On the surface, it appears that the Washington Wizards have been playing some incredible basketball. And being locked into the 4th seed in the Eastern Conference with a 48-31 record, they certainly have exceeded expectations at this point, especially given their 2-8 start to the season. However, they have some serious issues to manage if they hope to make a legitimate run at the Eastern Conference Finals, much less the NBA Finals.
For most of this season, the biggest concern regarding the Wizards has been their bench. It’s been a fairly common assessment that while the Wizards’ starting lineup is one of the best in the NBA, the bench play leaves a lot to be desired. However, the Wizards have picked up pieces to bolster their their bench in Brandon Jennings and Bojan Bogdanovich in particular – with the latter proving to be a very valuable addition in terms of bench production – and current bench pieces like Kelly Oubre, Jr., Ian Mahinmi, and Jason Smith have been playing much better lately.
— Wizards Fans (@WizardsViews) January 27, 2017
However, following the All-Star break, the Wizards have struggled to prove that they are still an elite team. Their biggest issues have shown up on the defensive end. The Wizards have frequently found themselves playing from behind, typically facing a double-digit deficit, and having to fight their way back.
During a five-game road stretch from March 7th through March 13th, the Wizards found themselves facing deficits in every game. For instance, the Wizards found themselves down by as many as 15 points in a March 10th game against the Sacramento Kings which took an overtime period to finally secure a win for Washington. The very next night on March 11th, the Wizards dug themselves a 21-point hole against the Portland Trail Blazers, which also ended up in a second consecutive overtime game that saw the Wizards escape with a controversial one-point victory.
Often, the Wizards just look lazy and lost on the defensive end. They frequently blow rotations, they continue to have difficulty guarding against the pick-and-roll, and still struggle to guard against perimeter shots. These are difficulties that the team must overcome if they hope to be a truly formidable team in the NBA.
Even more importantly, the team’s biggest hurdle appears to be mental toughness. Players like Bradley Beal and John Wall have admitted that when they do have leads, they tend to get far too comfortable and relax on both ends of the floor instead of closing out and putting away teams early. This was especially evident in Thursday night’s game against the New York Knicks.
Playing the Knicks? Perfect time to try out some new moves. pic.twitter.com/9q4Ip5ERwA
— Petty Wob 17:38 (@World_Wide_Wob) April 7, 2017
That game saw the Wizards up by as many as 15 points. But a series of sloppy possessions and just generally not taking the game seriously in the third quarter allowed the Knicks to get back into the game, resulting in a 106-103 victory for Washington that was much closer than it should have been.
This lack of mental toughness is a problem for this young Wizards team. They can somewhat get away with it against teams like the Kings and the Knicks, but against playoff-bound teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics, and Toronto Raptors, this will cause huge problems for them.
The Washington Wizards have set some lofty goals for themselves, including getting to 50 wins, making the Eastern Conference Finals, and hopefully making the franchise’s first NBA Finals since 1979. However, if they do not sort out these issues quickly, then the Wizards will have a very difficult time making it through the playoffs and actually contending for a title against the NBA’s elite. As it stands right now, this team still has a lot of work to do.