The Washington Wizards have had an up-and-down season to say the least. The addition of Russell Westbrook from the Houston Rockets generated major buzz around the NBA, and many believed that Washington could sneak into the playoffs come June. However, they came out of the gates ice cold, compiling a 5-15 record in their first 20 games. The Wizards could score; there was no doubt about that with a backcourt of Westbrook and Bradley Beal. But they didn’t hold an opponent under 100 points until a matchup against the Celtics, their 24th game of the season.
For the Wizards, this year has been one of player development, trade rumors, frustration, momentary elation, and more frustration. They still sit at twelfth in the Eastern Conference, seven games behind the eighth-seeded Knicks and just two games behind the 10th-seeded Bulls. They lost big man Thomas Bryant to a torn ACL 10 games into the season and have struggled with frontcourt scoring and paint defense ever since.
Despite their constant fluctuation in the standings, the Wizards currently find themselves in a position to claw for a spot in the play-in tournament. To provide some background, the play-in tournament is not new to the NBA. Last summer in the Orlando bubble, the eighth- and ninth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers and Memphis Grizzlies fought for the eighth playoff seed in the Western Conference. This season’s tournament is expanded, as teams seeded seventh through 10th in each conference will play for the seventh and eighth playoff seeds in May.
Washington is in a bit of a strange situation. They’re currently at full strength, with the exception of Bryant. If they want to make a push for the tournament, it’s now or never. At the same time, they have the seventh-worst record in the whole league. The Wizards simply aren’t good enough for a deep playoff run, yet they’ve played better against contenders this season than teams under a .500 record. But they have a chance to make the play-in, and if they do, watch out for the dynamic duo of Westbrook and Beal.
Russell Westbrook has been to the playoffs for 10 straight years dating back to his sophomore season in the NBA. So it’s no secret that he has a streak he would like to extend. However, since Kevin Durant left Westbrook in Oklahoma City, the latter hasn’t made it past the second round. The trend paired with his poor postseason efficiency has raised questions of whether Westbrook can lead his team to victory on the biggest stages.
Bradley Beal, on the other hand, has just four postseason appearances (most recently in 2018). He usually played second fiddle to lead guard John Wall, but he was reasonably efficient his 40 playoff games (22.7 points per game on 44.0% from the field and 36.3% from deep). Those aren’t stellar numbers in terms of efficiency, either, but not too shabby for a second option on offense.
So why am I claiming that the Wizards could make it through the play-in tournament on the shoulders of two high-volume, low-efficiency guards. That’s exactly the reason—they can pile on points in a hurry. Westbrook is still one of the most explosive guards in the NBA. He can get to the basket in the blink of an eye or pull up on a dime for his patented mid-range “cotton shot.” If he gets hot from the elbow, defenses better watch out.
Beal is the lightning to Westbrook’s thunder; he leads the league in points per game (31.0) and is shooting a career-high 48.5% from the field. Describe his game in one word? Crafty. Beal cuts to the rim with elite suddenness and has such smooth handles to create separation from his defender. He’s ultra-creative in the paint to compensate for his average 6’3”, 207-lb frame, but he can also rise up and throw it down for a posterizing slam.
Of course, this is a dream scenario for the Wizards. They still have an underwhelming wing rotation of Rui Hachimura and Deni Avdija in the starting lineup. Of course, the two players are in their sophomore and rookie seasons, respectively, but neither has been particularly impressive thus far.
Their X-factor come May could be the 28-year-old Davis Bertans, nicknamed the Latvian Laser. His career 40.8% clip from deep is what earns him that title, and he can get hot faster than you can say “5-year, $80 million contract.” In February, Bertans posted a career-high 35 points, converting nine threes on just 11 attempts. He has had some struggles throughout this season like the rest of the Wizards roster, but he’s a walking heat-check.
The Wizards have a long 20 games ahead of them to vie for a spot in the play-in tournament. But if they manage to weasel their way in, a hot-streak between Westbrook and Beal could earn Washington their first playoff appearance since 2018.