and a future Hall of Famer in Dwight Howard on their bench, the Wizards can hardly compare. And that's after a season where depth was a relative strength when they were at their peak.

The Wizards need to add more capable and consistent players to their rotation. Adding help at shooting guard behind Beal, which has been a yearslong quest, could make some sense. Certainly, their lack of depth at small forward has loomed large, even before Avdija was lost for the year due to an ankle injury. They have lacked size, athleticism and defense in that area which players like Harris and Jayson Tatum of the Celtics have exposed.

The Wizards need to get better defensively on the perimeter. A defensive wing who is quicker than Avdija and Hachimura could help make the improvements they made this season more sustainable. They moved up from last in defensive rating last season to 19th this year. They had the fifth-best defensive rating through 30 games after the March 25 trade deadline, i.e. when they acquired Gafford.

The Wizards also absolutely need to add shooting. They just can't keep up with a team like the Sixers when they make 17 threes as they did in Game 3. That would have been even more apparent if they faced the Bucks or Nets in a seven-game series. The Sixers shoot a high percentage, but are otherwise below average in 3-point shooting, while Milwaukee and Brooklyn are both elite.

The Wizards finished this season 28th in 3-pointers made (10.2/g), 29th in attempts (29.0/g) and 22nd in percentage (35.1%). Getting Thomas Bryant back from injury will help and so would Davis Bertans playing to his career norms, but those factors alone won't fix the problem.

To close the gap with teams like Philly, the Wizards will probably have to do their damage in the trade market. They will pick 15th overall in the NBA Draft this July, which could land them a very good player but probably not an instant difference-maker. They will also have limited money in free agency, highlighted by their mid-level exception.

A trade is really the best way for the Wizards to add something substantial, whether it be to bring more veteran depth to the rotation or perhaps even a third star. They have Beal and Westbrook in their prime and under contract, but who knows for how long. It could be time to capitalize and maybe in a big way.

In most years stars become available on the trade market, some even emerge late and unexpectedly. The Wizards could position themselves to land the next big name with one foot out the door. They have the prospect of playing with Beal and Westbrook to include in their pitch, if one is needed. The fact Westbrook was willing to come here last offseason could be a good sign someone else of his stature would be willing to follow.

The bottom line is this will be a big offseason for the Wizards, one way or another, but especially if they want to go from where they are to contention in the East. The Sixers made it very clear, general manager Tommy Sheppard and his staff have some work to do.