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The nine-game stretch that could decide the Washington Wizards’ playoff fate

The nine-game stretch that could decide the Washington Wizards’ playoff fate

For some teams, the NBA playoff race can drag on and on for weeks and months until it's sorted out. For the Wizards, they should learn plenty about their chances over the next nine games.

In their next nine games, the Wizards will play five against teams currently ranked between fifth and ninth in the East. They will face Charlotte, the No. 8 seed, twice to close out their head-to-head season series. They will also play the Magic, who are in ninth, once more for the final time.

Playoff tiebreakers are first determined by head-to-head records. The Wizards will know soon where they stand in that regard against what are currently the last team in and out.

Only 22 games remain on the Wizards' schedule. After this nine-game stretch, they will have 13 more, but only one of those - March 23 at the Heat - is against a team they are vying for a playoff spot against. 

Eight of their final 13 games are against Western Conference teams. The best opportunities to gain ground quickly by beating a direct competitor are all in the next few weeks.

Nine games from now will take the Wizards to the middle of March where the priorities could be shifting. They are currently 4 1/2 games out of the No. 8 playoff seed. If they can't gain any ground in the next nine games, the draft lottery will all but be a certainty.

Selection Sunday is on March 17 and the NCAA Tournament begins four days later. Wizards fans should know what to root for by the time the first round tips off, whether it be playoff scenarios or draft lottery odds.

The Wizards can go two very different ways when it comes to the latter. Making the playoffs would likely net them the 15th overall pick for the second straight year, barring a rare first round upset.

But because the middle of the Western Conference is so much better than the East, the Wizards could conceivably net the sixth-best lottery odds. They are currently seventh from the bottom with a record only 1 1/2 games better than the Memphis Grizzlies.

As of this week, the Wizards could realistically pick anywhere in the top half of the draft. That even includes No. 1 overall. The sixth-best lottery odds would give them a nine percent chance of getting the first pick, only five percent worse than the top three teams.

If these next nine games don't go well, the Wizards' goals could change dramatically. If they are out of the race down the homestretch of the regular season, they could pare the minutes down for veterans like Bradley Beal, Trevor Ariza and Jeff Green. They could give Troy Brown Jr. more opportunities to play.

They could go into evaluation mode to further see what they have in upcoming free agents like Bobby Portis, Jabari Parker, Thomas Bryant and Sam Dekker. Meanwhile, they could turn a keen eye towards the top prospects in the NCAA Tournament.

Losing nine of their past 12 games have put the Wizards' playoff aspirations in peril. Though they still hold out hope, it won't be long before they have a good idea of what the end of this season will hold.

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Andre Drummond, Blake Griffin: Pistons' stars that could hurt the Wizards, or not play at all

Andre Drummond, Blake Griffin: Pistons' stars that could hurt the Wizards, or not play at all

Washington has dropped seven of their last eight games and their schedule doesn't lighten up by any means in the near future. Detroit has won three of their last four games with their most recent victory coming in Houston as they defeated the Rockets without C Andre Drummond, and F Blake Griffin exiting the game early with a knee injury. 

In desperate need of a win here’s who Wizards' fans and players should keep their eyes on.

Blake Griffin, maybe?

Season stats: 16.4 pts, 4.6 reb, 3.3 ast

Griffin didn't play in Detroit's early November loss to the Wizards due to continued soreness in his knee and hamstring, and it's quite possible he doesn't play in this matchup either for the same reason. Griffin tallied 15 minutes in the first half of the Pistons 115-107 victory over the Houston Rockets Saturday, but only had 2 points on 0-for-7 shooting to show for it. After halftime, Griffin didn't return and was ruled out for the remainder of the game with knee soreness once again. In the month of December, he's averaging 19.7 points on 42.9% shooting and 5.1 rebounds. 

Washington's bigs have struggled mightily with injuries, which has subsequently hampered their paint defense -- One of the reasons why the Memphis Grizzlies scored 70 of their 128 total points down low last game vs the Wizards. Washington will most likely be without Moe Wagner once again who's struggling with an ankle injury and Thomas Bryant who's recovering from a stress reaction in his foot. 

Luke Kennard

Season stats: 16.2 pts, 3.4 reb, 4.1 ast

The Pistons leading scorer the last time these two teams faced off (24 points, 6-12 FG, 3-4 3P FG), Kennard has been a pleasant surprise for Detroit this season. He's averaging career-bests in nearly every category while maintaining his efficiency from deep. Last season Kennard averaged: 9.7 points, 2.7 rebounds, 1.8 assists in 22.8 minutes per game, he may quietly have a case for most improved player and possibly sixth man of the year. 

Markieff Morris

Season stats: 10.6 points, 4.0  reb, 1.5 ast

If Blake Griffin can't go, Markieff Morris is the next man up. In the first meeting (which I inexplicably deemed the 'Keef revenge game' prior to tip-off) Morris had a lackluster 4 points on 2-for-4 shooting. However, in the last two games, he's averaging 15.5 points on 57.1% shooting from the field as well as 54.5% from 3-point range. He'll be looking for revenge for sure. 

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Which team is closer to contention: the Wizards or Grizzlies?

Which team is closer to contention: the Wizards or Grizzlies?

While watching the Wizards take on another rebuilding team, as they did on Saturday night in their loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, it's only natural to compare the stages of those respective rebuilds and wonder which team is closer. That may be an even more interesting question with a game like Saturday's that matched the Wizards against a team doing things a decidedly different way.

In a sense, the Wizards are where the Grizzlies were last season. Memphis had unexpectedly bottomed out the year before, enough to land Jaren Jackson Jr. in the draft. And, like the Wizards this year, they were holding onto their core veterans, in their case Mike Conley Jr. and Marc Gasol.

But the Grizzlies didn't bounce back into playoff contention like they had hoped and ended up trading both Gasol and Conley, and arguably too late. The Wizards wish to avoid that fate with Bradley Beal and John Wall.

Neither the Wizards (7-17) or Grizzlies (9-17) are a good team right now and both would like to be back in the playoff mix sooner than later, maybe even next year. So, who is closer?

The Grizzlies have the more impressive young core with Jackson and Ja Morant. Both are just 20 years old and they each look like future All-Stars, if not All-NBA talents.

Jackson is averaging 17.6 points and 1.2 blocks while shooting 40 percent from three on six attempts per game. He's a two-way unicorn who can make plays like a guard and has potential to become an elite rim protector.

Morant is the early favorite for rookie of the year, averaging 18.7 points and 6.4 assists while shooting 42.6 percent from long range. He has future star written all over him with a game reminiscent of a young Wall or Russell Westbrook.

The Grizzlies appear to have hit on their high draft picks, but have also nailed later ones, the type of moves that separate the best front offices. Brandon Clarke, the 21st pick this past June, looks like a steal. And Dillon Brooks, a second round pick in 2017, is a solid young player.

But the Wizards also have an emerging young core with Thomas Bryant, Rui Hachimura and Moe Wagner. None of them are as good as Jackson or Morant, but they are good players on the rise. And, most importantly, the Wizards have Beal.

While Jackson and Morant could someday be stars, Beal already is one and he's signed long-term. Potential is a commodity in the NBA, but nothing is guaranteed for young teams and young players. Just look at the Bulls and Hawks this season.

Now, the Grizzlies do have something the Wizards would absolutely love to have and that is real financial flexibility. They have close to $70 million in salary coming off the books this summer and have the second-lowest payroll committed for next season of any team in the NBA, second only to Atlanta.

The Wizards, meanwhile, are strapped with Wall's supermax contract which, depending on how he returns from a torn Achilles, could be an albatross for years to come. Though cap space doesn't mean the Grizzlies will be able to lure free agents, as Memphis has never been mistaken for a prime destination, but it's a preferable spot to be in. Wall's deal may prevent the Wizards from keeping players they would otherwise re-sign, when Memphis should have no such problem.

So, so far we have the Grizzlies with a better young nucleus and a much better salary cap situation. The Wizards, though, have the proven star and may have two if Wall returns to form.

But here's what may give the Wizards the edge, or at least secure a push. The Grizzlies have to give one of their next two first round picks to Boston by way of a 2015 trade. It is top-6 protected this year and unprotected in 2021 if it doesn't convey this June. That could be a major problem for a team trying to build through the draft.

Also, the Wizards are lucky to be in the Eastern Conference. Though the Grizzlies geographically should be in the East, they remain in the West which has been the superior conference basically since Michael Jordan retired from the Bulls.

There is, of course, no definitive answer to the root question of this analysis. The easiest way to settle it would be to say the Grizzlies have a higher ceiling at this point because of Morant and Jackson, but the Wizards probably have the more likely path to the playoffs next season, given they play in the East and have two guys with a track record of getting there.

But as we compare the teams, keep in mind what Memphis wanted to do and what they ended up doing in terms of trading their veteran stars. The Wizards don't want to take their rebuild that far, but sometimes things don't go according to plan. Just ask the Grizzlies.

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