The Washington Wizards, at 7-2, have the second-best record in the East. John Wall is playing at a high level, Paul Pierce's addition in the offseason seems to be working out, and they've done it all without Bradley Beal. But how good are the Washington Wizards?
After giving Indiana a scare in the Eastern Conference semifinals and a shift of power occurring over the summer in the conference, it might seem that the Wizards are in prime position to make the jump into the elite. A closer look, however, reveals that the Wizards are playing at a very similar level to last year. Their record indicates improvement, but Washington's favorable schedule is more to thank than anything else. Beal is expected back later this week, and he should make a difference, but for now, the Wizards should be thrilled to be 7-2.
Their schedule has been cake
Washington is 7-2, but all seven of their wins have come against teams with records below .500. They've beaten the Magic and the Pacers twice, the Pistons, the Knicks and the Bucks -- the only team the Wizards have beaten who would be in the playoffs if the season ended today. Their two losses came in their only games against teams with records better than .500. Miami beat them 107-95 and Toronto ran them out of the gym, winning 103-84. And the schedule is about to amp up: The Wizards take on Dallas and Cleveland on Wednesday and Friday this week. A win against either of those teams would bode well, but two more losses to teams with winning records is proof that Washington is a step behind the league's elite.
Lack of progress
The easy schedule should correlate with better performances from Washington, but nine games into the season, the Wizards look very similar to last year's team, aside from a slight uptick in team defense. The Wizards are just 19th in the league in offensive efficiency at 102.7. That number is down slightly from last season's 103.3 that ranked 16th in the league. The team defense is better this year. The Wizards defensive efficiency is 99.4 compared to 102.4 last season and they're ranked sixth in the league. That stat should be looked at with a grain of salt, though: Seven of the team's games have been against offenses that rank in the bottom third of the league in offensive efficiency.
Can the backcourt be one of the league's best?
This could all be proven moot if Bradley Beal comes back and changes the Wizards immediately. There are hopes that he'll be back for Friday's game against Cleveland, and he's needed. Wall is playing at a slightly higher level in 2014-15 than he did last year. He's averaging 19.4 points and 9.1 assists per game compared to 19.3 and 8.8 in 2013-14, but his PER is up to 21.86 from 19.61. Beal's addition could mean gangbusters for the backcourt. Replace Garrett Temple with Beal and his 17.1 points per game (and 19.2 in the playoffs), and a lot changes for the Wizards.
In the East, anything can happen
Even if Washington plays at a very similar level compared to last year, that's not the worst thing in the Eastern Conference. Once the dust of the season settles, it looks like they'll pick up the 4-seed in the playoffs behind Cleveland, Chicago and Toronto. While neither of those teams appears to be as good as last year's Heat, Toronto seems much more ready to make the jump this year than the Wizards. And Chicago and Cleveland are going to be tough come playoff time. Their record puts them in the conversation of the East's best, but until Washington shows on the court that they can compete, it looks like this year will be more of the same.