What history tells us about the Washington Wizards’ 2021 offseason situation

Bradley Beal #3 and Russell Westbrook #4 of the Washington Wizards (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Bradley Beal #3 and Russell Westbrook #4 of the Washington Wizards (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images) /
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There are many ways to describe the 2020-21 Washington Wizards experience. What nobody can deny is that it was a completely ludicrous, up-and-down, frustrating, and exciting whirlwind of a season. But ultimately, the team had one measly playoff win to show for it. Now it’s time to embrace reality. The Wizards find themselves in the worst possible position in this league: first-round roadkill with no hope for contention. The exhilarating 17-6 run that closed the season obscured the long-term damage and only delayed the inevitable thought in the back of all our minds.

This team has no future.

(And no, not even a much-needed coaching change will do anything about that).

To see if the Washington Wizards have any hope of escaping the shackles of mediocrity, I looked at each of the past 30 teams (so 1991 through 2020) that snuck into the final playoff spot like the Wizards did, aka the playoff team with the worst record. Here’s what I found:

The Teams that Stayed the Course

Of the 30 teams, 11 stayed the course. One (1) of these was the 1999 New York Knicks — the only eight-seed to ever make the NBA Finals. This is very atypical and speaks more about the uniqueness of the 50-game lockout season than about the actual quality of those Knicks. Let’s throw them out.

Three (3) of these became relevant/interesting teams in the ensuing years:

  1. 2000 Milwaukee Bucks
    This team kept pretty much the entire rotation intact – a core of Ray Allen, Glenn Robinson, and Sam Cassell surrounded by role guys like Ervin “No Magic” Johnson and Tim Thomas. In 2001, they ended up one game away from the NBA Finals thanks to career years from Allen (making the first of his two All-NBA selections) and Robinson, improved defense, and a dreadful Eastern Conference.
  2. 2005 New Jersey Nets
    With back-to-back Finals runs in the twilight, the Nets made a blockbuster trade to acquire a disgruntled Vince Carter to go with Jason Kidd and Richard Jefferson. They went 33-23 after that and then won a playoff series in 2006 and 2007.
  3. 2017 Portland Trail Blazers
    Another team that made a heist, the Blazers fleeced the Nuggets for Jusuf Nurkic. With Nurkic in the lineup, the Blazers proceeded to go 14-6 down the stretch. Since then, Damian Lillard has somehow taken another leap (one All-NBA 1st team and three All-NBA 2nd teams), which has lifted Portland to decency.

Five (5) of these 11 teams drifted into the wilderness in the ensuing years:

  1. 1992 Miami Heat
    The Heat ran it back with a 26-and-under nucleus headlined by Glen Rice and Steve Smith. The franchise remained painfully mediocre (36, 42, 32, and 42 wins, respectively, in each of the next four seasons) until Pat Riley showed up (more on that later).
  2. 1998 New Jersey Nets
    John Calipari’s Nets were supposed to be an Eastern Conference cellar-dweller in 1998. Instead, they were somehow decent (?)  with veterans like Sam Cassell and Kendall Gill, rookie Keith Van Horn, and sophomore Kerry Kittles, and were surprisingly competitive in the first round vs. Jordan’s Last Dance. The next season, they started 3-18 (due largely to a Cassell injury). Calipari was fired, Cassell was dealt for Stephon Marbury, and it took three more lousy seasons before the Nets became exciting again.
  3. 2002 Toronto Raptors
    Following the best (up to that point) campaign in franchise history in 2001, the bottom fell out on the Toronto Raptors quickly thanks to two straight injury-riddled seasons for Vince Carter. In 2002, they snuck into the playoffs, but after that, it was four seasons of irrelevancy (35.7 win percentage from 2003 to 2006, good for a 29-win pace over 82 games) despite drafting Chris Bosh. Eventually, Carter (and Bosh) bolted, and it was another 15 years before Toronto won a playoff series.
  4. 2006 Milwaukee Bucks
    In 2006, star shooting guard Michael Redd dragged rookie Andrew Bogut, T.J. Ford, and an assortment of random role players to a 40-42 record and a 4-1 first-round loss. Sound familiar? After that, the Bucks were (mostly) terrible despite trying to stay competitive until the “Fear the Deer” season in 2010. Thanks, Amar’e!
  5. 2018 Washington Wizards
    Everybody eats! By now, we all know the complete series of events that followed this season. The infamous practice. John Wall immediately becoming an albatross. Otto Porter getting shipped out for salary flotsam. The Marshon/Dillon Brooks fiasco. Dwight Howard. Zero lottery luck. Hey, but at least Bradley Beal wants to stay. That’s all that matters, right?

Two (2) of these 11 teams went into a full tear down soon after:

  1. 2019 Detroit Pistons
    Even the most delusional Pistons fans knew the writing was on the wall for the 2019 squad. The team’s cap-sheet was clogged with massive contracts (Andre Drummond, Blake Griffin, Reggie Jackson), they had zero prospects with upside, and it took a Herculean season from Griffin just to claim the eight-seed (which he never recovered from). Just two years later, the entire roster has completely turned over, and the promising rebuild is full steam ahead.
  2. 2020 Orlando Magic
    The injury bug derailed any hope of this group panning out, as the young-ins never played a single minute together. Credit the Orlando front office for cutting bait sooner rather than later; jump-starting (another) youth movement a mere six months later at the hands of a desperate Bulls team.

So how do these “stay the course” teams apply to the Washington Wizards’ situation?

First off, only three out of ten ended up qualifying for the playoffs in the following season. Which should be a red flag – in the words of Tommy Sheppard, “this is not a run-it-back team.” Realistically, the most appealing comparison is the 2017 Portland Trail Blazers: 1) an elite guard without much help, 2) riding the wave of a shrewd mid-season pick-up of a center to the eight-seed, and 3) then carrying that momentum into the future. Of course, there are many holes in this analogy (namely, Daniel Gafford is not Jusuf Nurkic). We can’t expect Bradley Beal to follow a Dame-like trajectory.

Other than that, it’s pretty bleak. The 2006 Milwaukee Bucks and the 2019 Detroit Pistons found themselves in a very similar boat, and look how they ended up. So yeah, a pretty depressing range of outcomes should the Wizards stay the course.