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Don’t look now, but here come the Wizards

The Washington Wizards are 19-19.

They’re not even in a playoff position at the midpoint of the season, weeks before the All-Star break.

Like every other Eastern Conference team not named the Cleveland Cavaliers, they have their share of gaping flaws.

Yet, as hard as it might seem to say of a ballclub which is 10th in its conference on the morning of January 16, the Wizards just might be one of the last four teams to play in the NBA this season.

You read that right — Washington just might be the best bet to oppose Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals and play basketball when a lot of other teams (including some indisputably better ones, likely Oklahoma City and the Clippers) are sitting at home.

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The typical trend this season in the basketball blogging community has been as follows: We watch an East team win three or four games in a row; ascend to that number two spot in the East standings; and then lose a bunch of games without delay. This three-step process answers the “Can Team X be the Cavs’ main challenger?” columns basketball bloggers have been pumping out with great regularity.

Some team will play the Cavs in late May when the playoff field has been whittled down to four teams — perhaps not because that team deserves the honor, but only because someone has to.

“Which ordinary team will make the East Finals against Cleveland?” The question will remain with us for some time.

What might be changing in the East is this: Instead of focusing on the team currently in the number two slot (right now, that’s Toronto, up by 1.5 games over the injured and alarmed Chicago Bulls), the most attractive prospect for the 2 seed is a team sitting outside the playoffs at the moment.

Yes, the Washington Wizards are in 10th place. Yet, they have a surprisingly realistic chance of grabbing the No. 2 slot before this season is over, sitting just FOUR GAMES behind Toronto in the loss column. Their outlook is a lot more hopeful than several other teams in front of them (Indiana, Miami, and now Chicago).

Let’s briefly consider why the Wizards have the table properly set for a big second half of the season.

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Injuries can thwart a season, but if they’re not season-long injuries, they can be blessings in disguise. A month-long injury (or thereabouts) forces backups to solve problems and integrate with teammates on the floor, in adjusted lineup combinations. Locker-room, hotel, and airplane camaraderie are all part of team bonding, but it’s on the floor where professionals must exhibit communal cohesion. If done properly, this process of integration gives a coaching staff many more options and the ability to rotate players in February, March and April, so that everyone stays relatively fresh.

It could be happening with the Wizards.

Bradley Beal has missed a lot of time with an injury. So have Marcin Gortat (still out) and DeJuan Blair (recently reeturned to the lineup). However, the Wizards — with important contributions from the likes of Garrett Temple and Ramon Sessions — stayed afloat when Beal was out of the lineup. An 8-8 record without a player of Beal’s significance represents a triumph for coach Randy Wittman, who continues to show that he’s capable of growth in D.C.

Beal is now back in the lineup, and on Friday night in Indianapolis, he and John Wall — the man who carried Washington through its particularly difficult period — torched the Indiana Pacers.

The Beal-Wall duo hit 21 of 36 shots — that’s just over 58 percent — and Beal hit 4 of 7 triples in a masterful offensive performance. The Wizards hit 52 percent of their field goals as a team, scoring 118 in a lopsided win over the Pacers. Washington finished minus-22 in free throw attempts and minus-20 in makes, but still rolled to a 14-point victory… on the road.

The news gets even better for Washington: It’s not as though Beal was overextended in terms of minutes. Wittman is properly shepherding him back into the flow of the rotation. He played only 22 minutes, yet posted 22 points against Indiana.

The injury to Gortat isn’t an insignificant event, but in many ways, it prevents Wittman from putting both players on the floor at the same time. The frontcourt has been the thorny part of the equation for Washington in past seasons, particularly in the playoffs. With Gortat out of the mix, Nene Hilario knows he must be more task-focused. Blair, recently back from an injury of his own, went for 12 points, 6 rebounds, and 2 steals against Indiana in 23 highly productive minutes. The Gortat injury is forcing the Wizards to figure things out in the frontcourt, which can only help them going forward (or center, as the case may be).

If the Wizards can get Otto Porter back into their lineup (that’s more important than getting Gortat back), they’ll field an offense which will be especially capable of spacing and dislocating opposing defenses. If you look at the other non-Cleveland teams in the East, only Atlanta’s Jeff Teague belongs in the same class as John Wall in terms of quickness, but whereas Kyle Korver of the Hawks has declined this season, Beal’s jumper is as trustworthy as ever.

Moreover, Beal — with fresh legs due to his injury-based absence over the past month — is only going to become more dynamic as long as he stays healthy. If he’s ready to play 35 minutes a night by the time the All-Star break is over, the Wizards should be on schedule. If Porter can return and find his rhythm by the time March rolls around, the Wizards won’t just have a fully functioning team; they’ll have players with less tread on the tires.

Want to pick a No. 2 seed in the East from the clutter in front of you?

The Washington Wizards are not a bad choice at all, no matter what the standings might indicate.

Matt Zemek

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.

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