John Wall broke out of the slump he'd been in and went off for a game-high 35 points and 10 assists in the Wizards 97-85 win over the Cavaliers Tuesday night. See what he had to say about his performance in the video above.
The Wizards enter Thursday's matchup with the New York Knicks, set for 3 p.m. on NBC Sports Washington, with several factors working in their favor. For one, they have been playing quite well lately and have some momentum. Also, they are facing the Knicks, whom they have dominated for years, winning 17 of 19 meetings going back to 2013.
It's also technically a home game and the Wizards have been much better in those (13-8) than they have in road games. The problem is that this game is not actually at home, it's in London, England where many of the advantages the Wizards would otherwise hold are out the window.
The Wizards' recent upswing of five wins in eight games, all since it was revealed John Wall will miss the rest of the season due to left heel surgery, will be put to the test due to an unorthodox schedule. They last played on Sunday, a two-overtime loss to the Raptors, meaning they will have three off-days in between games.
They have only had three days off in between games one other time this season and that wasn't disrupted by a 3,700-mile flight across the world. They will also be dealing with a five-hour time change that was compounded by a seven-hour flight.
This game will be the only one for the Wizards across a stretch of seven days. After playing the Knicks on Thursday, they return home to see the Pistons on Monday, Jan. 21. They then have two more off-days before hosting the Warriors on Thursday. Staying sharp through all of this could be a challenge.
The fact the Wizards have to burn a home game is not ideal, given they are so much better in Washington than elsewhere. The same factors road games provide like travel and hotel rooms will still apply. The crowd could also be neutral or even pro-Knicks, removing what is usually a benefit of playing at Capital One Arena.
Several things should still work in the Wizards' favor, however. Not only have they owned the Knicks in recent years, but they won't have to face Enes Kanter, who did not travel with the team due to a dispute with the Turkish government. He has been particularly good against the Wizards this season with averages of 14.0 points and 15.5 rebounds per game.
Tim Hardaway Jr. (hamstring) and Mitchel Robinson (groin) are also banged up and did not play in the Knicks' last game on Sunday, a loss to the Sixers.
The Wizards also have a host of guys playing their best basketball of the season. Bradley Beal is looking like an All-Star with averages of 29.8 points (41.4 3PT%), 6.6 assists and 5.3 rebounds during the Wizards' eight-game surge.
Otto Porter Jr. has averaged 16.0 points while shooting 45.7 percent from three during that stretch and Trevor Ariza hasn't been far behind with 15.4 points, 6.0 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game.
The Wizards are fifth in the NBA in scoring (119.8), eighth in offensive rating (113.9) and 11th in defensive rating (109.4) in their past eight games. They are third in threes made per game (13.5) and seventh in three-point percentage (39.3).
Washington has reached a new level in recent weeks. Now they just have to keep it going despite all the unusual factors at play. They have a unique opportunity to represent the NBA on the global stage. Getting a win would make it all that much better.
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The Wizards are in the midst of their best basketball of the season. That only makes the upcoming decisions surrounding the Feb. 7 trade deadline more challenging.
With Bradley Beal’s elite play fueling a surge before the team’s trek to London, Washington went 3-2 in five games against NBA contenders. Even one of the losses, Sunday’s double-overtime thriller against the Eastern Conference-leading Toronto Raptors, provided hope for a playoff push and a bit more should the Wizards qualify.
The Wizards, 18-26 and two games back of a playoff berth entering the week, must pass three teams for the eighth seed. Six teams are currently jockeying for the final three spots in the Eastern Conference horse race. With a Secretariat-level kick, Washington could gallop all the way to sixth.
Remain bullish and perhaps the Wizards seek help rather sell off assets. Pulling that off without adding to the luxury tax bill would make team president Ernie Grunfeld quite the contortionist. If reaching the postseason for the fifth time in six years remains the goal, get twisty.
Now for some reasons why the organization might choose another path despite the ample pluck shown by the active players.
Since the 2012-13 season, a team sitting two or more games back of the eighth seed as of Jan. 1 reached the playoffs only three times, according to the website Basketball-Reference.
The idea of trading away players, namely those on expiring contracts, isn’t appealing for those focused solely on the current season’s potential. Doing so accomplishes several goals:
- Acquiring draft picks and player assets for a franchise with only five players under contract for the 2019-20 season and without a second-round selection until 2023.
- Potentially increase the team’s 2019 NBA Draft lottery odds. Washington currently has the sixth-best odds at the No. 1 overall selection. Landing that pick likely means selecting Duke’s runaway top prospect, Zion Williamson.
- Targeted trades could create future salary cap space. Washington’s projected 2019-20 salaries total $111 million, eclipsing the $109 million salary cap and leaving little wiggle room below the $132 luxury tax line. Of the five players under contract, only Beal, John Wall and Otto Porter are established building blocks.
- Eliminate some or all of this season’s entire $8.6 million luxury tax burden. Erasing the luxury tax altogether keeps the Wizards a bit further away from paying a higher tax rate as a repeater tax squad.
The key for league observers is proper self-evaluation, including fair expectations for Wall coming off another surgery. The latest occurred this month as repairing bones spurs digging into his left heel ended the five-time All-Star’s season.
Making moves for coveted first-round draft picks means taking on future salary, a likely scenario for most deadline trades involving rentals like Trevor Ariza.
“I don't think you can worry about clearing money for next year. You just need to avoid the tax,” a former NBA general manager told NBC Sports Washington. “If taking on money next year means getting close to (avoiding) the luxury tax threshold this year I'd be comfortable with that because I think they're more than one year away from fixing this. I would start to accumulate assets as quickly as I could.”
Whatever the future thoughts, there are current realities ranging from that luxury tax payment to season ticket plan renewals.
“Can’t separate basketball from business,” a current NBA team executive said. “We don’t play the game of basketball. We’re in the business of basketball.”
There’s also the playing of basketball. Try telling Beal the Wizards should regroup for next season when hopefully a healthy Wall returns and assets acquired at the trade deadline mature.
Beal, sensing external expectations dropping immediately after Wall’s surgery news, suggested doubters should stay tuned.
“I’m trying to shoot for the playoffs,” Beal said.
Since then he has recorded his second triple-double of his career with 45 points, 10 rebounds and 15 assists in 55 minutes against the Raptors. Beal is averaging 30.2 points over his last nine games.
This isn’t a one-man effort. Guard Tomas Satoransky also recorded a triple-double over the weekend while Ariza fell a rebound shy against Toronto. Big moments for Otto Porter, Thomas Bryant and Jeff Green come regularly.
Beal’s hopes and forewarning for doubters won’t stop many outside the organization from focusing on the allure of salary cap flexibility and asset gathering above all. Both sides have merit. Washington can only make substantive moves in one of those directions before the Feb. 7 trade deadline.
Winning a seven-game playoff series is a lofty goal for a team yet to win more than three games consecutively all season and currently poised for the draft lottery. However, as state lottery promotions might say, you also cannot win if you don’t play.
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