Search far and wide among the association, nobody had a merrier Christmas than the Washington Wizards.
Firing on all cylinders against the Boston Celtics, the Wizards dominated the paint, limited turnovers and got out in transition. John Wall ran the offense with composed brilliance, and Bradley Beal showed why he’s going to be a first time All-Star. This was a message to the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and coincidently the team that beat the Wizards in seven games in last year’s conference semifinals.
Fast forward just two days to the Phillips Arena in downtown Atlanta, where the Wizards faced the 9-25 Hawks. A decimated roster without three of its starters from a year ago, the Hawks are engaged in full on tank mode. Riding a wave of momentum from their last game, the Wizards could put away the Hawks in the first half for a win that’s as easy as they come, or revert to bad habits and be forced into a competitive game.
In the most Wizards fashion imaginable, they chose the latter.
The Hawks drubbed the Wizards 113-99, with all five Hawks starters scoring in double digits. The Wizards had at least a four-point lead for most of the game, but were outscored 35-23 in the final frame. The hustle and heart that was so evident against the Celtics had vanished against a team without even 10 wins on the season. If the Hawks hadn’t gone 11-37 beyond the arc, the Wizards may have lost by 40.
Inconsistency has marred the Wizards’ potential all season. Against teams with records above .500, the Wizards are 11-6 with a +5.5 scoring margin. Against teams with below .500 records, they’re 10-10, with a +.6 scoring margin. For Wall, the root of this problem is selfishness.
“We talk about it. We say when we play these teams that are not above .500 or not one of the great teams, we go out there playing for stats,” Wall said, via Candace Buckner of The Washington Post. “It’s simple as that. We can see it. I think we all can see it when we play.”
The drop-off in defense is the most glaring change between playing teams with above .500 records and teams without. Against above-average teams, the Wizards allow 101.8 PPG, in contrast to below average teams, where the Wizards allow 105.8 PPG. The cause of this decline has nothing to do with ability but rather effort. The Wizards allow 8.9 offensive rebounds against good teams but 10.9 against bad teams. In the Wizards’ loss to the Hawks, they gave up the third-most offensive rebounds they have all season to a team 17th in the league in offensive rebounding.
Against above-average teams, the Wizards commit 19.7 personal fouls and allow 20.5 free throws, compared to below-average teams, where those numbers jump to 23.4 and 26.4, respectively. When playing good teams, the defense is locked in and players are beating their man to the spot, but this focus dissipates against lesser opponents, leading to lazy wrap swipes and blatant fouls at the rim.
At first glance, it may appear the Wizards play the same offensively against good or bad teams. Against opponents with above .500 records, the Wizards score 106.4 PPG, while scoring 106.6 PPG against opponents with below .500 records. Similar figures, but it’s the way the scoring is happening that highlights the differences in effort. Against teams above .500, they shoot 39% from three, compared to 35% against teams below .500. Even from an eye test standpoint, it’s easy to see the difference in shot quality from game to game. A turnaround fadeaway from Markieff Morris isn’t a good shot, nor is a Wall pull up three pointer. Open shots are a direct result of a concerted effort to move the ball and not play “selfish,” something Bradley Beal has taken notice of.
“I wouldn’t say that we’re a selfish team. I just feel like we have selfish moments because Boston we weren’t selfish,” Beal said, via The Post. “We were moving the ball, passing, everybody got touches, everybody got shots. [Against the Hawks] it was about me, me, me, me because we’re playing an under .500 team, so we think it’s going to be easy and that’s something that’s been killing us. We fall into that trap every single time.”
The up and downs of the Wizards season has been painfully entertaining to watch so far, but there’s an obvious silver lining among the confusion. The Wizards are losing to bad teams, while beating the good ones. Come playoff time they’ll play to the level of their competition, but their inconsistency issues could harm them when it comes to seeding. Right now, the Wizards are 21-16 at the five spot, but there’s no reason they shouldn’t be a top-three seed with home court advantage in at least one playoff series.
With the All-Star Break approaching, it’s fair to doll out midseason evaluations for teams. For the Wizards, they get an A for ability, but an F for effort. Although these are serious concerns, the solution is right in front of the Wizards: play harder. If they can find it within themselves to give 110% effort each night, they’ve got shot to compete for a title.