The Superofficial TAI Staff Wizards Playoff Forecast (and Season Look-Back)
So the Wizards aren’t the #SoWizards?
Now that the regular season is done, the TAI staff is here to provide you with:
#1: Our initial feeling regarding this post-season opponent, Daaaaa Bulls.
#2: A look-back on our prediction for the season from way back on Oct. 18 (post-Okafor injury but about a week before the Gortat trade).
Down the stretch, when it appeared that Washington would face Toronto, Chicago, or Brooklyn—Miami and Indiana later came into the picture, setting off slight hyperventilation amongst Wizards Nation—I told whomever would listen that my preference was the Bulls. I even went on local sports-talk radio (106.7 The Fan) to cement my preference. But that was in mid-March. As April approached and the Bulls started to get in a rhythm, maybe I wanted to backtrack. Maybe I wanted the Raptors.
Since Feb. 7, a week prior to the All-Star break, the Bulls are sporting the third best record in the NBA (24-9), while the Wizards are 12th best (20-14). Of course, Nene missed 22 of those games. Toronto, mind you, is 22-11 since the aforementioned date—fifth-best in the NBA. And thus, as the night transpired, I started to think that the Wizards would have about the same chance to win against either the Bulls or the Raptors. But when all was said and done, Chicago felt right.
Although important, I don’t want to get into the experience game. Chicago’s key players are battle-tested. Toronto has relatively little experience, especially as a 3-seed. Washington falls somewhere in between. Sure, Wall and Beal are wide-eyed pups, but Trevor Ariza has a ring, Marcin Gortat has been to the NBA Finals, and Nene, Gooden, Miller, and Harrington have a combined 188 games of playoff experience. Is there really that much of a reason to be scared of Chicago’s experience? No, not especially when D.J. Augustin, young Jimmy Butler, and the aging Kirk Hinrich are the key players in the Bulls’ backcourt.
Sure, be scared of Chicago’s defense. Be wary of the coaching matchup. The Bulls are damn good team (just as the Raptors are much better than people expect, despite playoff inexperience). But Washington, behind its #FullSquad powers, are completely capable of neutralizing Carlos Boozer (not as capable of a defender) and Joakim Noah (a very capable defender, but also one that Gortat and Nene can maneuver with their size and girth). The third key, of course, would be Trevor Booker continuing to step up to combat Taj Gibson.
If you’re scared, go to church. Me? I’ll be praying on a basketball court with Nene (via television) on Easter Sunday. Wizards in six.
(Prediction: 41-41, 7th in East)
I safely predicted a 41-41 record prior to the season under the obscure status of Emeka Okafor. Had the Wizards séance that I keep locked inside of a Gilbert Arenas bobble-head doll communicated with the dead from the future to me that Gortat would be Gortat and that the Eastern Conference would be the Eastern Conference, I might have predicted 46, 47, or 48 wins and been wrongly disappointed. What is relevance? Where is the context? Doesn’t team brass ever adjust expectations on the fly and don’t head coaches ever worry about anyone aside from themselves? Damn right they do. Right now, I don’t care about the woulda-couldas, the Jan Veselys, or the injuries and over-paying to retain free agent waiting to happen. Forty-four wins feels good. Perhaps not good enough to erase the memory of 277 losses (to 117 wins) over the five full seasons between playoff seasons, but you got to start somewhere. And that’s what we must keep reminding ourselves. If current John Wall and Bradley Beal are not to be able to eek by into the playoffs via Ernie Grunfeld’s mortgaging of under-developed assets for key figures but little equity in return, will future John Wall and Bradley Beal even have a chance to be their potential future selves? Who the fuck knows. Let’s just get into the rear-view mirror-less Ferarri that picked us up and hold on for the ride.
When I was in college there were generally two types of professors. The first kind of professor was laid back, would pepper in jokes with their lessons, and if I strolled in 15 or 20 minutes late, it was no big deal, because I’d still get what I needed out of that class on that particular day. I could literally talk, or do work for other classes in my major, and still feel like I had learned something. The second kind of professor was not interested in being playful, and they were all about the lesson from start to finish. If you showed up even one minute late, they would not let you enter their class. This professor took the job seriously, and as a student there was no room for even the smallest of transgressions. I had to be prepared each and every time. The Chicago Bulls are that second kind of professor, which is why I have reservations about picking the Wizards.
The Bulls don’t lose playoff games because of their high level of effort, because Coach Tom Thibodeau coaches them up, and Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer won’t let the players around them fail. When the Bulls lose a playoff series, it is simply a matter of their lack of playoff talent (also known as Derrick Rose). Conversely, the Wizards, even during this year’s successful playoff season, have been inconsistent. One night they are clicking defensively; Wall, Nene and Beal are on; and Randy Wittman is making the correct coaching decisions. The next night, the guards are shooting early in the shot clock, the defense is non-existent, and Coach Wittman looks flummoxed on the sideline. Or as Matt Moore put it in his playoff “danger rankings” for CBS Sports:
“They’re inconsistent, struggle defensively at times, and the offense just does unimaginably stupid things at times. How can I put this delicately? I don’t like their coaching matchup no matter who they play.”
If the Bulls and Wizards continue their season-long patterns, the Wizards will lose in six games. But if Wall and Beal take “that leap” when it matters most, the Wizards could expose the Bulls earlier than expected and win in six or seven games.
(Prediction: 35-47, 9th in East)
I thought the Wizards, as they were constructed at that time, were good enough to be competitive, but I felt that ultimately Nene would get hurt, which would derail any good momentum they had built. The one caveat I listed was that Team President Ernie Grunfeld could work some wizardly magic to improve the roster. By golly, the additions of Marcin Gortat and, to a much lesser extent, Drew Gooden and Andre Miller, were indeed magical—and I haven’t mentioned the career/contract-year Trevor Ariza pulled out of his hat. Yes, for the first time in six years, the Wizards have coerced a mea culpa paragraph out of me.
My initial preference was to play the Toronto Raptors instead of the Chicago Bulls. This was based primarily on the Raptors’ lack of playoff experience, the Bulls’ uncanny ability to grind out close games, and a nagging fear that Tom Thibodeau will devise a Wall-stopping defensive scheme involving Joakim Noah double-teams at half-court.
But now that the playoff matchups are set, the time for debating hypothetical first-round opponents is over. John Wall is primed to play 44 minutes per game, and if he is the best player on the court at all times, then Washington is going to party like its 2005. Someone just needs to remind him to cover D.J. Augustin every once in a while.
(Prediction: 36-46, 10th in East)
Back in October, Emeka Okafor was out indefinitely, and Nene was the only serviceable big man on the roster. I predicted Nene would get injured and a disappointing frontcourt of Kevin Serpahin and Jan Vesely would lead Washington to a 36-46 record and 10th place finish in the East. I stand by that prediction … but it pre-dated the arrival of Marcin Gortat. Setting aside any debate on the merits of the trade, Gortat’s steady play has kept Grunfeld’s subpar draft picks where they belong—on the bench–and the result, by my count, has been an additional eight wins.
The Wizards took the season series against the Bulls, 2-1, but they’ll be lucky to take two games from Chicago in the playoffs.
Remember: When Washington beat Chicago twice in mid-January, the Bulls were a sub-.500 team reeling from the loss of Derrick Rose and trade of Luol Deng. But when the Bulls pasted the Wizards in early-April, Chicago was en route to a 31-15 finish to the regular season, fueled by Joakim Noah’s rise as a top-5 MVP candidate—and that’s the team Washington will be facing.
Chicago’s bruising defense and experience especially worries me, while the Wizards have the look of a franchise that’s already won its championship by clinching a playoff berth for the first time in years.
(Prediction: 39-43, 8th in East)
I thought the Wizards would finally break through the 30-win mark (statistically, they were due) and slip into the playoffs. They exceeded my expectations, although not by much. While the team won 44 games rather than 39, they’re still basically what I figured they’d be—promising, inconsistent, and propped up by the weak Eastern Conference. But I definitely didn’t count on Trevor “contract year” Ariza contributing his scoring and defense.
The brain is a marvelous engine capable of reversing and changing one thought at least 82 million times before settling on any one decision. After several weeks spent dreading the Chicago Bulls and their relentless threshing machine of a defense, my particular gooey Krang flipped on its axis at 3 a.m. last night and decided that the Bulls were, in fact, the best possible matchup for the Wiz Kids as they take the stage in the playoffs for the first time in six years.
The decision was not made on any sort of elaborate exploration of X’s and O’s, because to look at the coaching matchup or consider how far the Bulls will ratchet up the defense in the postseason is enough to make the most optimistic of fans recoil in horror. Instead, consider the fact that just two short weeks ago the Bulls came into the District and put the paddle to the Wizards. They did everything short of flexing at center court, and Joakim Noah had a few choice words for Washington after the game.
In the old parlance of the locker room, this be bulletin board material, and if anyone is going to get up after being punched in the mouth and humiliated by an opponent, it’s John Wall. Better still, the games themselves will played on national television against a “big market” opponent with all the pomp and circumstance that entails. Rather than be relegated to dull echo chamber that is NBA TV and face a Toronto team that has only NBA diehards excited, big-game players such as John Wall and Trevor Ariza get to play it out on the grand stage. If you are going to succeed or flame out, it’s best to do it with all eyes watching, because then there are no excuses left in the offseason. Wizards in seven.
(Prediction 42-40, 7th in East)
I would like to say that my prediction of a 42-40 record for the Wizards was based off of some wild optimism on my part, but that would be lying and I scribe for a site that has “truth” in the chyron. Instead, I could have made some good bank if I was smart enough to lay bets on my prediction that the Eastern Conference would be the dire mess that it was this season. Well, perhaps not, as I do not think anyone expected it would be QUITE that bad. Moreover, I remain stunned that the Wizards succeeded despite going against every tenet of my recipe for success. With the exception of the stars, none of the Wizards young players demonstrated any great strides this season and were either shipped out of town or spent a majority of the time riding the pine. [Ed. Note: Trevor Booker has come on lately, but yea … still capable of sinking into the abyss. —KW] The supposedly KEY re-signing of Martell Webster turned into a tire fire. Instead, it was stunning brilliance of Trevor Ariza and dash of luck with retreads such as Andre Miller and Drew Gooden that were key spices to the already potent recipe of John Wall and Bao Bao Beal.
Before the Bulls recently embarrassed the Wizards on Polish Heritage Night, Chicago appeared to be a better first-round opponent than Toronto. The Raptors had throttled the Wizards three times and Washington had found success against the Bulls, once in Chicago and once in D.C. Obviously, the Bulls are a much-improved team now from those Wizards’ wins, and the Brooklyn Nets decided to tank these past few games to avoid them. Joakim Noah was correct in his assessment of Chicago’s victory over Washington on April 5: “We beat that ass tonight.”
The outcome of that contest has been used as a talking point to trump up the Bulls, and over the past few days, several Chicago fans were openly rooting to face off versus Washington in the first round. But the odds are low that Washington will shoot so poorly from 3-point range (3-for-16) and D.J. Augustin will pour in 25 points off the bench again.
Ariza was battling a sickness and looked awful in that game. Nene did not play, and he was instrumental in the Wizards’ two previous triumphs against Chicago (he made a game-saving block of a Jimmy Butler jumper attempt in one win). The Bulls half-court defense does provide a tough nut to crack, but Washington possesses more offensive firepower and can do some damage in transition.
Oh, and maybe President Obama will now finally attend one of John Wall’s games at Verizon Center. Although the POTUS will likely be cheering for his Bulls, he owes the Wizards after they covered for him through a painful shooting performance at the White House court last spring.
Be careful what you wish for, Bulls fans. Easter Sunday cannot come soon enough.
(Prediction: 35-47, 10th in East)
I predicted the 2009-10 Wizards would win 50 games and I was riding high after they beat the Mavericks on opening day in Dallas. Not only did they end up with 26 victories but the whole era was dismantled and the prime player reached impossible depths. My pre-season prognostication skills are shaky. I am usually overly optimistic due to just being so damn happy that NBA is back and thus often talk myself into the Wizards finally putting out a decent basketball product.
I decided this time to roll with a negative track and chose 35 wins for the season. The team didn’t have Gortat yet and Nene was making his usual injury noises. The other bigs in training camp looked inadequate for the challenge. Everyone expected high play from Wall, although his 3-point shooting was a surprise, but no one foresaw that Trevor Ariza would put up one of the best all-around seasons in franchise history.
The annoying aspect of the sports media culture is how a large part of the commentary is predictions by pundits, but there is rarely any follow up to evaluate these opinions. This is the premise of multiple of TV shows. No one ever admits they were incorrect or takes responsibility for their poor choices. They just go on making new ones.
I was wrong about the Wizards. Eating crow (or bull?) will be a nice-tasting Easter egg playoff treat.
John Converse Townsend
In March, when TAI took a futurist look at playoff seeding in the Eastern Conference, I wrote that the Wizards would want to avoid the Madhouse on Madison. The Bulls then were second in the NBA in opponent field goal percentage (43.3%), Defensive Rating (98.1) and points allowed per game (92.3). Not much has changed since, though they’re now the best defensive unit in the NBA: No. 1 in points allowed per game (91.8).
When you factor in Chicago’s record since January 1 (which is better than Miami’s), my initial feeling about a Wizards vs. Bulls playoff series isn’t that different from the hard-to-explain pain you feel after getting popped in the gonads.
But hey, the Wizards are in(side a woodchipper)!
(Prediction: 39-43, 9th in East)
I predicted the Wizards would play their last game in mid-April. And that very well may have been the case had Emperor Grunfeld not moved earth and heaven on a several occasions during the season to cover up long-standing flaws in the design of his roster.
The most notable addition was Marcin Gortat, who led the team in Win Shares (8.1) and ranks 8th among centers in EWA (9.3), a metric that estimates number of wins a player adds to a team’s season total above what a “replacement player,” say #KSLife or #AirWolf, would produce.
Gortat saved the Wizards’ season. And he may have saved Grunfeld’s job.
I still believe that the Bulls are the “right” opponent for the Wizards. The Raptors, when the Wizards were sitting pretty at 9-9 as the 3-seed in the East, were a mere 6-12. They’re a completely different, and completely legitimate, challenger to the best teams in the East now as the third seed, in the mold of 2012-2013 Indiana (who occupied the third seed in the 2013 playoffs before taking Miami to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals). The Bulls, on the other hand, have exceeded expectations in a different, and less evident, way. They lost their best player to injury, and another starter to a money-saving trade. And they’re still the fourth seed? It’s a testament to Noah, the coaching staff, and less glamorously, to guys like Jimmy Butler, D.J. Augustin (cut by the Raptors earlier this season), and Taj Gibson.
But of all the teams the Wizards could have faced, this is the best matchup. The Bulls specialize in forcing teams into the kind of shot that the Wizards offense is already predicated around. The teams have similar strengths, and similar weaknesses. The Wizards are a good defensive team, but the Bulls are better. The Wizards are a bad offensive team, but the Bulls are worse.
After the Milwaukee game, Wall said that the Bulls “made a statement” when they beat the shit out of the Wizards a few days prior. If Wall, Beal, and the Wizards have had enough time to get over the excitement of making the playoffs and internalize their own arrival, they’ll have a chance to beat the Bulls. But it will take a display of mental fortitude we haven’t seen out of this team yet, and it will take a competitive coaching effort from Randy Wittman as well. It’s probably most likely the Wizards lose this one in overtime in a seventh game, because that would be the easiest way to redefine #SoWizards. But I think they win in seven.
(Prediction: 43-39, 7th in East)
The Wizards have one more win than I predicted. However, I made that prediction assuming that Emeka Okafor, still on the roster and not yet declared out for the season, would miss some time but ultimately contribute towards a decent season and the seventh seed. Had the Wizards won as many games as I predicted, or one fewer than they did, they would have been in that seventh seed.
Gortat’s addition undoubtedly saved the Wizards season. Can you imagine 82 games of Kevin Seraphin or Jan Vesely at center? In a parallel universe, my forehead bears the imprint of a keyboard after a season full of facerolling futile sentences.
Perhaps I’m a brat, perhaps I should get off your lawn, perhaps “people who know basketball” would disagree with me. But expectations, with the Eastern Conference in ruins (the Bulls are the 4-seed without their best player!) and Gortat’s addition, should have been adjusted. Every team gives some games away, but the Wizards lost more overtime games than any team in the NBA (8). This roster was better than “one game better than the Bobcats.” Don’t mistake this as pessimism. If you have been reading carefully, you’ll see that I was the most optimistic of any TAI writer going into the season. I’d argue that’s still true. I think this Wizards team is better than their record reflects. Now that all the missions have been accomplished, let’s make a playoff baby.
Pierce for President
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