Are the Washington Wizards set to remain the kings of the soft underbelly?

Are the Washington Wizards set to remain the kings of the soft underbelly?
Beal and Avdija, the present and the future?
Beal and Avdija, the present and the future?
A major force in the Eastern Conference in the mid-2010s, the Wizards are out of date. Too limited to play for the title, too strong for tanking, the franchise seems to be sailing blind. Their season looks like it'll end soon.

15th May 2017. The Washington Wizards lost in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals to the Celtics. A frustration of course, but the end of a great season with a 49/33 record and a great playoff campaign. There were leaders, quality role players, and the future seemed bright for the franchise of the capital. No one imagined then that that would be the beginning of the end.

Memories quickly erased

That superb season was built on a solid starting 5. John Wall was the leader of the team, with his partner Bradley Beal on the backcourt. Otto Porter Jr. and Markieff Morris were the best on the wings, and the"Polish Hammer" Marcin Gortat was doing the job by the basket. With Kelly Oubre Jr. as sixth man, and some players like Tomas Satoransky competing, the squad was complete. One of the best in the league.

And they kept the roster. John Wall signed a huge contract extension, and everyone stayed. And the next season, everything seemed to be going their way. Until the All-Star Game. The Wizards had a 33-24 record and were well positioned as the underdogs in the East. Then the debacle. A 10-15 record to end the season, losing five of their last six games. The playoffs started without confidence, and an inevitable first-round exit.

Not a one-off. It was the beginning of trouble and bad choices. Gortat and Oubre were traded before and during the season, only to get Trevor Ariza back. Incomprehensible. So was trading Markieff Morris for Wesley Johnson. Then Otto Porter for Bobby Portis. The team exploded in six months, and the worst was yet to come.

John Wall suffered a serious heel injury in late 2018 - season over. But bad luck continued to intervene, and following a fall, his injury was extended by a year due to a ruptured Achilles tendon. He would no longer wear the jersey of the franchise where he was born. So, as Covid struck in 2020, the Wizards ' record was 25-40. And the finances were clogged with players who, for the most part, were good elsewhere, but not very impactful in a Wizards jersey.

The same old story

After playing on the Orlando bubble, it was time to try something. Washington couldn't stay in that situation. That something would be the departure of John Wall, along with a first-round draft pick, for Russell Westbrook with the same contract. The Westbrook-Beal duo? Just like the Wizards. Not a success, not a failure, despite Beal's exceptional season. And so logically, came an 8th-place finish and a first-round playoff exit.

While continuity is often the mother of safety, the Wizards expelled Westbrook in the 2021 offseason. They picked up Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell, and Spencer Dinwiddie. The goal? Strengthen the team around Bradley Beal, a free agent in the 2022 off-season.

The start was amazing. After 13 games, the team was 10-3. Bradley Beal was Bradley Beal, the rookies were adapting perfectly, especially Harrell, perfect in his role off the bench. But the franchise went back to its bad habits, and obviously, there was a lack of patience in the offices.

At the trade deadline, out went Dinwiddie, in came Kristaps Porzingis. The Latvian arrived to form an all-star duo with Beal. A duo that, even today, raises questions. Two talented but inconsistent players and not the greatest defenders (three with Kuzma), it didn't work. And the proof is still there this season.

One word to sum up the Wizards ' current season: anonymous. I'm sure Washington can still clinch a playoff spot, even if the momentum isn't on their side. But whatever happens, it's hard to see how this team could go further than the first round of the playoffs. Once again.

The situation doesn't look good

And frankly, this situation seems set to continue. Because in the last off-season, Bradley Beal finally extended. Five more years, and in 2027, at the age of 34, he could earn 57M.

Of course, the Wizards re-signed Beal so as not to see their best player leave for nothing, and thus the player was in a strong position during negotiations. The problem is that Washington has switched to the Luxury Tax. And when that happens, there must be results. This is not the case here.

And when you look at the roster, it's clear that the Wizards are destined to stay in the bottom half. In the last two seasons, Beal has fallen heavily in terms of statistics, and multiplies minor injuries. Porzingis, on the other hand, is statistically good, but has no impact. A remark that can be applied to Kyle Kuzma. Yet, how many NBA teams have three players above the 20-point average? No more than five, yet Washington is one of the 10 worst offences in the league.

What should be a strength becomes a weakness. Because most of the time, you wonder who the real leader of this roster is, when Bradley Beal's name should be the obvious answer. Porzingis and Kuzma have player options at the end of the season, and while the Latvian should take it, given the amount (36M), the former Laker should decline his 13M, and Washington should not pull out the chequebook to retain him.

The rest of the roster is not selling dreams. The recent draft picks (Deni Avdija, Corey Kispert, Johnny Davis) don't seem to be the future of the franchise, and Washington even got rid of Rui Hachimura before the trade deadline. The Japanese player seemed to be part of the overall plan, though. So will the 2023 off-season be one of more painful choices?

Washington in its place

In the current NBA, there are four categories of teams.

The declared title contenders: Nuggets, Grizzlies, Warriors, Suns, Celtics, Bucks, 76ers...

Contenders looking to ascend: Mavericks, Cavaliers, Heat, Hawks, Clippers...

Rebuilding franchises: Pistons, Spurs, Rockets, Magic, Thunder....

And the fourth category, the teams that you can't really see what they are pursuing. The Wizards fall into this category, along with the Bulls and Blazers for example.

And it's clearly the worst category.

Yhe Wizards didn't dare to really tear down their roster and sacrifice their season to make a run at Victor Wembanyama. And thus potentially start a new cycle. Of course, they could still benefit from success at the Lottery, and get the Frenchman back. But the chances are slim, and that has never been a stated goal.

This is understandable, as the fans do not always accept this way of operating. But despite all this, what do you do? The days of coach Wes Unseld Jr seem to be numbered. Son of a franchise legend, his arrival had raised some enthusiasm, since he shone as an assistant. But the record is bland for his first position.

Wen Unseld Jr is not expected to survive this new season.

A good coach can make a difference. We saw it this season with the Kings, where the arrival of Mike Brown helped put the pieces together in the right way, and the result is striking. The pieces, in absolute terms, are there in Washington. In any case, three good players who can make a quality base. But in this case, that should not be enough.

All the stats are consistent with the fact that the Wizards are average. They lack a real playmaker, but how do you get a player of that profile to coexist with Beal? We saw it when Westbrook was here, both rarely played at a high level at the same time.

That's a lot of rework, and in any case, Washington seems less well-equipped than a host of contenders. Isn't it time to revamp everything? Trade Beal while he still has some value? But again, it looks complicated, because at the moment, it's hard to see a franchise being able to absorb such a contract. The franchise's drawing power, despite its location in the capital, is limited.

Unfortunately, it is hard to see how the Wizards could escape their destiny. It's the fate of a team with a soft underbelly. But when you go back six years, you can only have regrets. And for a franchise that has had golden periods (the '78 title, the Arenas-Jamison period after Jordan's stint in the 2000s), the cycle could well continue. Unless they try something. But frankly, we don't see what.