If there’s one thing we have learned about the Eastern Conference lately, it’s that it ain’t over ’til it’s over.
As the New York Knicks sputter, the Atlanta Hawks have seemed to have gotten a second wind. Despite trading Kyle Korver to the Cleveland Cavaliers back on January 7, the Hawks—a team that had lost 10 of 11 games earlier this season—enter play on January 15 as the conference’s fourth seed. Their 22-17 record and most recent 12-5 stretch show how quickly an Eastern Conference team can turn things around.
Indeed, there is true parity, and the Washington Wizards are the latest example.
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Entering the season, many expected the Wizards to emerge as one of the teams to beat in the NBA’s Southeastern Division. The Miami HEAT had lost Dwyane Wade, the Charlotte Hornets lost Al Jefferson, Courtney Lee and Jeremy Lin and Al Horford decided to leave Atlanta for the greener pastures in Boston.
Meanwhile, the Wizards replace head coach Randy Wittman with Scotty Brooks and seemed to be returning a group whose chemistry and continuity would help it improve upon the somewhat disappointing 2015-16 campaign. Last season, the squad managed just a 41-41 record, which was good enough for 10th in the conference and a trip to the draft lottery.
Over the summer, there were rumors of infighting and speculation that Bradley Beal and John Wall couldn’t play together. Over the past several weeks, trade scenarios had been floated around that suggested the Wizards would be best served by breaking up their core because the group had proven itself to be incompatible.
What a difference a few weeks makes.
Entering play on January 15, the Wizards have gone 13-6 and are currently riding an 11-game home win streak. That’s something the club hasn’t accomplished since 1965. It would appear that they have completely turned their season around.
“It’s been great,” John Wall said after the team’s 11th consecutive home win over the Philadelphia 76ers. “Other than these last two games when we get off to bad starts − we’ve never been able to get off to good starts, our bench and our starters are keying in very well and doing whatever the coaches want us to, and we play great defense, and our crowd has been amazing.”
Now at 20-19, they suddenly (and perhaps surprisingly) find themselves with the sixth seed in the conference, but also just two games behind the Atlanta Hawks for the division lead—yes, the same Hawks who were left for dead a few weeks ago.
In short, the Wizards can thank the improved health and reliability of Bradley Beal for the turnaround. Since December 5, he’s been scoring 23 points per game on 47 percent shooting from the field, while John Wall has continued to be his normally reliable self. He leads the league in fourth-quarter fast break points, a skill that comes in handy in the waning moments of games.
The Wizards have also done a fair job of altering their game plan depending on their competition. They are one of the few teams in the league that can be effective in a half court set, as well as by pushing the ball and taking quick shots.
Back when the team was 6-12, it would have been easy for a relatively young team like the Wizards to pout and for their effort to wane. Head coach Scott Brooks, though, attributes the team’s perseverance to Wall and his competitiveness. The undoubted leader of the young club, Wall shows up to play and gives maximum effort each time out. That’s all a coach can ask for.
“He loves the game,” Brooks said of Wall. “That guy, he’s a gamer. He loves to play, he loves playing here, and he loves playing with this team. He has that burning desire to compete. It’s about competition, you want guys like that, and we have a team full of guys that like to compete.”
It would appear that the faith the young team has shown in one another is paying off. Without a doubt, things haven’t been the same since Paul Pierce left for Los Angeles a few seasons ago, but maybe the young Wizards just needed time to ripen.
Maybe they’re finally ready. At the very least, they’ve shown the ability to string a few wins together, and that’s where it all usually begins.
Over the past several weeks, the Wizards, and even the Hawks have each shown us that, to a certain extent, there is true parity in the Eastern Conference.
Entering play on January 15, the Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks, Detroit Pistons and Orlando Magic sit in seeds 9-12, respectively. At one point during the season, each of those teams has found themselves within the East’s top eight seeds, with the Knicks—just a few weeks ago—sitting as high as fourth.
What it does serve to illustrate is that one five-game winning streak or one good stretch where a team wins seven out of 10 games can make all the difference in the world as it relates to finding themselves in the playoff hunt. As we approach the All-Star break and the February 23 trade deadline, it will make the decision of either remaining patient and sticking with one’s team versus pulling the plug for a rebuild all the more difficult.
As it relates to the Wizards specifically, though, all indications are that the team finally appears to be on the same page. And now, maybe, just maybe, we will begin to see some substantial gains.
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It seems as though every few weeks, there is at least one Eastern Conference team that’s sounding the alarm. As of this moment, it would be the Knicks and the Magic. After Derrick Rose’s infamous no-show earlier this week and Kristaps Porzingis’ concerning Achilles tendon soreness, the team has been struggling mightily. They have lost nine of their last 11 games and speculation has begun as to whether or not Carmelo Anthony would or should waive his no-trade clause to find himself on a contender.
The Magic, on the other hand, appear to have a lot at stake. The Magic traded Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova and Domantas Sabonis for Ibaka, who will be a free agent this coming summer. After spending the first seven years of his career in Oklahoma City, Ibaka has become used to making deep playoff runs and has basked in the spotlight of success. How amenable would he be to re-signing into a losing situation? How much more patience will the ownership group have in general manager Rob Hennigan? After being hired by the Magic as their general manager in 2012, the team has yet to make a playoff appearance. There are many that feel that Hennigan, this season, is fighting for his job.
Indeed, the latter seeds in the Eastern Conference have become quite interesting. But if the Knicks and Magic are fortunate, they can turn things around fairly quickly.
If they’re really fortunate, they can rally around good leadership, the same way the Wizards have. After being left for dead just a few weeks around, their turnaround has been an example of true wizardry.
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