Wizards

Wizards getting healthy in time for trade deadline evaluations

Wizards

Things are starting to look up for the Washington Wizards as they cross the midway point of their season. They have won three straight games, their longest win streak since Nov. 15, when they were 10-3. They are in the middle of an eight-game homestand, their longest as a franchise since 1984, and are already taking advantage of it off to a 2-0 start.

More important than anything, they continue to get players back from COVID-19 health and safety protocols and injuries, and are now the closest to having their entire roster healthy and available than they have been all year. The lone absence at the moment is a big one, with Bradley Beal in health and safety protocols. Once he is back, the Wizards will be able to fully realize the depth they made a point to add over the offseason.

It will also come at a good time. The NBA trade deadline is four weeks away, on Feb. 10. The Wizards will be able to get a proper read on what they have before making decisions on who to deal and what to acquire.

Head coach Wes Unseld Jr. will have 11 games to sort out his rotation. Meanwhile, the Wizards will face six teams currently in the Eastern Conference playoff/play-in picture. They will see the Sixers (twice), the Nets, Raptors, Celtics, Bucks and Heat. All are possibilities for the Wizards to face in the postseason -- if they make it there.

As Washington navigates this stretch, it can determine which weaknesses are less fixable than others. Two areas the front office must keep an eye on are shooting and defense -- specifically ball-stopping on the perimeter. The Wizards continue to rank among the worst three-point shooting teams in the league (30th in makes, 26th in %). And defensively, they have dropped off significantly from their hot start to the season with points in the paint and rim protection as persistent problems.

 

The three-point shooting seems to have a chance to improve over time. Not only do they feature a host of players who have shot well below their career norms, they just got Thomas Bryant back from his ACL surgery and he's one of their best long range threats. Rui Hachimura also recently made his season debut and could help in that regard if the upward trajectory he has shown as an outside shooter so far in his career continues.

Defense may be the biggest question mark, as most of the players the Wizards will rely on to fix it have been there all season. Washington ranks 23rd in defensive efficiency and that is with a point guard rotation full of capable defenders, wing defenders like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Deni Avdija plus one of the game's top shot-blockers in Daniel Gafford.

The Wizards happen to allow the fewest threes per game of any team. Knowing that, they need to decipher why the combination of Gafford in the middle and also one of the best three-point defenses has not led to a better defense overall. 

In a best-case scenario, the Wizards will find over the next several weeks that they can deal from a position of depth at multiple spots. Perhaps it's in a consolidation trade, two or three players for one, that leaves them with enough remaining depth to build a strong bench behind a Beal-led core.

Unseld Jr. has indicated he wants to solidify a rotation of 9-to-10 players. Between their young ascending players and proven veterans, the Wizards could have an overflow come Feb. 10.

Whether it is a significant trade or a minor one, working in Washington's favor is the recent track record of the front office at this time of the year. Team president Tommy Sheppard has operated through two trade deadlines as the team's architect and each time improved the Wizards without giving up very much.

In 2020, they brought in guard Shabazz Napier, who helped them show progress defensively down the stretch of a losing season. In 2021, they acquired Gafford who supercharged their run towards clinching a playoff spot and earned a contract extension seven months later.

Washington's front office has proven that big moves can come in seemingly small packages. And given the salary flexibility created over the summer by turning a supermax contract (Russell Westbrook) into a series of mid-level deals, it could think bigger if it wants to.

Whatever they end up doing, the Wizards should have an accurate gauge on what they have and what they need.