Wizards

The Winless Wizards Have Nothing More to Lose

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The Washington Wizards had a rough go of it in February.

They capped off their first full winless month in franchise history, going 0-12 despite the leap year giving them one more chance than they’d usually be provided.

What’s worse, the unsuccessful stretch dropped them to 9-50, one of the league’s worst marks. A backbreaking 140-115 loss to the LA Clippers on the first day of March added yet another loss to their abacus, solidifying a league-worst 9-51 record. The Detroit Pistons remarkably managed to play 28 straight games without a win, yet they entered this week — and still are — half a game ahead of the Wizards in the standings.

Still, it’s hard to ignore the brutal hand the Wiz were dealt over 29 drawn-out days. All 12 teams they faced over the unfortunate span cruised into March as a top-six seed in their respective conference, save for hopeful-contenders-turned-underachievers in the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers. They also bookended the month with a pair of untimely matchups against the Clippers, and dropped another to the Jazz last night, putting the active losing streak at 15.

A complete lack of any upset wins could suggest that they just rolled over, but the Brian Keefe-led Wizards consistently kept games close in the face of staggering odds. Eight of those losses produced a single-digit margin of defeat, and they still posted the 23rd-ranked defensive rating of 118.2 points allowed per 100 possessions despite dropping several more games than the next-closest loser.

They came close to ending the drought several times, most notably on leap day in a 134-131 defeat at the hands of the surging Lakers. They once again fell just short in their first overtime appearance of the season, as Jordan Poole led the way for the Wizards with 34 points to give Washington fans some rare hope.

His up-and-down month didn’t help the team snap their streak in the early goings, as he slumped into the All-Star break posting 26/19/70% splits over his final six games. The guard’s poor shot diet and constant chucking led to his benching at Keefe’s hands upon the team’s return to action the following week, but this maneuver may have been exactly the wake-up call he needed.

Poole’s field-goal percentage of 41% in the six games since hasn’t always been pretty, but he’s produced several scoring gems from an on-ball reserve role. He set a new season-high 31 points on Feb. 25 against the Cavaliers, only to top that mark two outings later against the Lakers. 

He was one of several young Wizards to show improvement across the fruitless battles. Deni Avdija, for one, has made a case for being the team’s best player, having learned how to stack 20+ point nights several games in a row before exploding for a career-high 43 points against the Pelicans. 

The fourth-year forward looks to have finally learned how to leverage an improved three-point shot into aggressive drives and finishes at the hoop, shooting a scorching 55.9% from the floor and 50% from three-point land on real volume. He’s never looked more assertive with the ball, having fully discovered how to best utilize his 6-foot-9 frame in the lane.

The Kyle Kuzma-less games provided him with an avenue to set the tone as a lead ball handler in the halfcourt and in transition, where he tossed three assists per game. He also helped fill the rebounding void left by the traded Daniel Gafford, nabbing 9.3 boards when he played. 

Corey Kispert made a scoring jump himself, having found better balance than ever between shooting and as an off-ball player. He averaged 17.3 points on 49% shooting in the previous month, hoisting 7.7 threes per contest to the tune of a productive 37.6% clip. Six times he scratched 20 points in a night, something he’d only done three times all season heading into February.

The Wizards failed to take home any victories across the hard-fought stretch, likely a deflating outcome for Keefe, who marched into February with a 2-2 record as the team’s recently-appointed interim coach following Wes Unseld Jr.’s dismissal. The road got bumpier and, like most bad teams, Washington emerged from the rubble as a much more traumatized unit than they were way back in January. 

Wizards fans were, at the very least, prepared to follow one of the league’s worst bands, so notable developments from members of their young core make for a solid consolation prize when thinking past the all around-debacle that’s been Washington’s 2023-24 season.

About Henry J. Brown

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