Though their franchise cornerstone is out for the year, the Washington Wizards are playing some of their best basketball this season
After John Wall was lost for the season with a heel injury, most fans figured that the Wizards would pack it in and give up hopes of contention this season. Further, Wall’s injury has led to speculation that Washington might be sellers at the trade deadline in order to jumpstart a possible rebuild.
Yet, in Wall’s absence, the team has actually played well. Since Wall’s last game on Dec. 26, the Wizards have compiled a 7-5 record—one of their better 12-game stretches in the trying 2018-19 season. While their names have been bandied about liberally in trade talks, the keys to their resurgence have been the other two members of their big three: Bradley Beal and Otto Porter.
The Wizards lost to the Raptors in double OT, but Bradley Beal continues to shine with an insane workload. In 12 games John Wall hasn’t played, the Wizards are 7-5 and Beal is averaging 31.5 points and 7.1 assists over 40.9 minutes with a 58.0 true shooting percentage. Bonkers.— Kevin O’Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) January 13, 2019
In the 12 games without their franchise player, Beal has elevated his game and taken over in Washington. Perhaps en route to his second All-Star Game, Beal has averaged 29 points per game (seventh-most in the league), nearly 41% from behind the arc, along with 6.2 assists in January alone. All of these numbers are well above his career averages, cementing his role as the team’s leader for the rest of the season. The front office will need to decide if his excellent play will make him a crucial part of the team’s future, or an attractive piece of trade bait for a contending team.
Beyond Beal’s individual hot streak, the stats say that the team has functioned as a more cohesive unit since losing Wall. Their offensive rating is up (108.1 to 109.6), defensive rating improved (112.7 to 106.6) and they’ve finally posted a positive differential (-4.8 to +2.7). There’s been improvement in just about every team-based metric, which is—unsurprisingly—translating to more success in the win column.
Wall leads the team in usage rate at 29%, and in his absence, the ball has appeared to move around a little more freely. The team’s assist rate is up two percent in the last 12 games. As Wall has never developed a reliable 3-point shot, the team’s percentage from deep has improved by his subtraction, from 34% to 39.3%.
Otto Porter has been excelling of late as well, and his new role off the bench appears to be the cause. Though he was only coming off the bench as a means to ease him back from injury, the new role might become permanent. Though he is averaging about the same minutes and shooting percentages regardless of starting or coming off the bench, he is shooting the ball more.
He has thrived as the primary offensive threat in the second unit, attempting nearly four more shots per game, as well as tallying 5.1 more points. Additionally, his net rating has jumped from-1.7 to 13.8, though some of the change can be attributed to his playing with and against bench units.
Despite his somewhat controversial acquisition, Trevor Ariza has also provided a spark during his time in Washington. Announcing that Washington was “all-in” on the playoff race, Ariza was acquired from Phoenix in an exchange for Kelly Oubre in December.
Since coming back to the Eastern Conference, Ariza has averaged 14.7 points, 6.3 rebounds, 4.5 assists, and 1.6 steals. Taking a look at his on-off splits, the Wizards are a better team at both ends of the floor with Ariza on the court. At this stage of his career, the well-traveled swingman has been primarily utilized as a spot-up shooter, but he has done a little bit of everything for a team in need of solid veteran leadership.
Not to denigrate Washington’s improvement, but the team has not exactly been consistent in their post-Christmas schedule. They’ve posted quality wins against the 76ers (a 17-point blowout), the Bucks, the Thunder (an 18-point blowout in OKC) and Detroit (a 14-point blowout), while dropping games to the Bulls and Heat. Even in wins, they narrowly slipped past a mediocre Hornets team, and beat the Knicks in London by one point on a “walk-off” goaltending call. The team has fallen prey to slow starts in the first quarter, and appear to have an unfortunate habit of playing up or down to their opponent.
Things are looking up in Washington, but fans should wonder if this is sustainable. Moreover, winning these games with the current roster may only mire the team in mediocrity, and delay a rebuild while squandering the prime of Wall, Beal, and Porter. So should the team buy or sell at the deadline? The question may be irrelevant, as the Wizards’ owner Ted Leonsis publicly declared that they would never “tank” and would push for the playoffs.
While the Wizards may still be unlikely to make a serious playoff push (and if they do, they seem like a lock for a first-round exit), the team has performed admirably without their best player. Washington currently holds the 10th seed in the East, two games behind the eighth-seeded Hornets, and according to FiveThirtyEight, have a 58% chance of making the playoffs. Despite their owner’s declarations and the recent stretch, the front office would still be wise to take calls on their assets. Another year hovering around .500 on the fringes of contention will only stunt the Wizards’ development into a true championship-caliber team.
Edited by Emily Berman.
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