The Washington Wizards franchise hasn’t made the Eastern Conference Finals since 1979, when they were the Washington Bullets. That’s not the far-and-away longest streak of futility in league history, however. Even recently, the Golden State Warriors weren’t present in the Western Conference Finals from 1977 through 2014.
But nonetheless, with the Cleveland Cavaliers and a surging Boston Celtics squad in the East right now, is this streak snapping anytime soon?
This year could’ve been a golden opportunity to break through, admittedly. Cleveland appeared to take a step back during the regular season. Boston lacks some size. And other contenders — Toronto, Milwaukee, Atlanta — had their own reasons for doubt.
Washington wasn’t and isn’t a world-beater. But going into the 2017 NBA Playoffs, they were as well situated as any team in the East to at least make it to the conference finals.
And now, they’re already down 2-0 to Boston in their second-round series, though they’ll head back home for game three.
Game 1 against the Celtics was a one-sided, 123-111 affair. But Game 2 was the opening the Wizards needed. Washington led at the half and going into the fourth, then a late run by Boston forced overtime before a dominant Celtics OT sealed the win. Isaiah Thomas scored an incredible 53 points, hammering home the snakebitten nature of the DC franchise. Good is never good enough. For almost 40 years, there’s always been someone better — and Washington usually meets them pretty early on in the postseason, too.
Since winning the Eastern Conference in 1979, the Bullets/Wizards have made it past the first round just five times (including this year) in 15 tries. They’ve also had just 15 tries — a sub-50 percent clip that’s included three different stretches of five years or more without a playoff berth at all.
All-Stars have come and gone. Moses Malone, Bernard King, Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison, Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Rasheed Wallace, Jerry Stackhouse and even late-career Michael Jordan have all suited up for the franchise in that span. Yet not one of them made it out of the second round in a Wizards uniform — even the ageless Jordan, who carried the team on his back in his very late 30s.
How has this become the norm?
Part of it may be the coaching turnover. The Bullets/Wizards have had 16 different coaches on the sideline for at least one game, yet none have coached more than 550. Of all of those men, just current coach Scott Brooks (49-33) and Bernie Bickerstaff (77-72 from 1997-99) even own winning records. The constantly changing coaches and coaching styles is one thing. But the decisions have repeatedly been poor.
Another element has likely been bad drafting. Recent NBA Drafts have yielded talents like Otto Porter (2013), Bradley Beal (2012) and John Wall (2010). But those are the rare wins among a slew of misses, or players dealt away before reaching their prime abilities. In fact, a look at the team’s draft history shows just how stark the difference is between the hits and the gaffes — and the large collection of players traded away. There’s really only a handful of players who have found any sort of traction in the NBA at all. And most that have did so on other teams.
Those draft failures speak to another point of overall roster management. While some All-Stars were mentioned earlier, many either arrived too early or too late in their careers to be truly dominant. Perhaps Gilbert Arenas was the main exception to that rule, and he still flamed out before leaving Washington. Wall’s a star, and even then, he’s still probably not among the top-10 players in the league. Moses Malone had two excellent seasons in Washington, but was still on the back half of his career already.
You could debate that the Wizards/Bullets have not had a top-10 player on this roster for the entirety of the last 38 seasons now. That’s how you miss the conference finals for 37, going on 38 years in a row.
The Wiz aren’t dead just yet, of course. Down 2-0 to the Celtics is a tough hill to climb, but Washington gets home court to help them out for the next two games. Their 30-11 home mark was among the best in the league, though the same could be said for Boston’s 23-18 road record as well.
When the Wizards take the court on Thursday night, they won’t just be lining up against Boston, but a little bit of history as well. They have just a handful of games left to prevent this streak from getting to 38 straight.