The Washington Wizards are winners of six of their last seven games, which has catapulted them into a tie with the Chicago Bulls for the 10th seed in the Eastern Conference. Washington has the potential to throw a wrench into the conference.
On the whole, the Wizards have been one of, if not the biggest disappointment of the 2020-21 NBA season. In year one of the Bradley Beal-Russell Westbrook marriage, the Wizards lost their first five games, continued to lose games at a high clip and found themselves near the bottom of the East. The latter was still the case just two weeks ago.
But the last two weeks have seen the Wizards play up to their billing. In winning six of seven, they've pulled off a pair of bold wins on the road against the Golden State Warriors and Western Conference-leading Utah Jazz. That's what this Wizards team was designed to be: a force to be reckoned with.
For better or worse, Beal and Westbrook are two of the most dangerous scorers in the sport. Beal is averaging 31.1 points per game this season and is adept at scoring from distance and off the dribble. Westbrook wreaks havoc off the dribble and is electric in the fastbreak. Both players can effectively run an offense.
Second-year forward Rui Hachimura is a physical scorer for the Wizards off the dribble. Davis Bertans is a sniper. Robin Lopez is a rim protector and a smooth inside finisher. The combination of Ish Smith, Raul Neto, Alex Len and rookie Deni Avdija are capable of making a difference offensively in their own right.
From a talent standpoint, the Wizards should be a player in the East. They shouldn't be vying for a spot in a play-in series in the waning weeks of the regular season. With that said, it's precisely where they are. Fortunately for head coach Scott Brooks, his team is getting hot at the right time, and them continuing to play at a high level would add a new dynamic to the conference playoff picture.
The Bulls, Indiana Pacers and Charlotte Hornets are the three teams ahead of Washington. All three have their fair share of playmakers. That said, the Wizards can hang with and/or overcome the field.
Chicago has been up and down all season, and the Nikola Vucevic era is off to a rough start. The Pacers have gradually fallen down the conference all season and don't have a definite shape. Charlotte is a sturdy force on both ends of the floor, but they're playing without Gordon Hayward and LaMelo Ball due to injury.
The Wizards have a star duo that exudes vibrancy with the ball in their hands and has a bevy of playoff experience under their belts. Their head coach, Brooks, also has a multitude of experience coaching in the playoffs, specifically with Westbrook in their time together with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
This team can beat any of the three teams ahead of them in back-to-back games, which the Wizards will have to do if they're the ninth or 10th seed in the East. If they get past the play-in round, watch out: they could be the team that crashes the party.
Yes, the Wizards would likely have to go up against the Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets or Milwaukee Bucks in the first round.
What's the one thing the Wizards have in common with those at the top of the conference? They have star power. Having that asset gives you a fighting chance in any series. Plus, there's a nagging question with those three teams in the playoffs. Can Ben Simmons be more of an impact scorer? How will the Nets' big three fare in the postseason? Will the Bucks offense crumble in crunch time?
The Wizards have played well below expectations. Frankly, there are no expectations for them the rest of the way. In some ways, the Wizards are like last season's Portland Trail Blazers. Their star-studded backcourt of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum and others slumped and underwhelmed throughout the regular season, needing the play-in round to reach the playoffs. Albeit they lost in five games to the Los Angeles Lakers in the next round, the Trail Blazers had the talent to give the eventual NBA champions a run for their money.
The Wizards aren't that far off the mark.
The reality is that the NBA's new playoff format gives the Wizards a chance to grind their way into the spring festivities.
They're as talented and dangerous as any team they'd face in a play-in series including the Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics and New York Knicks — if one of them slipped down the home stretch. Heck, the Miami Heat have been hovering around .500 all season.
The Washington Wizards have star power, youth, veteran pedigree and a red-hot basketball team. They can keep a team up at night and/or scare a contender straight in the eye.