The rise (and fall) of the Washington Wizards

Hawks Top Cavs in Battle of East's Elite

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Given their recent form, the Washington Wizards have left their fans wondering if they will even hang on to a playoff spot. Luckily for the Wizards, the East is laughably bad, to the point where sub-.500 teams are sitting pretty in the playoff race. Making the playoffs is not going to be an issue, but making a run in the playoffs will be.

Injuries have surely played a big part in the Wizards' recent struggles, with key contributors such as shooting guard Bradley Beal and power forward Kris Humphries having to sit out many games. Fans and pundits alike are blaming coach Randy Wittman for the Wizards' bad performances, saying his style of play is too simplistic and, coming down the stretch, his game plan too predictable.

Whatever the reason, fans should remember that the squad they have right now is made up of mostly the same players they had when they beat the Chicago Bulls last year in the playoffs, minus small forward Trevor Ariza, who signed with the Houston Rockets in free agency this past offseason. To replace Ariza, the Wizards signed small forward Paul Pierce to a two-year contract, showing fans that the team was committed to keeping the momentum with which they ended last year.

The Wizards got off to a fast start, going 29-13 to begin the season, but have won only six of their past 20 games, making the NBA world question how good they actually are. Even when they win, the Wizards look shaky, as if they lack confidence on the court, despite having All-Star point guard John Wall to lead them. A lot of hands have also been pointing at center Marcin Gortat's play this season. After signing a hefty five-year, $60 million contract this past July, the "Polish Hammer" has been benched in the fourth quarter in recent games for his underwhelming play. Power forward Nenê, also known as the "Big Brazilian," has played like a little one, despite his size and strength. Granted, he has had a history of injury, making it difficult for him to play at a high level on a consistent basis, but Nenê has not looked like his old self this season.

With fewer than 20 games left in the season, the Wizards need to get things going soon if they want to make some noise in the playoffs. With one roster spot still available to fill, they will look to sign a player, preferably a point guard, who can back up Wall. After shipping out veteran point guard Andre Miller to the Kings, the Wizards got Ramon Sessions in return, but he has not done a very good job of fitting in with his new team just yet. The bench has played poorly most of the season, relying on flashes of brilliance from small forward Rasual Butler and center Kevin Seraphin, but they have had their share of struggles as well.

Right now, the Wizards are sitting in the fifth position in the East, which means they would have to play the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round of the playoffs. A first-round exit is the last thing this team wants, but the Cavs are expected to at least make the Eastern Conference finals, so the Wizards would have a tough task ahead of them. The Cavaliers have also not been kind to the Wizards in the playoffs, beating them three straight years, from 2006 to 2008. Back then, the Wizards were led by Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler, and Antawn Jamison.

Today's Wizards team looks very different from the Wizards of old who never found much success in the playoffs. After Arenas got involved in a gun incident with teammate Javaris Crittenton, the Wizards fell apart from there, and what would be several years of failure was just beginning. The new big three of Nick Young, JaVale McGee, and Andray Blatche led the Wizards through countless miserable seasons, and even though these three players were all considered immature goofballs, they were thought to be the cornerstones of the franchise.

Obviously, that did not work out, and once Wall got drafted out of Kentucky, as the No. 1 overall pick, the Wizards did not want their future star to be surrounded by these talented, yet childish players. Years later, here we are. Wall has turned into an All-Star point guard capable of playing at a high level night in and night out. The Wizards then drafted Beal (we can skip the drafting of Jan Vesely since most Wizards fans would probably like to forget that) who has struggled with injuries in his young career, but has also drawn comparisons to Ray Allen for his great shooting ability.

Pierce, Nenê, and Gortat round out the rest of the starting five, giving the Wizards as complete a starting unit as any in the league. Wizards' fans know what failure feels like. They lived and breathed it for many years, and even though the Wizards had a good year last year, fans are wary of feeling let down once again. The difference between this Wizards team and teams of the past is that this team has a good mix of veterans and youth. They have all experienced winning, while also going through tough stretches like the one they are in right now, keeping them humble.

D.C. basketball is back, and who knows, maybe a rivalry with the Cavaliers might be renewed in the playoffs. DeShawn Stevenson could even call out LeBron James for old times' sake, but this time, maybe Soulja Boy should stay out of it.

Adam Curtis is a freshman at American University. Growing up, he played soccer and tennis and is a die-hard D.C. sports fan. Follow him on Twitter: @actennis96
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