Dirk Nowitzki, perhaps the best and most influential international player of all-time, was only nine months old the last time the Washington Wizards won their division. Baby Dirk was probably taking his first steps and likely using his imbalance to perfect his one-legged fade aways when Elvin Hayes led the Bullets to a division title and an NBA Finals appearance. In case you were wondering, that is 38 years, six presidencies and eight Star Wars movies ago.
But next season when the Wizards hang their banner from the rafters of the Verizon Center, the title of “Southeast Division Champions” will mean as much as Kevin Hart’s three and a half All-Star Celebrity Game MVP awards: nothing. The only thing that matters in the NBA is conference seeding, and the Wizards are currently fully in control of the fourth-spot in the East.
While at this point the Wiz’ seeding is invulnerable, the same cannot be said for their potential playoff opponents. Mathematically speaking, John Wall and company could go on to face either the Atlanta Hawks, the Milwaukee Bucks or the Indiana Pacers. Paul George and the Pacers are a huge long shot; however, the Hawks and Bucks have been battling for the fifth-seed for weeks.
Dennis Schroder and the Hawks had been behind the Bucks for quite some time but are now the Wizards’ most likely opponent in the first round. They took sole position of the spot after winning three of their last four games, while Milwaukee was only able to muster one victory during the same span.
The Hawks impressively defeated the Boston Celtics last Thursday and beat the Cleveland Cavaliers twice; most recently overcoming a 26-point deficit to take down the Cavs in overtime. These consecutive victories against the top two teams in the conference surely has Atlanta’s coach Mike Budenholzer feeling confident about his team’s postseason chances.
However, Scott Brooks and the Wizards will have plenty to say about that as anything short of a Finals appearance will be a disappointment for his young and hungry roster. This squad may have the greatest chances of advancing to the Finals in recent memory as the star-studded back court has finally seemed to find some support.
The last time the Wizards made the layoffs in 2014-2015, they swept the Toronto Raptors in the first round, much to the dismay of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and of course, Drake. But D.C could not make it passed the Hawks who were led, in part, by Jeff Teague and Al Horford who no longer sport the red, white and black.
The lack of these stars for the Hawks and the emergence of several key players for Washington should give Wizards fans plenty to hope for when the postseason kicks off on April 15. Atlanta will obviously have to focus their defense on Wall and Bradley Beal as both guards are averaging 23 points per game to go along with their greater than 45 percent from the field. Though this has been Beal’s greatest statistical season since he was drafted these stars filling up the stat sheet has nearly become commonplace. Center Marcin Gortat has also been a consistent scorer for years and is nabbing 10.4 rebounds per game to complete his double-double on the season.
Without diminishing their obvious importance, Wall, Beal and Gortat will not determine how far the Wiz go in the playoffs this year. The names that will matter come April 15 are Markieff Morris, Otto Porter Jr., Kelly Oubre Jr. and Bojan Bogdanovic.
Nearly identical to last season Morris has averaged 13.9 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. 21-year old Oubre Jr. has seen a diminished role since the Wizards’ roster moves at the All-Star break but the youngster showed promise in the first half of the season averaging 20.7 points per game to go with his ability to guard multiple positions. Bogdanovic was one of those All-Star break acquisitions and the shooting guard and scores 15 points off the bench.
Finally, and most importantly Otto Porter Jr., who looked like a bust in his rookie season would likely be a contender for Most Improved Player were it not for the shadow his backcourt provides. In his rookie season, Porter Jr. averaged a pitiful 2.1 points per game and shot 19 percent from beyond the arc. Just a few years later the small forward has raised his scoring to 13.5 and his shooting from three has been off the charts at 43 percent. Good for fourth in the association.
With a cast finally full of worthy supporting actors, A-listers John Wall and Bradley Beal have been able to beat the Hawks in three of their four matchups this season and look poised to do the same in the first round of the postseason.