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NBA PM: Wizards Turning Things Around After Slump

After a slump that saw the Wizards lose 11 of 13 games, the team is finally turning things around. Are they a contender?

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Wizards Turning Things Around After Slump

The Washington Wizards didn’t look like themselves in February.

After emerging as one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference earlier in the season (and recording wins over teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers, Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets, and San Antonio Spurs), Washington fell into a terrible slump that lasted from late January to early March.

At one point, the Wizards dropped 11 of 13 games (going on a five-game losing streak and then a six-game losing streak). This stretch including embarrassing losses to some of the league’s worst teams, including a 20-point loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves, a 17-point loss to the Detroit Pistons and an eight-point loss to the Philadelphia 76ers.

The team slipped down the East standings a bit, falling to the fifth seed after being a top-three team for much of the season, and many removed from the Wizards from the list of legitimate contenders.

However, as of late, the team has started to turn things around and regain their confidence. They have won three straight games as well as four of five contests, and they are only one game back from recapturing the third seed (as the Chicago Bulls and Toronto Raptors are also struggling lately).

John Wall took responsibility for the team’s poor play in February. He has been banged up, playing through pain as he dealt with a bruised knee, an ankle sprain, a sore left thumb and sore legs. Wall recently told reporters that “everything” hurts, but he has yet to miss a game this season. He feels his defense wasn’t good enough during Washington’s slump and he blamed himself for the group’s struggles.

“I think it all started with me,” Wall told reporters. “I didn’t have any energy after the All-Star break. The way I play is the way this team goes. I was not playing well and we were playing pretty bad. [Now], I am starting to get my legs back and play better defensively.”

Head coach Randy Wittman agrees that Wall has seemed healthier lately, which has been huge for the Wizards. During Washington’s three-game winning streak, Wall has been excellent and efficient, averaging 22.3 points, nine assists, 4.7 rebounds, 1.7 steals and 1.3 blocks while shooting 64.9 percent from the field and 66.7 percent from three-point range.

“I think he looks fresh, his legs,” Wittman told reporters of Wall. “There’s a bounce to him.”

“The main thing that we were trying to focus on [was] getting out of this slump,” Wall told reporters. “Every team goes through some adversity. Hopefully we went through ours and we can get past it.”

Paul Pierce, who won a championship with the Boston Celtics in 2008, was brought in to provide veteran leadership and take the Wizards to the next level.

Throughout the season, he has made it clear that he believes Washington has what it takes to go on a deep run in the postseason, but he wasn’t happy with the team during their slump. Lately, he has been stressing the importance of playing like an elite team every night and performing their best right now so that they’re hot entering the playoffs.

“We have to get off to better starts,” Pierce told reporters. “Sometimes it seems we play down to the level of our opponents.

“I’m just trying to get them in a state of mind, it has to be every night. Get that consistency. We can’t have nights off, we can’t play down to the level of our opponents. Right now is the point in the season where you just really have to start preparing mentally, and presenting good habits each and every practice and the games and preparing for the playoffs. You do that now, it carries over. That’s what I try to preach right now to develop that and consistency so that we’re playing well and at the right time.”

Coach Wittman agrees with Pierce, saying that the Wizards need to do the same thing every single night in order to be successful.

During the Wizards’ Saturday win against the Sacramento Kings, the Wizards played like completely different teams in the first half versus the second half. They ended up winning the game, 113-97, marking the first time in NBA history that a team won a game by at least 16 points after trailing by 18 or more points at halftime, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. After the game, Wittman compared his team to “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” since they seem to transform and play completely different basketball from one game (or half) to the next.

“We have to focus in on how we have to play every night,” Wittman told reporters. “It doesn’t change. That’s how this team is. If they think we can change how we’re playing and be successful, [they’re wrong]. We have to defend, we have to be physical.”

It remains to be seen if the Wizards’ recent struggles were just a tough stretch that they’ll bounce back from or ongoing issues that could haunt them down the stretch and into the playoffs.

On the season, Washington has the third best defense in the NBA, allowing just 99.9 points per 100 possessions, so this team is certainly scary when they play to their full potential. Unfortunately for the Wizards, that hasn’t been happening on a nightly basis for quite some time.

In the playoffs, Washington should be completely focused and no longer playing up or down to the level of competition they’re facing, as Pierce said the team tends to do. It’s still possible for the Wizards to salvage their season and make a deep postseason run, but they need all Jekyll and no Hyde from here on out.

Wade Thinks Miami Needs a Few More Pieces

On paper, Goran Dragic, Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng, Chris Bosh and Hassan Whiteside looks like a very good team for the Miami HEAT. Injuries have limited what they team can do this season, as a few of their players have been banged up and Bosh is out for the season after being diagnosed with a pulmonary embolism. But many people have said that they could be a contender in the Eastern Conference next season if they bring everyone back.

When asked about this, Wade felt that the team still needed some more help before they could become a contender.

“That five is pretty good, if everyone’s healthy, but you need a little bit more than that,” Wade told Jason Lieser of the Palm Beach Post. “I feel that it gives us a better opportunity than we had coming into this season, then you continue to add certain pieces if you can. If we come back next season healthy and everybody’s going, we still need to add a few pieces. We could be pretty good.”

Wade didn’t name specific things that the team needs to add (because, as Lieser notes, he doesn’t want to call out his current teammates), but adding some depth behind the starting five would be important.

This year, injuries have forced Miami to rely on a number of D-League call-ups and 10-day players. This has worked out for the team, as they have found a gem in Whiteside and some contributors in Henry Walker, Tyler Johnson and Michael Beasley, but this is never the ideal approach to filling out a rotation.

Wade does feel that Dragic is a good fit with Miami and he views the point guard as a long-term piece for the team. The HEAT were reportedly one of the teams that Dragic expressed interest in joining before the Phoenix Suns traded him at the Feb. 19 deadline, so re-signing him to a long-term deal this summer is definitely realistic.

“I think he fits with what we want to build and what we want to do in the future,” Wade said. “Personality-wise, I think he fits. I believe so, but that’s not my call. But I know the front office did a great job doing their homework before they made the move and they wouldn’t have made it if they didn’t think he was a long-term fit for us. I think we all like him.”

Since joining the HEAT, Dragic is averaging 16.4 points, 4.9 assists, 3.2 rebounds and 1.6 steals in 10 games. He’s shooting 51.8 percent from the field, but just 30.8 percent from three-point range.

 

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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