From a five-game losing streak to open the season to an early-season, two-week hiatus brought on by a COVID-19 outbreak, the Wizards had as tough of a start to their 2020-21 season as any team in basketball. And that doesn't include the loss of multiple key players, including breakout young center Thomas Bryant and a star player playing through a quad injury early in the season.
The Wizards wound up reaching their lowest point on April 5 at 17-32, with most simulators giving them less than a one percent chance to make the playoffs. But a switch flipped, and they finished the season on a 17-6 run to earn the eighth seed in the playoffs, clinching their berth with a dominant play-in game victory over the Pacers.
So, how did they manage to turn things around so starkly to save their season? According to the man who built the roster, it was about their attitude more than anything else.
"Tremendous resiliency, tremendous grit," Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard told NBC Sports Washington ahead of Sunday's Game 1 matchup in Philadelphia. "And everything that we’ve gone through this year, you know at points in the season you feel like you’re in the third ring of Hell, and then all of a sudden you kind of break through. I think the leadership that Scott [Brooks] has shown this group, I think the leadership from within with Bradley [Beal] and with Russell [Westbrook], so many different guys have stepped forward and put their fingerprints on this as well. I’m just so grateful."
The Wizards had to remake themselves on the fly, adjust to a hobbled early-season roster that didn't just lose Bryant, but also had star acquisition Russell Westbrook playing through a quad injury.
The Wizards added Alex Len and Daniel Gafford, to pair with Robin Lopez and create a since-dubbed "three-headed monster" at center. They also added Chandler Hutchison and tweaked their lineup throughout the season, even as 2019 first-round pick Rui Hachimura and 2020 first-round pick Deni Avdija dealt with injuries of their own.
But through all the ups and downs, Sheppard is comfortable with where the Wizards ended up.
"We actually landed where we wanted to be preseason," Sheppard said. "We really expected to go to the postseason. Going through that first couple weeks we kind of said you know what, we might have to recalibrate expectations a little bit. But the players were having none of it. We were going to fight through whatever was ahead...This team has always been resilient and very gritty."
Sheppard, in the interview, also made it clear that simply making the eighth seed isn't this team's endgame, and they don't consider themselves satisfied just yet. But all it takes is making the postseason, and he believes anything can happen.
A large part of that belief stems from his superstar backcourt, where Westbrook and Beal have teamed up to not only dominate statistically - Beal finished just mere decimal points away from leading the NBA in scoring while Westbrook set the all-time NBA record for career triple-doubles - but also as leaders in the locker room and on the court.
"[Westbrook]’s been in big games, been in over 100 playoff games. Bradley’s been in 40 playoff games," Sheppard continued. "Playoff Bradley Beal is unbelievable, now you put him with Russell I think we’ve got a formidable duo right there. But it’s going to take everybody, as I said, and Russell’s ability to get the best out of all the players has been something that’s really been an outstanding thing to watch this year."
For whatever momentum is worth in the postseason, the Wizards have as much of it as any team in the league. And they also have a pair of leaders on the roster that the rest of the team is excited to follow.
"I think what Russell does, his effort, his ability to really bring players level up their confidence in themselves, to give everybody confidence," Sheppard said. "He lines up with Bradley, and guys line up behind them. And they charge. And that’s what I really appreciate about his spirit."
Tune in to Wizards Pregame Live Sunday at noon to catch the full interview with Wizards GM Tommy Sheppard as the crew gets you ready for Wizards-76ers Game 1 at 1 p.m.