Entering Wednesday, the Wizards sit in fourth place in the Eastern Conference standings, already guaranteed home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. The Toronto Raptors, who currently have an identical 47-31 record and hold the tie breaker for third place, can either gain distance from or swap places with the Wizards in tonight’s game at the Detroit Pistons. But no matter the result, Washington is in a good position with a week left in the regular season.
It’s that very reason some may argue that it’s time for Washington to begin resting a starting unit that has played more minutes than all but one team in the NBA this season. There isn’t much the Wizards can realistically play for in their final four games, so why risk injury and fatigue ahead of the real season? The answer is simple: the things Washington can accomplish are potentially franchise altering and these opportunities don’t come around often in D.C.
It’s no secret the Wizards are in position to win 50 games for the first time since doing it as the Bullets in the 1978-79 season. Reaching this milestone would be a tremendous boost to the perception of the franchise outside of the district and to the overall pride of the fan base within. It would also mean a lot to the players on this roster, who have made it known that winning 50 games is important to them.
The Wizards have already checked off a few milestones this season, including a division title and at least 47 wins for the first time since that 78-79 season. The Bullets lost to the Seattle SuperSonics in the finals that year.
In its final four games, Washington plays the Miami Heat twice, the New York Knicks and Detroit Pistons. These are teams the Wizards are better than and more than capable of beating, but two of which could still be playing for a playoff spot and won’t go out without a fight. Still, with this monumental goal in sight, the Wizards should make the push for 50. The opportunity isn’t guaranteed to come around again. Washington would become a lot more attractive to free agents and a place its own players would want to stick around.
The Milwaukee Bucks, Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers currently hold down the 5-8 seeds in the Eastern Conference, separated by just 2.5 games. Miami, Charlotte and Detroit aren’t far behind. So things at the bottom of the playoff chase can move around just as easy as the top. Furthermore, Washington’s record against those teams currently in is an identical 3-1, so on the surface it would seem fruitless to play for seeding. The Bucks are rolling down this final stretch of season however, and if it was one team of that bunch to avoid it would be them. Chicago’s six wins in the last 10 games are as many as Milwaukee’s, but the Bulls aren’t seen as a threat, even with Dwyane Wade’s imminent return. In fact, Wade’s return may be seen as a hindrance to some. Atlanta has struggled mightily as of late and will be lucky to get in.
Washington still has a long shot to grab a top-two seed, which would ensure home-court advantage at least through the first two rounds. The Wizards need to make that a goal in order to not only take advantage of the second-best home record in the East, but to also get the most favorable playoff matchups. If Washington can’t jump to one or two, it may want three, depending on where Cleveland lands. Where the Wizards are now, they would likely face Milwaukee in the first round, Cleveland in the conference semifinals, and if they got past that, Boston or Toronto would be waiting in the conference finals. Not the easiest road.
A week ago, 50 wins and at least a top-three seed seemed more likely than not. The Wizards were in the midst of a four-game winning streak, including a rout of the Cavaliers. They followed that up with three straight duds against Western Conference playoff teams and have been playing .500 ball over the last 10 games. The previous span of 10 games saw the team go 7-3. The difference in those stretches are a decline in production by the team’s starting unit and a dip in three-point shooting. Markieff Morris is the only starter to have increased his offensive production over the last 10 games, but even he has dropped off dramatically in rebounding. John Wall made a higher percentage of his two-point shots, but his assists are just under 10 a game over that stretch. Still really good, but down from the 11 he averaged over the previous 10 games. It would behoove the Wizards to get that chemistry back between the starting unit as they head into the playoffs, as this team will only go as far as one of the league’s best starting fives will take it. Washington doesn’t want to stumble into the playoffs and have to play a team that likely scratched and clawed to get in and figured it out along the way.