Stephen A. Smith didn’t hesitate. The ESPN analyst was asked recently on “First Take” if the Washington Wizards “deserve” to be among the teams heading to Orlando when the NBA relaunches its season on July 30.
The Wizards, after all, are 16 games under .500 and 5 ½ games back from the eighth-seeded Orlando Magic.
“Hell no,” Smith said. “I mean, please.”
Smith isn’t alone in his opinion. Since the league detailed its return plan, many observers wondered about the need for Washington and the Phoenix Suns (26-39) to risk going down to Orlando, especially when their playoff chances seem so slim. FiveThirtyEight’s predictive model pegs the Wizards’ chances of making the postseason at just 2%.
But like it or not, the Wizards will gladly accept the invitation.
Wizards coach Scott Brooks and general manager Tommy Sheppard have said the upcoming relaunch will be a valuable experience for the team’s young core. Under the league’s plan, Washington can force a play-in tournament if it gets just four games behind the eighth seed.
The Wizards will use the eight remaining games as a method of evaluation. Specifically, how do they respond to the pressure in which every win and loss matters?
“We want to go in and compete for that play-in opportunity,” Brooks said. “We feel like we can get there. … We have our work cut out (for us).”
“This is a pressure situation,” Sheppard said.
The Wizards are far removed from their 2016-17 campaign, when the franchise fell a win short of reaching the Eastern Conference Finals. Instead, Washington’s current roster features just seven players with playoff experience. That number includes John Wall, who has missed the entire season with an Achilles injury, and Davis Bertans, who withdrew from playing in Orlando last week.
Still, Brooks said the Wizards are eager to see the further development of their players. He singled out Troy Brown, the second-year guard who found a rhythm as a playmaker off the bench, as someone who had made positive strides before the season was halted in March. Washington also had other young pieces like forward Rui Hachimura and center Thomas Bryant as two players who were rounding into form after missing time with injuries.
The margin for error is slim. The Wizards have just eight games and have to win at least two more games than the Magic to force a play-in tournament. Washington, too, will have the ninth-hardest schedule in the league when the team returns.
Sheppard said the Wizards isn’t trying to set expectations on wins and losses, but added the intention is to make the playoffs. He called it “100% our goal.” And he’ll be evaluating each player.
“As you go across the roster, everybody has to show value,” Sheppard said. “Everybody has to show us, ‘Why are you here and why should we keep you with the roster moving forward?’”
Sheppard recalled a conversation with point guard Shabazz Napier in which the two compared to the NBA’s restart to an NCAA Tournament. He said the two agreed the Wizards had to have that type of mentality, where every game matters.
Sheppard also presented the flip side of not playing in the restart. He noted if the Wizards weren’t invited to Orlando, they would even longer to play competitive basketball as next season isn’t scheduled to start until December. Non-invite teams like the Chicago Bulls and the New York Knicks will go as much as nine months without playing against another team.
“The idea of playing basketball that long, I don’t even want to think about,” he said.
“The worst case is we had an extra couple of months to get to be around our players and talk basketball, be around each other,” he said.