WASHINGTON -- A wise man once said "don't ever think it can't get any worse because it can." That was former Wizards head coach Flip Saunders and certainly, the Wizards franchise has learned that lesson the hard way over the years.
That being said, the Wizards' recent predicament of sending roughly half their roster into health and safety protocols is starting to let up. They may not be at the end of it, and there may be lingering effects to monitor moving forward, but there is reason to believe that Wednesday's loss to the Rockets was both a low point and perhaps the beginning of a turning point.
It may have been the rock bottom moment of their coronavirus outbreak, as a roster featuring many replacement players then saw Davis Bertans exit in the second quarter with a left foot sprain and then star guard Bradley Beal foul out early in the fourth. Even with Raul Neto having returned from health and safety protocols, Wizards head coach Wes Unseld Jr. basically had six regular players to work with down the stretch of a close game. Not surprisingly, they lost and even though they were playing one of the league's worst teams.
Neto's return, however, was just the start of what should be a wave of players coming back. Spencer Dinwiddie and Aaron Holiday have been cleared from protocols and are expected to play on Friday in Chicago. Rui Hachimura and Thomas Bryant have also been cleared, setting the stage for each to make their season debuts. Hachimura's could come within the next few days, while Bryant is expected back in a week or two.
"We're just trying to manage it the best we can, hoping there's light at the end of the tunnel and we're kind of coming to the end of this stretch," Unseld Jr. said.
Remaining in protocols are Montrezl Harrell, Anthony Gill plus their two replacement point guards Brad Wanamaker and Tremont Waters. Unseld Jr. expressed optimism Harrell could be cleared as soon as Thursday. Once he comes back, the Wizards will have the regular rotation they have played with for much of this season, the lone question being Bertans' injury status.
From there, the Wizards can look to the returns of Hachimura (personal reasons) and Bryant (ACL rehab) and maybe, just maybe, put together a full team for the first time this season. In the meantime, they have done what they can with the few players still available.
The Wizards at one point had nine players enter health and safety protocols. They have signed four players from their G-League affiliate, the Capital City Go-Go, plus three free agents from outside the organization, plus another in Greg Monroe who technically counts as both. He was with the Go-Go before leaving to join the Timberwolves and is now set to return.
As that roster churn has taken place, the remaining players and those who returned quicker than others have had no choice but to step up and fill the void. Kyle Kuzma, for instance, had to play 43 minutes in Wednesday's loss. He played 41 minutes against the Hornets on Monday and 40 minutes against the Bulls on Saturday.
Though Kuzma insists he wants to be on the floor as much as possible, he said playing that much requires some adjustments in between games.
"The tough part is, knowing you're going to be playing a lot of minutes, trying to stay off your feet as much as possible when you're not playing, to be in the game and have energy," he said.
Kuzma also had to play through some pain on Saturday after landing hard on his hip. It has not been an easy time.
The Wizards may also see some ripple effects in the next few weeks as players continue to come back from protocols. Kuzma contracted COVID-19 in December and said it took him a few days to regain his conditioning once he got back in games.
Even as they re-install players into their rotation, there will be adjusting and perhaps some patience required for some to get back into midseason form. The hope would be that once guys are back, they are back for good, but Gill for example recently spent time in protocols, returned and then went right back in after playing one game.
It may still be some time before the Wizards are all the way up to speed, but they are getting closer and the worst of it may be behind them.