- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 14, 2021

The Washington Wizards, like many teams around the NBA, are struggling to combat the virus. So far, two games have been postponed because Washington hasn’t had enough players to play due to contact tracing protocols. And on Thursday, a third Wizards player tested positive for COVID-19.  

The pause — not even a month into the season — isn’t where the Wizards thought they’d be so soon into a new year. Nor is Washington’s dismal 3-8 record.

So much has gone wrong for Washington over the last three weeks that it’s hard not to wonder if the Wizards are the most disappointing team in the NBA. When Washington traded for Russell Westbrook last month, the addition sparked playoff hopes for the franchise. But now, Westbrook is injured, the defense remains a mess and the team potentially has a coronavirus outbreak. 

This, it seemed, was always bound to happen to at least one team. In a typical NBA season, there’s always one or two teams who implode for a variety of reasons, teams that just can’t overcome a nightmare start. Now, add the unpredictable nature of the virus, and experts figured that the year-end standings might look even wonkier than normal.

There will be time for the Wizards to turn the season around, when everything resumes. There are, after all, plenty of games left as Washington has played only 11 of its 72-game schedule. And fortunately for the Wizards, they aren’t too far back from the playoff race — even as the team sits 13th in the Eastern Conference. The NBA’s end-of-the-year play-in tournament could prove pivotal in helping boost that postseason chance, too. 

But for now, there’s no denying just how rough Washington’s start has been. Star Bradley Beal said after a loss to the Boston Celtics last week that the team “couldn’t guard a parked car” — and the team’s defensive numbers reflect that. Entering Thursday’s slate of games, Washington’s 121.3 points allowed per game was the second-worst mark in the league. 

Injuries and other factors haven’t helped. Center Thomas Bryant suffered a torn ACL — a crucial blow for Washington given the 23-year-old looked poised to have a career year. The team was also without Rui Hachimura (pink eye) for the first four games of the year and had to slowly work in sharpshooter Davis Bertans (conditioning) to the team’s rotation. 

Then, there’s the Westbrook factor. 

Sidelined for at least a week with a strained quad, Westbrook was still adjusting to the Wizards before his injury. And vice versa. 

At first glance, Westbrook’s stat line appears perfectly fine as he was averaging 19.3 points, 9.7 rebounds and 11.3 assists per game before the injury. But dig further, Westbrook is shooting a career-low 37.8% and committing 5.3 turnovers per game. Perhaps most concerning is that the nine-time All-Star is getting to the basket at a career-low rate, settling for far too many midrange jumpers. 

Those events have largely overshadowed the positives from Washington’s season. Beal, for instance, leads the league in scoring with 34.9 points per game and his game looks to have taken another jump.

Still, there are only a few teams who have had a more unexpected start than the Wizards.

The Toronto Raptors, playing in Tampa, Florida due to coronavirus restrictions, are a measly 2-8 — despite having the East’s second-best record last season. The Raptors lost forward Serge Ibaka and center Marc Gasol in free agency, but few expected Toronto to have such a sluggish start.

The Houston Rockets, too, have had a disastrous 2021 with a 3-6 start — but that was largely due to the chaos from star James Harden, who was traded to Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday in a blockbuster deal. Before the trade, Harden’s trade demand created an uncomfortable situation by showing up late to camp, dogging it in games and criticizing the team through the press. Center DeMarcus Cousins blasted Harden for being “disrespectful,” just hours before the trade was agreed upon. 

Even a contender like the Miami Heat, coming off a finals appearance, haven’t been what most expected. Sitting at 4-5, the Heat have also dealt with star players like Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo sidelined due to coronavirus protocols. 

The Wizards, though, will have to come up with their own solutions. The potential consequences for missing the playoffs could be brutal. With Harden traded, Beal will likely be the next star opposing teams try to pry loose — and another playoff-less season could lead to Beal demanding a trade. Coach Scott Brooks, meanwhile, is in the last year of his contract.

The Wizards haven’t hit the panic button yet. And with the coronavirus lingering, they have bigger issues to sort through in the short term. But Washington has seen seasons spiral out of control before. The Wizards can’t afford a repeat now.

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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