- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 21, 2016

Midway through the season, the Washington Wizards are a dichotomy. At 20-21, they are a below-.500 team that cannot sustain the good, gloms on to the bad, and is not near where it expected to be. The flip side is that the roster has been pillaged by injuries in a jammed-up Eastern Conference, providing angles for consideration of a better future.

The Wizards are 10th in the conference. Their middling record puts them one game out of the playoffs, and, bizarrely, a mere four games from the No. 4 seed. The only thing clear in the conference is what was assumed before the season started: Teams want to avoid the Cleveland Cavaliers as long as possible in the postseason.

That leaves this underachieving team with options. Despite a recent surge from the Toronto Raptors, Cleveland is still expected to finish the regular season as the top seed. That would mean Washington as the second, third, sixth or seventh seed would avoid Cleveland’s side of the bracket. That’s for the middle of April. For now, a look at the good and bad of the first half, plus what could be coming.

The good

Wizards coach Randy Wittman didn’t flood his team with film of the Miami Heat despite its arrival Wednesday night. Instead, Wittman ran a compilation of a recent four-game winning streak. A run against the Orlando Magic, Chicago Bulls, Milwaukee Bucks and Indiana Pacers was the best the Wizards had performed all season. He wanted to stick the ideals of the uptick into the players’ heads. This is what they could — and should — be.

Each game, the opponent had a hard time cracking 100 points. Washington spread its scoring. Things, for a week, were just right.

“We were just more aggressive defensively,” point guard John Wall said. “We were talking. Communicating. Forcing teams to turn the ball over. Gave a maximum effort.”

The points guards can also be slotted into this positive category. Wall is expected to be named an all-star for the third consecutive season. His scoring, at 19.9 points per game, is at a career high. His 9.7 assists per game are just a tick below the career-high 10.0 from last season and easily lead the Eastern Conference. On-target 3-point shooting the last two months has bumped his percentage to a respectable 34.9. Extract an abysmal November, and Wall is shooting 37.8 percent from behind the 3-point line this season.

Quietly, Ramons Sessions has played well behind and with Wall. His player efficiency rating is 16.76; 15 is league average. Sessions is shooting 47.4 percent from the field, which would lead Eastern Conference point guards if he qualified to be among the leaders. Sessions has made 139 field goals. The midseason threshold to be part the leaders’ list is 150.

And, Marcin Gortat is having what’s become his standard year in Washington. At 13.6 points per game and 9.9 rebounds, he’s just shy of averaging a double-double. Only four players in the conference put together more than 10 points and 10 rebounds per game.

The bad

Fluctuating passion. Poor defense. Repeat.

The Wizards followed a three-game winning streak with a four-game losing streak. A three-game losing streak with a four-game winning streak, then a two-game losing streak. Those careening runs are the express route to being a .500 team.

The main reason is their atrocious defense, a distinct departure from the last two seasons when Washington was one of the best defensive teams in the league. The Wizards expected to take a defensive hit by increasing the number of possessions in the game with a fast offense. The trick would be to outweigh the more deficient defense with better offense. The offense has improved slightly. The defense has lurched to the rear of the league.

Washington is 19th in defensive efficiency and tied for 13th in offensive efficiency. Last season, those ranks were fifth and 19th, respectively. The change in offensive philosophy has not created an even swap.

“It’s simple,” Wall said. “Four-game winning streak, just play defense. Let our defense be the most aggressive.”

It has only been that in spurts, taking their first-half record, and identity, with it.

Less under their control are the extensive injuries. Only Wall and Sessions have played all 41 games. Otto Porter has missed games because of multiple injuries. Bradley Beal and Nene each missed more than a month of time.

“We’re not satisfied, obviously, with where we’re at,” Wittman said. “I think also, with all the injuries, it could have been worse. Again, you just hope we get back to a point here soon that we’ve got good health, then we can see exactly where we’re at. We’ve talked about trying to stay afloat through all the injuries and hopefully, as time moves on, Bradley gets cleared for more and more, Nene gets cleared for more and more.”

The future

The slammed-together standings, possibility of being healthy, flashes of good defense — those are the harbingers of hope. Wittman, loathe to talk big picture and emerge from the day-to-day processing of a season, has even noticed the opening for a push.

“It gives you a belief,” Wittman said. “We’ve got to this point with a lot of guys hurt. We’ve proven — doesn’t matter who plays — if we’re the aggressors at both ends of the floor, we’ve proven we can beat anybody. If we’re not, we’re not very good. That’s got to be a thing that no matter who’s playing, that that’s got to be a focus.”

Beal expects his playing time restriction to be lifted within a week or so. Nene has produced since his return to the court, but Porter is not sure when he will be healthy. Kris Humphries has a mysterious knee injury. Drew Gooden’s calf still aches.

If the standings produce a positive view of what could come, the injuries temper it. As does the season-long inability to play defense, no matter who is healthy. At the midpoint, the Wizards are split between what if and what is.

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