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Can the Wizards Keep Winning? The Answer Could Shape the NBA’s Second Half

Washington is riding a hot streak heading into trade season. If it’s sustainable, it may be enough to keep Bradley Beal happy and hold star-thirsty contenders at bay.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It was a Friday night in February, and there was no place colder than Washington, D.C. To that point, just about the only way the Wizards had won a game in their injury-stricken, COVID-strained start was on the strength of a superheroic effort from Bradley Beal. When the Knicks visited on February 12, though, the league’s leading scorer sat for a scheduled rest day. Without him, Washington had no juice and no chance.

The 109-91 defeat was Washington’s fourth in five games, with those losses coming by an average of 22.3 points. It dropped the withering Wiz to 6-17, the worst record in the Eastern Conference and second worst in the NBA, ahead of only a Minnesota club less than two weeks away from firing its head coach. Afterward, Scott Brooks—no stranger to the hot seat himself—sounded an optimistic note, calling on his charges to do the only thing there is to do when you’re going through hell: keep going.

“I believe in our guys,” Brooks told reporters. “We’ve got a great opportunity to turn it around, stick together—that’s the only way you can get out of this.”

The Wizards aren’t “out of this” yet, but they’ve at least started to climb. They’re 8-3 since that loss to the Knicks, including quality wins over the Celtics, Trail Blazers, Lakers, Clippers, and Nuggets (twice). Thanks to the claustrophobia-inducing congestion in the middle of the East, they’ll enter the second half just 1.5 games behind the Pacers for the final spot in the play-in field, and only three games behind the Heat for sixth place.

They’re still far from a sure bet to wind up in the playoffs, but they’re not yet out of the running; that’s pretty remarkable, given their disastrous start. It’s also pretty bad news for all the contenders who’d been praying that another disappointing season would lead the Wizards to finally put Beal—the league’s leading scorer, fresh off the first All-Star start of his career—on the market. Whatever hope remains of landing a major prospective difference-maker at the March 25 trade deadline now hinges on whether or not the Wizards can keep this up.

Despite his readily memed frustration, Beal has reportedly remained adamant that he wants to stay in Washington. Beal’s agent, Mark Bartelstein, told Ben Rohrbach of Yahoo Sports last month, “He doesn’t want to quit on something,” and longtime trainer Drew Hanlen said Beal wants to give Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard “a chance to build a winning team around him in D.C.” To some pundits, such remarks might read like opportunistic spin—an attempt by those close to Beal to ensure that nobody thinks he’s pushing his way out of town, and to put the onus for whatever happens next squarely on Wizards management.

Those words, the thinking went, would amount to little more than dust in the breeze as the losses mounted and it became clear that there was nothing in D.C. to save. The past few weeks, though, have presented a case for a less cynical reading: Maybe, like Damian Lillard in Portland, Beal actually does want to stay put, and thinks there actually is something worth sticking around for.

“The ultimate thing is, what can I do with what I have? I always do that,” Beal recently told Fred Katz of The Athletic. “I will never throw my teammates under the bus or anything like that. What I got is what I got. And I feel like we can work with what we got.”

What Beal’s had these past 11 games is a getting-healthy-again-but-still-unsure Russell Westbrook, third-year center Moe Wagner, 2019 lottery pick Rui Hachimura, and undrafted swingman Garrison Mathews. That’s the starting lineup Brooks settled on after once again shuffling the deck after the Knicks loss, Washington’s 17th this season. (They had 25 in 72 games last season.) It hasn’t set the league on fire, but it’s been solid, thanks largely to steady work on the defensive end—which, somewhat surprisingly, has become this Wizards club’s calling card as of late.

Washington finished the 2019-20 season dead last in defensive efficiency and sat second-to-last this season following the loss to New York. But despite closing the first half against some tough opposition, it has rocketed up the defensive rankings, allowing just 110.3 points-per-100 non-garbage-time possessions—tied for eighth in the league in this span with Miami and West-leading Utah.

You can chalk at least some of the defensive improvement up to regression to the mean. You wouldn’t know it by how often they seem to get drilled, but the Wizards have had the league’s best defensive shot profile this season. No team allows fewer shots at the rim per game or induces more floater-range and midrange tries, and they’re right around the middle of the pack in 3-point attempts allowed. According to Cleaning the Glass’s “location effective field goal percentage” metric—which looks at all of the shots a team allows and asks how efficiently opponents would score if they hit a league-average share of them—Washington should be forcing the lowest eFG% in the league.

The problem: Opponents started the season unconscious against the Wiz, shooting well above league average on midrange looks and above-the-break 3-point tries. Just before the break, though, that shot luck started to even out … and, all of a sudden, the Wizards went from the NBA’s third-worst defensive eFG% to a top-10 mark, and from the league’s most permissive half-court defense to its second-stingiest:

What Sorcery Is This?

Time Frame Location eFG% Actual eFG% Difference Midrange Above-the-Break 3 All 3
Time Frame Location eFG% Actual eFG% Difference Midrange Above-the-Break 3 All 3
Season Averages 54.4% 54.1% -0.3% 42.2% 36.5% 37.3%
First 23 Games 52.2% (1) 56.1% (28) 3.9% 48.0% (30) 40.3% (30) 40.0% (30)
Last 11 Games 52.7% (1) 53.4% (10) 0.7% 43.6% (21) 35.8% (14) 36.1% (10)
League rankings in parentheses. Via Cleaning the Glass.

Getting to attack in the run of play rather than constantly taking the ball out of your own basket has its benefits; only the go-go Hornets have averaged more points per game off of turnovers in this stretch. The Wizards are just playing with more juice now, and it starts with … well, those new starters:

You can see it in the way the 6-foot-11, 245-pound Wagner gleefully shithouses on the interior, rumbling in search of contact and energetically screening, swiping, and scratching for an edge. (That he’s also skilled enough to hit 34 percent of his 3s as a starter and make the extra pass helps, too.) It’s in the off-ball movement and hiccup-quick delivery of Mathews, who’s gone from lighting it up at tiny Lipscomb University to starting in the NBA by becoming the kind of outside threat defenses can’t leave alone; he’s firing nearly seven 3-pointers per 36 minutes in this stretch, knocking down 41.2 percent of them.

It’s in Hachimura’s willingness, a year after being the ninth pick in the draft, to accept a smaller offensive role and focus primarily on becoming a better, more versatile defender. It’s a work in progress, but he’s made progress in the work; during these 11 games, he’s held his own matching up with Michael Porter Jr. and Jamal Murray against Denver, guarding Lillard and Carmelo Anthony against Portland, and taking the primary assignment on both LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard.

And it’s in Westbrook—forever the rope in a tug of basketball culture war, his value perpetually in the eye of the beholder.

He’s turning the ball over slightly less often than he was earlier this season, but still coughing it up on nearly 18 percent of the possessions he uses, a historically high number for a high-usage ball handler. He’s getting to the rim more than he did in his first 15 games, but just barely, and still not finishing nearly as well as we’re accustomed to seeing. And you can’t ignore the ongoing nightmare of his disappearing shooting touch: just 48 percent on 2-pointers, 23 percent on 3s, and a ghastly 50 percent (38-for-76) from the free throw line over these past 11 games.

But you also can’t ignore that he’s averaging 21-11-11 in this 8-3 run, taking fewer bad 3s, and assisting on a wild 48 percent of his teammates’ baskets. Whether working in a spread pick-and-roll, attacking in transition, or backing a smaller guard down in the post while surveying the floor, he’s routinely creating killer looks for the other Wizards; according to pbpstats.com, only Dame has assisted on more makes either at the rim or from beyond the arc than Russ in this span.

Washington has outscored opponents by 3.4 points per 100 possessions with Westbrook on the floor—a dramatic shift from earlier in the season, when he had the worst net rating of anyone in the Wizards’ rotation. Another major change: They’ve managed to break even in the minutes Westbrook has played without Beal, a massive improvement over the days when they got drilled by nearly 12 points-per-100 in Russ-no-Beal minutes. And as Westbrook has started to get healthy after missing time twice in five months due to injuries to both of his quadriceps, he’s also started to show flashes of some of the off-ball venom he displayed alongside Harden in Houston last season.

Not having quite the same pop as he did at his peak can hamper Westbrook when he’s trying to battering-ram through an entire team from the top of the key. Things get a bit easier, though, when he lurks away from the action while a teammate orchestrates, can get a little bit of a head start to pick up some steam, then explode off the catch into the lane and look to make a play for himself or a teammate:

Westbrook doesn’t look like an MVP anymore, but with Beal’s mammoth offensive production now essentially a constant, he doesn’t have to. If he’s a viable playmaker who can contribute on the glass, get into some passing lanes, make plays off the ball, and help both spoon-feed and invigorate some of Washington’s younger players, Russ can still be a net positive—even ensconced in one of the five least efficient high-volume shooting seasons in NBA history—and the Wizards can look more like the team they hoped they’d be after swinging their desperation blockbuster.

Having a starting lineup that can stay afloat allows Brooks to organize his rotation, putting Washington’s reserve corps in better position to thrive. After a slow start to the season, due partly to nine-plus months of rust after skipping the bubble and partly to contracting COVID, Davis Bertans has rediscovered the form that got him paid so handsomely in free agency, averaging 14.2 points in 27.5 minutes per game during this stretch while shooting a scorching 50 percent from 3-point range on 9.4 attempts per 36 minutes of floor time.

Robin Lopez has been a stalwart rim protector, screener, and box-out enthusiast who’s also chipped in about 10 points per game over this run on an array of sweeping hooks and push shots. Backup point guard Raul Neto has been helpful on and off the ball, knocking down 36 percent of his triples with a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Brooks has let Beal cook with bench lineups to blitz on opposing second units; the Beal-Lopez-Bertans-Neto quartet has outscored opponents by 37 points in 45 minutes in this span.

“Now I think we’re kind of finally seeing the team that we were envisioning,” GM Sheppard recently told Barry Svrluga of The Washington Post.

It might not be exactly that team; it’s worth mentioning that Troy Brown Jr. and Deni Avdija, two of the Wizards’ past three first-round picks but tricky fits next to a Beal-Westbrook backcourt, have both seen their roles reduced during this run. It’s a much more competitive team than we saw earlier in the season, though—one that, if Beal stays healthy and Russ can relocate his finishing touch, might just have a puncher’s chance of pushing its way into the postseason.

Things could change quickly. Washington’s 10-game sprint to start the second half—which takes it through the trade deadline—includes meetings with the Grizzlies, 76ers, Bucks, Jazz, Nets, and Knicks. If that run goes poorly, and the Wiz are right back in the Eastern basement, maybe the conversation around Beal’s availability starts to change. If they keep this up, though, and keep pursuing the possibility of returning to the playoffs, it’d all but ensure that Beal stays put, much to the consternation of pundits and would-be contenders everywhere. That’d add even more frenzy to an already chaotic Eastern middle class, and could presage a trade deadline chilly enough to make mid-February in D.C. seem downright balmy.