5 questions for the Wizards as they enter the second half of the season

5 questions for the Wizards as they enter the second half originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

The first half of the 2020-21 season for the Washington Wizards was one they will never forget and mostly for unfortunate reasons.

They lost Thomas Bryant for the year due to a partially torn ACL and also had a COVID-19 outbreak that forced six games to be postponed and effectively derailed their season for close to a month.

The Wizards were able to emerge from all of that to enter the All-Star break on a positive note. Winners of eight of their last 11 games, Washington is one of the hottest teams in the NBA and now just one game out of the play-in tournament and two games out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the East.

The Wizards now have 38 games remaining as they hope to close the gap on the postseason and potentially go on a run from there. Here are five questions as they get set to begin the second half: 

Is their defense sustainable?

The biggest reason for the Wizards’ dramatic midseason turnaround has been their defense. Since Jan. 30 when they were 3-12, the Wizards have gone 11-8. In their last 11 games, in which they have gone 8-3, the Wizards have the eighth-best defensive rating in the NBA. They are also allowing the fifth-lowest field goal percentage.

As good as their defense has been, the stretch is still relatively short in the grand scheme of things. Despite ranking as a top-10 defense for weeks now, the Wizards are still 27th in the NBA in defensive rating for the season. They still also give up the second-most points in the league (119.1), which is exactly what they allowed last year. 

So, basically they aren’t completely in the clear yet. The more the sample size grows, the more they will prove their recent stretch of good defense wasn’t a fluke.

Will they make the playoffs?

By winning eight of 11 games, the Wizards have put themselves in a good position to possibly make the playoffs this spring. But in order to seal the deal, they will likely need another extended run of wins like they just had. If they can reel off four of six or six of eight at some point, then playing .500 basketball the rest of the way should suffice.

The Wizards are currently 14-20 — so six games under .500. The teams currently holding the seven and eight seeds in the East, the Hornets (17-18) and Raptors (17-19), are one and two games under .500, respectively.

If the Wizards can get to .500 by the end of the year, they should be in good shape to at least qualify. Anything above .500 may be good enough to avoid the play-in tournament altogether. That would require having the six seed or better, and right now the No. 6 team is the Miami Heat, who are .500 at 18-18.

Can Beal keep the scoring lead?

Perhaps the biggest highlight of the first half of the season for the Wizards was Bradley Beal leading the entire NBA in scoring. Last year he led the Eastern Conference and was second only to James Harden, when he averaged 30.5 points per game. So far this season he’s averaging 32.9 points, which is 2.7 more per game than the next guy on the list, Joel Embiid.

Beal has shown no signs of slowing down, scoring at least 33 points in four of his last five games. If he keeps it up, and no one surges past him, Beal will become the first player in Wizards/Bullets franchise history to win a scoring title. He would be the first player other than Harden to win it since Russell Westbrook in 2016-17.

It would also elevate Beal’s status in the context of league history by a good margin. Consider the fact that every single player except for one (Max Zaslofsky, 1947-48) who has won a scoring title is either in the Hall of Fame or a lock to be in when they are eligible, like Harden, Westbrook, LeBron James and Stephen Curry.

Will their offense pick up?

While Beal has been scoring plenty of points, the Wizards’ offense overall has unexpectedly lagged behind the rest of the league. They rank eighth in points per game, but just 21st in offensive rating and they rank bottom-third in the NBA in all three-point shooting categories. Three-point shooting is where they have missed Bryant the most, as he is one of the most accurate long range shooters at the center position.

Even with him out of the picture, the Wizards may be able to improve their scoring attack over time. They have shown some signs lately, like by ranking 12th in offensive rating in their last nine games, and they could get better just by having players even out to their career percentages. Davis Bertans, in particular, is shooting 38.4% from three after knocking down 42.6% in the two years before that. Even Beal could get better, as he’s shooting 33.5% from three, well below his 37.7% career average. Even if he shoots the 36.0% he’s made in the previous three seasons, that would make a difference.

What will they add at the trade deadline?

The answer to this question has evolved over the course of this season. Not long ago, the Wizards appeared to need defense more than anything. But since they have improved on that end of the floor, it has become a more difficult question to answer. They are pretty good in a lot of areas. Sure, they could upgrade plenty of things, but none stand out as an obvious and unfixable weakness at this point.

Shooting could actually fit the bill. If the front office doesn’t see much potential for improvement from within, either from guys already in the rotation or someone further down their bench (maybe Anthony Gill?), then it would be smart to seek outside help. Ranking as badly as they do shooting threes could limit their ceiling come playoff time, if they make it. 

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