The Washington Wizards have won three games in a row, but they have a long way to go to live up to the opportunity afforded them in a LeBron James-less Eastern Conference.
WASHINGTON — After the final seconds bled out of Wednesday night’s 119-95 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers, Washington Wizards radio broadcaster Glenn Consor stood with a smiling Dwight Howard for a postgame interview on the floor. He announced to the sparse crowd gathering their belongings and filing out of Capital One Arena that Washington now owned the longest-winning streak in the Eastern Conference.
If you’re just catching up on the Wizards’ season, it’s best not to look too closely at that last statement. Fourteen games into any season outside the NFL, statistics tell incomplete stories and can be misleading. With that caveat in mind, here are some other things that are true about the Washington Wizards.
While scoring is up across the board in the NBA, the Wizards were giving up a league-worst 118.5 points per game coming into Wednesday’s game. Basketball Reference’s Simple Rating System put the Wizards 12th in the Eastern Conference (-6.69) and 26th in the 30-team NBA, above only Chicago, Cleveland, Atlanta and Phoenix. They were averaging just 40.2 rebounds per game coming into Wednesday (when they secured 43), second-worst in the NBA.
Two seasons after LeBron’s insane game-tying shot sent a wildly competitive game between the Cavs and Wizards at Capital One Arena to overtime … what happened?
The question is easy and obvious to answer on Cleveland’s end. Besides no longer employing the best basketball player in the world, the team came into the evening on the back end of a back-to-back, missing four rotation players, including Kevin Love and George Hill. On Wednesday night, they were less an NBA team than a group of guys cobbled together to don jerseys and play one in a film. A good film, or a high-budget one, at least; one willing to pay for the uniform licensing.
The Wizards, though. This is now, with Dwight Howard back, the team it was supposed to be when the season began. There are no injuries. They are at full strength. And yet.
It’s also worth noting that the three consecutive wins that have lifted Washington from an unsightly 2-9 record to a somewhat-less-garish 5-9 have all come over teams with losing records. In fact, the combined winning percentage of the teams Washington has beaten is just .403 (29-43), while the combined winning percentage of the teams that have beaten the Wizards is .598 (76-51).
Due to the disparity in talent between the conferences and the unbalanced schedule, the 11 easiest remaining slates all belong to Eastern Conference teams. Nevertheless, the Wizards had the fourth-easiest remaining schedule in the league heading into Wednesday.
They did what they were supposed to do Wednesday — what they had to do — in not just winning, but winning easily, for the first time all season. They sprung out to a 14-4 lead, never let the Cavs cut their deficit lower than 13, and cruised to a 24-point win. It was the kind of night when everyone could laugh and joke afterward, where Jeff Green could boo a dumb Dwight Howard locker room story and Ian Mahinmi could hold court and get to answer questions about what it felt like to hit his first career three pointer.
We won’t really know who this fully healthy version of the Wizards is until the other side of the stretch of games they’re about to embark upon. After a home game against Brooklyn Friday, Washington gets a chance to prove the win over Portland (10-3) win wasn’t a fluke. Then they host the Clippers (8-5) before heading to Toronto (12-3), come home to play New Orleans (7-7) and Houston (6-7) before hitting the road again to New Orleans and Philly (9-7). If they can’t be competitive over that seven-game stretch — any losing record, even with a win Friday, would leave them at least four games below .500 past the quarter mark of the season — they will have to reckon with whether or not this team needs a major overhaul.
The lineup that has played the most combined minutes on the floor — the starting five — has produced a net rating of -3.0, including a defensive rating of 114.6. Howard may still be working up to peak athletic fitness, but when you consider Washington’s starting five has been its singular strength in years past, that’s a disconcerting stat.
Both Brooks and team members stressed the importance of defense after Wednesday’s win. The defense produced a season-high 17 steals, more than twice the season average (7.2) and miles better than even the best team in the league’s average (Phoenix, 10.5). But that number belies the lackluster general effort both in the first quarter Wednesday and generally this season. Steals are great, obviously, but the Cavs were allowed open jumper after open jumper, leading to 29 first quarter points.
This is part of a larger trend. Four of Washington’s opponents have posted an effective field goal percentage of 56.7 or better, or equal to what the league-best Golden State Warriors are doing to opponents this season. In their game against the Wizards, the Warriors posted an eFG percent of 64.0. The Cavs still shot 45.5 percent from the floor Wednesday, better than their season average (44.9), and right about at the NBA average (45.7).
It wasn’t until the second unit of Austin Rivers, Tomas Satoransky, Kelly Oubre Jr., Jeff Green and Ian Mahinmi came in and, after allowing a contested three, turned Cleveland over on four straight possessions that the defense really asserted itself. There were two steals in that stretch, but also a charge taken and a 24-second violation, created by smothering defense that forced a crowded shot blocked out of bounds as the shot clock expired. That the Wizards’ second unit delivered a sequence like that is encouraging — that it took the bench to create that effort is not.
Meanwhile, even in a blowout win, Howard still managed to pick up a technical foul, with the team up 24, following a made Wizards basket. In a game that his team would go on to win by that same margin — 24 points — the starting center managed, somehow, to post a plus-minus of -2, the only Wizard to finish in negative numbers.
Better defense leads to better offense, but Washington’s 17 steals only led to 17 fast break points, a category where they actually yielded a point to the Cavs. Conversely, their 11 offensive rebounds led to them outscoring Cleveland 22-6 in second chance points.
The Wizards’ defensive (and season) turnaround, if it’s going to happen, will require greater defensive presence inside, creating tougher shots, and improved rebounding. That starts with Howard. There won’t be many more nights like Wednesday where they can get away without it.
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