The Washington Wizards have presented us with so many delightful and tantalizing developments this season, deciding where to dive in is difficult. Like a scrumptious plate of paella, something delicious awaits no matter where you stick your fork.
You could start with the meat, John Wall, who’d be a bona fide MVP candidate if not for the stupendous performances from James Harden and Russell Westbrook. You might choose the seafood, Bradley Beal, whose good health has kept him on the court and justified his max contract in the new NBA economy.
You could begin with the rice, Scott Brooks, who in his first year as coach provided a foundation to withstand a 2-8 start. You can opt for the sausage, Otto Porter, who worked and worked on his broke jumper to become one of the league’s top 3-point shooters.
You might commence with the mussels, Marcin Gortat and Markieff Morris, who provide the physical presence to bother opponents on both ends of the court. Or you could start with a vegetable, the re-shaped and re-energized bench, that’s gone from glaring weakness to solid component faster than you can swallow.
The Wizards have become a veritable smorgasbord and the feast has just begun.
We’re unaccustomed to feeling this good about the Wizards, who have made fans sick to their stomachs for most of the last 38 years. Until Tuesday, that’s how long it had been since Washington won a division title. The team broke the drought and celebrated by dousing Brooks with water after beating the Los Angeles Lakers.
The feat is more symbolic than significant, considering how it has no bearing on playoff seeding. Neither does 50 wins, the next milestone on Washington’s agenda. Entering Wednesday’s contest against the L.A. Clippers, the Wizards needed to at least split their final eight games to reach the mark.
“(The division title) is a great accomplishment,” Wall told reporters Tuesday. “It’s something that hasn’t been done in a long time so it’s something to cherish. It’s great for coach to get it in his first year. But we have bigger goals and our minds set on bigger things.”
This season makes the third in four years that the Wizards have reached the playoffs. But the current vibe is drastically different than the feeling in 2013-14 and 2014-15 when Washington was middle-of-the-pack and pulled off shocking first-round upsets against the Bulls and Raptors, respectively.
These Wizards are viewed as legitimate contenders in the Eastern Conference, with starters and reserves to challenge the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers, the current top-seed Boston Celtics and the nemeses in Toronto and Atlanta. Washington won’t sneak up on anyone this year, not with the Eastern Conference’s best record since Dec. 1 and the NBA’s third-best record since Jan. 1.
And not with Wall making a case as the East’s best point guard, peaking as the playoffs approach.
Half of Wall’s top six scoring games this season occurred in March. He set his career-high in assists (20) this month and also registered two of his best four shooting percentages. Against the Lakers Tuesday he had 34 points and 14 assists, the fifth time this campaign he has eclipsed 30 and 10.
Only two other players average at least 20 points and 10 assists per game (Harden and Westbrook). No one besides those three averages at least 10 assists per game. Walls is posting career highs in scoring (23.2 points) and field-goal percentage (.450.) On two-point attempts, he’s connecting at a .483 clip, due in no small measure to his finishing ability after breakneck drives to the basket.
“I’m having a career year with numbers, scoring-wise, but the way I’m playing has been like this the last couple of years,” he told reporters. “We’re just winning and in the race for a Top 3-seed in the East. That makes a big difference. You get more recognition when your team is winning.”
Who’s a better point guard in the East? Don’t form your lips to say Isiah Thomas, Kyrie Irving or Kyle Lowry, especially if you count both ends of the floor. None of them can defend like Wall, who has more steals than them as well as more rebounds and assists. You can see his eyes light up whenever one of them tries to guard him.
There’s no stopping Wall right now and the Wizards are hard to slow. They haven’t experienced a three-game skid since dropping to 2-8 on Nov. 16. From that point forward, Washington has enjoyed eight winning streaks of three-or-more games, including five-in-a-row and seven-in-a-row.
Brooks saw similar tears with Oklahoma City when Westbrook and Kevin Durant led the Thunder deep into the playoffs. He knows it can happen here. He also knows there’s no guarantee that this carries over to next season.
“It can change with a trade,” he told NBA.com. “It can change with injuries. You have to focus on what you do this year, because every season has its own story. We have a chance to do something special.”