They were struck with a season-ending injury to Thomas Bryant, while Russell Westbrook looked quite some way off his best. He was shooting at less than 27% from beyond the arc and had an overall shooting efficiency of 37% during that stretch.
After the first 15 games, the Wizards managed a record of 3-12 and looked set to endure a long and torrid season despite having two of the most talented stars on their roster.
But there were positives. The Washington Wizards performed decently against the NBA's best teams throughout the season. However, with regular blips, players missing games due to COVID-19 and Bradley Beal’s slight dip in form meant that the Wizards were always a striking distance away from the playoffs.
2020-21 NBA season: 3 reasons for the Washington Wizards’ recent revival
But things have changed in the last two months. The Washington Wizards have slowly and surely improved in recent weeks, and have a 10-2 record over their last 12 games.
The eight-game winning streak that they produced over this stretch is the longest for the franchise since December 2001. It saw the Washington Wizards climb to 10th in the Eastern Conference standings.
From here on, they only need to maintain their recent form, and that would see them secure an NBA playoffs berth via the play-in tournament.
But what has sparked this recent turn in fortunes? Let's have a look.
#1 - Improved defense
Since the NBA trade deadline, the Washington Wizards have had the third-best defense in the NBA, ignoring their most recent loss to the San Antonio Spurs. Russell Westbrook is back to his very best while the 22-year old Rui Hachimura has increased his defensive output as the season progressed.
The addition of Daniel Gafford to the team via a trade has helped the lack of physicality and interior defenders on the Washington Wizards roster. Head coach Scott Brooks recently explained how better depth and minor defensive tweaks have helped bring forth this change with respect to the start of the season:
"We haven’t had the consistency or the continuity that I would like in a normal season, but we’re much better now. Some guys are healthy, some guys are playing better, we tweaked a couple of things defensively to better suit some of our personnel. It also helps us that we get to the free-throw line, that stops some of the plays teams have to set up their offense," he said. "It’d be nicer if we can make some of the threes, I think it can help our defense even more but I think it definitely helps that we get to the line."
Apart from Hachimura, Alex Len has also helped anchor the Wizards’ defense with multiple players stepping up in recent weeks.
The Washington Wizards have shown better intensity and have forced opponents into difficult shots during their recent run of form. That has resulted in a change in fortunes that is set to lead them to the playoffs.
#2 - Star power
Charles Barkley recently said the following about the Washington Wizards’ two biggest stars:
“None of those teams in the Eastern Conference want to see the Wizards with Russ and Bradley in the playoffs. They’re gonna win the play-in. I love Russ and Bradley Beal. To me, I’d pay to watch Russell Westbrook play basketball.”
Bradley Beal is still the most prolific scorer in the NBA this season, while Russell Westbrook has been churning out triple-doubles like he has been for much of his NBA career. Beal has had a dip in form since the beginning of February and was then forced to sit out for several games due to an injury layoff.
During the Washington Wizards’ last nine games, Beal is averaging 33.5 points and has also had a huge influence on the defensive end. This was on full display during the Washington Wizards’ win against the Golden State Warriors.
Beal finished the game with a stat line of 29 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and two blocks. Needless to say, when and if the Washington Wizards make the playoffs, they will be no pushovers, especially if they can continue in the same vein.
#3 - Personnel changes
Robin Lopez has emerged as a dependable scorer off the bench. Daniel Gafford has become another reliable bench option and is producing 10.8 points, 6 rebounds, 2.2 blocks and almost one steal per game. That is despite playing only slightly more than 18 minutes in his 12 appearances off the bench for the Washington Wizards so far.
All season, they have produced impressive performances against the top teams. They have positive records against the Brooklyn Nets (2-1), the LA Lakers (1-0), the Utah Jazz (2-0), and have won and lost one each against the LA Clippers and the Phoenix Suns.
Throughout most of the season, their tendency to get beaten by weaker teams had been a problem, something that appears to have changed.
The Washington Wizards are now producing victories regularly regardless of opposition, something that will keep them in good stead over the course of the remainder of the season.
While part of their stutter has been down to terrible luck with injuries, the Washington Wizards currently look to be playing their best basketball during the most important part of the season.