- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 7, 2013

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

One thing you learn over many years in the sports media business is people will bet on anything. Go to Google and type in “Super Bowl prop bets” and you’ll see an interesting list of nutty things on which people were willing to wager.

Forget point spreads and over/under. Will Beyonce’s hair be straight or curly? Over/under on the length of the national anthem. Mentions on the broadcast of coaches Jim and John Harbaugh being brothers. You get the idea.

Here’s a local “prop” bet we bet most people would not have taken.

On Feb. 8, the best winter-season local pro sports team would be the Wizards?

Imagine the odds on that a few weeks ago.

With just a glance at the standings, you’ll see a face-contorting-ugly 13-35 record for the Wizards going into Friday’s home game against Brooklyn. Only one team in the league has fewer victories. The season is more than half over and the Wizards have zero shot at making the playoffs. They’ll be hard-pressed to win 30 games.

The Caps, slugging along at 2-7-1 going into Thursday’s game at Pittsburgh, may yet figure things out and find a way to slip into the playoffs during this lockout-abbreviated season.

Ask yourself: Which team’s future generates more optimism right now? If you had to pick one to bet on for making the 2014 playoffs, which one would it be? Here’s a hint: This team doesn’t skate (oh, wait, there are times when you can say that about the Caps, too).

The Wizards’ record, ugly though it may be, is nowhere near as miserable as it was when they were 4-28. They started the season without injured John Wall and Nene, their two best players. Since Wall returned, Washington is 8-7. The Wizards have won seven of their past eight home games. They own victories this season over five of the six current division leaders.

To say they’ve become good is, at this point, a bit of a stretch. To say they’re moving noticeably toward good is not. And they’ve gone way past miserable, which was a very fitting description during a 0-13 start this season.

Before we drown in all this love we’re throwing on the Wiz, it needs to be clear that this kind of progress should be visible and probably should have been visible much sooner (and, yes, the injuries probably slowed it down). Bad teams get better draft slots. Ask the Nats. They were brutally awful for a couple of years, so bad they had the No. 1 pick in back-to-back drafts. They got Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. They built enough of a farm system to be able to trade for Gio Gonzalez. Now many consider the Nats the best team in baseball.

The Wizards have had the first, sixth and third picks in the most recent NBA drafts. A team ought to be able to improve with those picks. A team ought to be able to get at least two difference makers. Did the Wizards? Did they even get one? They took Wall with that No. 1 pick, Jan Vesely with the No. 6 and then Bradley Beal with the No. 3.

Are any of the three difference makers along with lines of a Blake Griffin or a Kevin Durant? Wall is clearly an excellent player, a probable All-Star in the future. Is he a big-time difference-maker? Not sure yet. Vesely? The less said the better, except for this: You have to do better with the No. 6 pick. It is too soon to tell on Beal. Currently injured, he’s had his moments but not enough to make anyone go, “Wow, he’s a surefire star.”

One more high pick, used correctly, and maybe one strong free-agent addition and the Wizards can make the next step. A bet on the Wizards to make the playoffs in 2014 may still be a long shot. It’s nowhere near as ridiculous as it would have sounded just a few weeks ago.