Months after overcoming a dreadful 2-8 start and weeks after a trade deadline overhaul for their bench, the Washington Wizards (44-28) have clinched a spot in the NBA Playoffs for the third time in four years and in the first season of head coach Scott Brooks' tenure. They punched their ticket on Friday night with a win over the Nets and losses for both the Pistons and Bulls. The Wizards are officially back in a place they feel they belong.
This is the 28th time in franchise history that the Wizards will head to the postseason and this territory is nothing new for the current group led by star guards John Wall and Bradley Beal. But the expectations for this team may be higher now than they have been in decades. For the first time in a long time, the Wizards feel they can do some real damage and possibly reach the Eastern Conference Finals or beyond.
What a difference a year makes for a team that just 11 months ago fired Randy Wittman following a 41-41 campaign that did not end in a playoff berth.
"It's great. The way we finished last year wasn't good for us," Wall said. "We wanted to go to the playoffs. We fell magnificently short of that. Then to come back, the way we started the season wasn't the way we wanted. We never threw anybody under the bus. We always stayed together as a team. I think that's the most important thing as a group, that we all figured it out. We all figured it out. We have a great run going. We just want to finish the season strong going into the playoffs."
The Wizards' turnaround began in December. They were 7-13 on Dec. 8 and had lost four of six, but since they have gone 37-15. That includes a stretch where they won 18 of 21 games before the NBA All-Star break.
Those losing days of November and December now seem like a distant memory with the Wizards on pace to win over 50 games for the first time since 1979.
"It's a journey. It's amazing to see the work that you put in," Beal said. "Last year was a disappointment for us. We wanted to be in the playoffs. This year we had no choice, we want to get in and this year we have more goals. We want to get [the] second [seed] now. Now we want to get to the Eastern Conference Finals. We want to try our best to get there."
As Beal alluded to, the Wizards still have short-term goals for the final 10 games of this season. They are 2 1/2 games behind the Celtics at third in the standings and would still like to pass them. But either way, the Wizards should enter the playoffs with an opportunity to reach the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 1978-79, a span of 38 seasons. No D.C. major sports team (NBA, NFL, NHL, MLB) has reached the semfinals of their league since the Capitals in 1998. That's the longest streak among cities with at least three major sports teams in American sports.
Each time the Wizards made the playoffs in the Wall and Beal era, they advanced at least one round. In 2013-14 they beat the Bulls in the first round, then lost to the Pacers. The following season they swept the Raptors in the first round, then lost to the Hawks after Wall broke his wrist.
Now they are back and appear well-equipped for a deep run. Both Wall and Beal are two years older, enjoying good health and the best seasons of their careers. Otto Porter has emerged as one of the best three-point shooting threats in basketball. Markieff Morris has added a new element as a stretch four with versatility on defense. Marcin Gortat is rebounding more than ever before in his nine-year NBA career.
The Wizards have had deep benches before and their current group is starting to round into form. Bojan Bogdanovic can stretch the floor and get hot from three. Ian Mahinmi is a legitimate rim protector. Kelly Oubre, Jr. has infused youth and a unique ability to guard multiple positions on defense. Jason Smith always seems to provide a spark, whether it's with midrange shooting or rebounding. And Brandon Jennings now can keep the offense moving when Wall takes a rest.
Washington has star power and depth and that should bode well in April, May and June against whomever they face.
"It says a lot about our team," Brooks said about his team's turnaround. "It says a lot about our staff, not just the coaches, but our entire staff. We just keep charging ahead and doing our jobs. I love that about our team. We want to establish a culture that we all have a responsibility to one another to work hard and give everybody our best effort. That has happened. We've got 44 wins. It's good. We want to keep getting better."
The Wizards have stated their goal of obtaining a top three seed and it won't be easy. Breathing down their neck are the Raptors, who are just a game back in fourth place. If the Wizards fall to fourth, they could risk seeing the top seeded Cavaliers in the second round. Facing the best team in the conference that early would not be ideal.
Also standing in the Wizards way are the Celtics, who they could match up with in the second round. As for the first round, they are currently slotted to face the Milwaukee Bucks, who happen to be the hottest team in the East at the moment.
The Wizards have 10 regular season games left and bigger goals in mind. But on Friday they gave themselves an opportunity they had waited two long years for.