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Nothing about this Washington Wizards’ season makes sense. Which is exactly what you expect from a team led by Russell Westbrook.
In 2003 the NBA lengthened first-round playoff series from a best-of-5 to best-of-7, ensuring most of the league’s teams could bank on a few extra sellouts at premium postseason prices. Of course, from an entertainment standpoint — ya know, the people in the stands paying those premium prices — extending the series meant diluting the drama. Upping the burden on underdogs means stacking the deck in favor of the favorites. It’s the rich getting richer while others foot the bill. The NBA abhors missing any opportunity to wring out another buck, so this year there’s a new postseason wrinkle.
The seventh seed plays the eighth for the right to the higher seed. Nine and ten also face off, with the loser eliminated and the winner playing the loser of the 7/8 match for the last playoff spot. This play-in tournament was supposed to throw some crumbs to the league’s also-rans while rewarding its top teams with a bit of extra rest before the postseason marathon. But nature abhors a vacuum, so after all those years of first-round monotony, chaos has returned.
Some of the league’s one percent teams unexpectedly find themselves in the play-in’s crosshairs — the Los Angeles Lakers, the Boston Celtics and the Golden State Warriors — and players from LeBron James to Luka Dončić to Draymond Green have criticized the format. That’s no surprise. The powers that be are comfortable with order because order means they remain comfortable and in power. Chaos scares them. But chaos is the bridge between worlds we think divided. Chaos makes the impossible possible. It makes the playoff marathon more downhill than slog. And no team is as much an agent of chaos as the Washington Wizards, led by their roundball Rasputin, Russell Westbrook.
A little over a month ago Washington was 17-32, the playoffs looking less likely than D.C. statehood. Today they’re 32-37, two up in the loss column for the final play-in spot and a half-game behind Indiana for homecourt in the 9/10 game. What the Wizards have done can’t be chalked up to a simple hot streak — that 15-5 run covers five weeks and nearly a third of this season. Their formula for success is typical of Westbrook: it doesn’t always make sense until it does, and then it really does.
This might be the most Russell Westbrook season ever
The Wizards have averaged 125 points over those 20 games, a mark which would blitz the league’s highest-scoring teams. An offensive clockwork of efficiency, right? Nope. Not even close. While Washington does rank fourth in points per game, their offensive rating is 19th. In this golden age of the 3-pointer, nobody takes more 2s than the Wiz, though they’re only middle of the pack making those shots. They also lead the league in free throw attempts, where they’re 19th in accuracy. They’re 28th in 3-pointers and second-to-last in attempts from deep. They’re not especially good at anything they like to do and rubbish at what they don’t.
If there’s any consistency to their offense, it’s that they do everything as quickly as possible; Washington plays at the fastest pace in the league. They’re also dead last in points allowed; over their last 20 they’ve allowed a hair under 120 a game, even worse than their season average. They’re like a Marx Brothers movie: two hours a night of absurdity that moves so quickly you vacillate between feeling like it almost makes sense and like you’re falling down a rabbit hole. No worries. You’ll have company.
The organization finds itself both at a crossroads and trapped firmly in one place. They’re just too good to be bad enough for a good shot at a high lottery pick; if they advance from the play-in to the playoffs they’ll pick in the mid-first round. Their last two lottery selections, Rui Hachimura and Deni Avdija, have shown flashes, but neither projects to be a franchise player, maybe not even an All-Star. Washington is already over next year’s projected cap with only six players under contract. They’ll go as far as their two best players take them, but with the Wizards where there’s promise, there’s always pause.
Westbrook remains as Westbrook as ever, leading the league in assists and sixth in rebounds despite standing just 6-foot-3. Kid Kinesthetic is always on the move, not just on the court but in his style of play: after a career taking 30-40 percent of his shots from zero to three feet out, this season that’s down to 19 percent, with less dunking than ever. Perhaps because of that judiciousness, he’s tied a career-high shooting 65 percent from that range. He’s also taking his highest percentage of 3-pointers since his MVP season and making a career-best 44 percent on corner 3s. He gets to the line this season more than he did the prior two. And yet, in part because of a career-worst 65 percent free throw percentage, Westbrook is posting some of his worst effective field goal and true shooting percentages ever.
With Westbrook and Bradley Beal unlikely to decline their $47 million and $37 million player options two years from now, the Wizards are on the hook for more than $160 million over two years to that pairing. Normally teams in their position trade their best players and begin to rebuild. Normally those best players are more than content to go to a better team. But with the Wizards, normal is spring turning to winter.
Nature abhors a vacuum, so after years of sports talk lamenting top players taking control of their agency via the threat of free agency, Beal has emerged as the contrarian’s agita: a player wanting to stay with one team rather than asking out. Should Washington make the playoffs and maybe make some noise once they get there, the hope is Beal will feel things are moving in the right direction and remain a Wizard. He very well might.
Westbrook doesn’t look like someone angling for a new team, either. The two teams he played for before, Oklahoma City and Houston, are among the worst in the league. He’s on a competitive team in the easier conference with little to no pressure, and the accolades and accomplishments keep piling up. On Monday he broke Oscar Robertson’s record for most triple-doubles, only to miss the game-winning shot as the Wizards fell to Atlanta. Because everything he does is bordered by paradox, in the prior game against Indiana he became the first player ever with back-to-back 15-rebound, 15-assist games, hitting the game-winning free throws with one second remaining in overtime, then blocking Caris LeVert’s shot at the buzzer.
With their past a disappointment — they haven’t gone past the second round of the playoffs since 1979 — and their future not looking much brighter, the Wizards are a team firmly of the moment. No one in the play-in tournament wants to play them, yet no one would give them a chance of beating whoever they’d meet in the first round. That’s precisely how this Washington team would begin an upset for the ages — they’d need us to think it’s impossible to show us it’s not. Of course, that means getting there first. Right now the Wizards have a magic number of two with three games left. No way they’d blow that lead. Right? Or does Team Chaos build everyone up only to flame out at the very end? It’s so easy to root for them in a league that’s so top-heavy. When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.