One year removed from an exciting, unexpected playoff run, the Washington Wizards are back in the same position – fifth seed in the Eastern Conference with a first-round match-up against the Chicago Bulls.
That doesn’t sound like progress. You might argue that it isn’t progress at all.
It certainly doesn’t feel like a significant stride.
The Wizards have won 46 games – two more than last year – with a shot at another pair as they close the regular season at Indianapolis on Tuesday and Cleveland on Wednesday. If they succeed in reaching 48 wins, they’ll tie the 1975-76 and 1976-77 teams for sixth-most victories in franchise history.
The 46 wins represent the most victories in a season since 1978-79. One more will give Washington its winningest regular season since 1973-74.
But the success is oddly unfulfilling because more was expected. And the Wizards’ postseason prospects aren’t particularly promising.
A year ago, they advanced by roughing up the Bulls in five games, winning three times in Chicago. Then they stole the opener at top-seeded Indy in the conference semifinals, but blew the series with three losses at Verizon Center.
That experience plus the addition of wizened veteran Paul Pierce was supposed to result in noticeable improvement this season. It worked for a while. The Wizards were 28-13 at the halfway mark, boasting the East’s second-best record.
Skeptics warned that the team had gotten fat on a preponderance of home games against soft opponents. Sure enough, a swoon soon followed.
Losses at Portland, at Phoenix, at Atlanta and at Toronto were understandable as Washington dropped 13 of its next 18 games. But losing at Philadelphia when the Sixers aren’t even trying was inexcusable. Getting beat by 20 points at Minnesota was embarrassing. Dropping a home game and a road game against Charlotte was disturbing, even though it was part of the brutal three-games-in-four-days grinder.
Fifteen games over .500 at the midpoint, the Wizards are three games under in the second half, with no chance of breaking even. So whether they finish with 46, 47 or 48 wins, there’s a sense that they underachieved.
“We’re taking some right steps in right directions,” guard John Wall told reporters Sunday after Washington beat the Atlanta Hawks’ reserves. “We have an opportunity to get two more wins. Let coach decide, figure out who he wants to play in certain situations in the playoffs and get ready for those games.
“It’s a season where we had a lot of ups-and-downs and let a lot of games slip away. Feel like this was easily a 50-win season. Just let too many games slip away, but we’re happy where we are and the direction we’re going.”
Compared to recent campaigns prior to last year, everyone should be ecstatic. Washington has won nearly as many games in these two playoff seasons (90-and-counting) as in the previous four seasons combined (98).
But the Wizards were playing with house money last year when they beat Chicago in the first round and extended top-seeded Indiana to six games in the semifinals. They were expected to go as far if not further this season, which appears to be a daunting task at this point.
If nothing else, the Wizards can point to the improved regular-season record. Unfortunately, that will feel like nothing if they’re bounced in the first round. Guard Bradley Beal said the victories are something to build on.
“It’s always important to have success during the regular season,” he said. “It’s the only way you’re going to get into the postseason. For us to be able to have this many wins in a long time, it speaks a lot to where this team has came from, where it’s been and where it’s going.
“We’re definitely proud of that. We wish … we should’ve had 50-plus wins this year, but we take what we got and we just have to continue to move forward.”
For the optimists among you, here’s another way to consider the circumstances: Regular-season wins are overrated.
The franchise went to the NBA Finals four times in nine seasons in the ‘70s. The lone victory came in 1978, capping a 44-38 regular season. Baltimore’s Bullets reached the 1971 Finals on the strength of a 42-40 campaign.
Furthermore, three of the franchise’s five teams that won 50-plus games failed to survive the conference semis
In that regard, the final two games and the jockeying for position are inconsequential. The Wizards have a slim change to surpass Chicago for the fourth seed, which would give them home court in the first round. But that advantage wasn’t necessary last season and probably won’t matter this time.
Either way, the Hawks likely would await in the conference semifinals, which is better than having to face Cleveland in that round.
If the Wizards get all the way to the conference finals, this season will be a success.
Otherwise, it will feel like a wash at best.