The Wizards have 24 games remaining in their 2021-22 schedule as they return from the All-Star break. Here are five questions for the team which should be answered over the next month-and-a-half...
How much will Porzingis play?
The Wizards acquired Kristaps Porzingis in a trade on Feb. 10, but he has yet to play for them due to a bone bruise in his right knee. Going back to his time with Dallas, he has missed 10 consecutive games because of the injury. The Wizards described him as day-to-day as they entered the All-Star break and it remains unclear when he will debut, though head coach Wes Unseld Jr. did indicate it could be Friday against the Spurs in their first game back.
Durability has long been a concern for Porzingis and it's a reputation he says he's determined to change. But in addition to simply monitoring his availability the rest of the way, it will be interesting to see him out there with his new teammates this season. Bradley Beal isn't going to play, but we will still get the early returns of how he can co-exist with Kyle Kuzma in the Wizards' frontcourt. Both like to take a lot of threes, which will present a unique dynamic. Porzingis should add outside shooting and shot-blocking, two areas of need for the Wizards this season.
Play-in tournament or lottery?
The Wizards find themselves at a familiar crossroads in the standings; on the bubble to make the postseason. They return from the break with a 27-31 record, good for 11th in the Eastern Conference and just one game back from the Atlanta Hawks for the 10th and final spot in the play-in tournament. If the season ended today, the Wizards would be 12th in the draft lottery and miss out on postseason play. They have a chance to either move up in the standings to make the play-in tournament and possibly the playoffs, or fall further down and improve their lottery odds. One factor which could help their cause to win is that the Wizards have the fourth-easiest remaining schedule.
Once again, that prospect has led to much debate among fans and media. While you could argue the most important outcome for the Wizards involves player development, the reality remains that with Beal's injury and where they are in the standings, a higher lottery pick would be helpful. Really, it's an unfortunate dynamic that is unique to the NBA. You don't see fans actively rooting for their teams to miss the playoffs when they are this close in the NFL, NHL or in MLB. Granted, those sports tend to have more parity with lower seeds and deep playoff runs. But the NBA should really consider altering its lottery odds structure to incentivize making the postseason and disincentivize tanking. Weighting lottery odds to favor the teams that get the final play-in spots over those that don't might do the trick. Or, they could do something more extreme like flatten odds across the lottery, offering no reward for being at the bottom.
Which young players will emerge?
With Beal out and a host of veterans now elsewhere after the trade deadline, the Wizards have a roster dynamic that will naturally create more opportunities for their younger players. The rest of the season could amount to a really good chance for guys like Rui Hachimura, Deni Avdija, Corey Kispert, Thomas Bryant and Daniel Gafford to grow. There could be numerous benefits if some collection of them level up in the final 24 games, as the Wizards could further develop their rotation for next season or have more options in trades.
The Wizards have been in this position before, and recently. Two years ago, many of the same things were said when they went to the bubble in Orlando with Hachimura, Bryant and others. But this time it seems like they have more and better young talent than they did at that point. It would seem they have a better chance of winning games this time around, given that and also because they have capable veterans like Porzingis, Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. But time will tell on their young players, as they have to take advantage of the opportunity and show progress. One way or another, the Wizards will have a better idea of what they have going into the offseason.
Who gets minutes at center?
While the Wizards have more playing time to offer their young players, once Porzingis comes back it will likely affect either Bryant or Gafford to a significant degree. One has to imagine Porzingis will take over as the starting five given Kuzma has played so well at the four. Does that bump Bryant to the No. 2 spot and Gafford out of the picture, or will Gafford get some playing time as well?
Making things more interesting is the contract situations at hand. Porzingis and Gafford are both signed past this season while Bryant is an impending free agent. Whether the Wizards can justify re-signing Bryant given that dynamic is unclear. Maybe some lineup experimentation will help sort those questions out, like seeing if Porzingis can play with either Bryant or Gafford.
Will their defense improve?
The Wizards have had a similar trajectory each of the past two years, as both times their defense improved significantly after the trade deadline. In 2019-20, they were 30th in defense before the deadline and 14th after making some changes at guard. Last season, they were 26th before the deadline and fifth after they got Daniel Gafford. This year, they have Porzingis and point guard Ish Smith added into the mix plus they removed some veteran players to shake things up. Will we see the same effect?
The Wizards were the 22nd-ranked defense before the deadline and have only played five games since. While they are 15th in defense during that span, it's too early to tell if they are better, plus Porzingis hasn't played. He has some well-documented mobility issues on defense, but will be their best shot-blocker and that could help given their problems in the paint. If the Wizards do not improve defensively down the stretch of this season, it will be interesting to see how that affects their summer plans given how much defense was an emphasis last offseason. So far, the improvement they were hoping to make hasn't been there.