Contenders

The NFL, MLB, and NHL are crapshoots.

We spend hours studying these sports. We watch games and skim box scores. We dissect athletes’ quotes for hidden meaning. We devour statistics that in any other context would feel like homework.

And yet, really, only one thing matters. Are you good enough to squeak into the playoffs?

Case in point — this year, the talented, hardworking, do-it-the-right-way Nationals earned the best record in the NL, only to be bounced in the first round by the arrogant, do-enough-to-get-by Giants, who slipped into the playoffs with a wildcard berth after managing just 88 wins. I know, where’s the justice? Of course, the Giants would go on to win the World Series, where they edged the 89-win Royals in a seven game series.

In the past two NFL seasons, the one-seeds in the NFC and AFC have squared off in the Super Bowl (Seahawks-Patriots this year, Seahawks-Broncos last year). That’s the exception though, not the rule. The three previous Super Bowl winners were the fourth-seeded Ravens, fourth-seeded Giants, and sixth-seeded Packers. Hardly a murderers’ row of elite regular season teams.

And then there’s the NHL, which I’ve all but stopped paying attention to out of frustration at seeing the Capitals pile up wins during the regular season only to be stifled by a lesser team with a hot goalie in the first round of the playoffs year after year.

Exciting. Unfair. However you want to spin it, the point is the same. Only one thing matters. Are you good enough to squeak into the playoffs?

The NBA is different. In the NBA, the best team usually wins. When Lebron, Wade, and Bosh teamed up in Miami in 2010, creating an awe-inspiring (or cheap, depending on where you stood) pool of talent, they ripped off four straight Finals appearances. It didn’t matter if a lower-seeded team got hot or devised a crafty game plan. The Heat were just better. They were never in a million years going to lose to the Charlotte Bobcats in the first round.

The NBA is like that. There are only a few teams with a shot at winning it all. They’re the contenders. It’s a tautology, but an illustrative one. There’s a line that separates the contenders from the rest of the NBA.

Normally there are a few no-brainer contenders and maybe a couple of fringe contenders. Take last year. Miami and Indiana sat comfortably ahead of the rest of the appalling East, even with Indiana slumping the second half of the season. In the West, San Antonio and Oklahoma City stood like giants, with the Clippers struggling to be included.

This year? I can’t remember anything like it. It’s been repeated to the point that people kind of shrug it off, but the West, I mean, come on. No one would bat an eye if come June confetti falls from the rafters on a teary-eyed Kevin Durant, and yet there’s a real chance the Thunder don’t make the playoffs. There are eight legitimate, no-brainer title contenders in the West. Eight.

The East is murkier. The Hawks, Wizards, Raptors, Bulls, and Cavs are the only teams that could conceivably make the Finals. That’s the cutoff. The Bucks have the next best record in the East, and the Bucks — Internet love aside — are the Bucks.

So are there five contenders? Are there any contenders?

None of the five really stands out. The Hawks are the definition of team basketball, and, shockingly, at 36-8 hold the second best record in the NBA by a sizable margin. 36-8 is not a fluke. Even the Blazers, who got off to a surprisingly hot start last year, were only 31-9 at their peak. But can you be a contender if the closest thing you have to a superstar is Al Horford coming off a pectoral injury? (If you ask me, or anyone who has watched one of their games, yes.) The Bulls and Cavs are loaded with talent, but the Bulls come with the injury asterisk and the Cavs are a chemistry train wreck. The Raptors just lost 8 of 11. Contenders do not lose 8 of 11.

And the Wizards? I’m glad you asked.

Are they winning enough? 29-15 and second in the Eastern Conference is their best start in decades. Check.

Do they have chemistry? See Gortat cheering wildly for free Chick-fil-A. Check.

Do they have veterans? People can’t stop gushing about Pierce’s influence. Gortat and Nene are fixtures. Miller, Kris Humphries, and — straight from the graveyard — Rasual Butler are all reliable options. Check, check, and check.

Do they have a superstar? John Wall. Check.

So they’ve got the talk radio staples down. And the East is up for grabs. If they find themselves in the Finals, all it takes is one well-played series, a few breaks, and the Wizards are the first team to bring a championship to DC since Lincoln was in office.

Except, the NBA doesn’t work like that. Put it down on paper and you realize how ludicrous it sounds. In the NBA, only contenders win the championship. It’s not enough to be PartyNextDoor or Makonnen. You have to be Drake.

That’s the question. Are the Wizards a contender? Or are they just … good.

Maybe it’s the history that makes me wary. I’ve seen so many promising DC teams, and all have failed to make it past the second round. That might be clouding my judgment.

But there are worrisome indicators. The list of teams that attempts the most long twos looks like this: 1. Hornets 2. Wizards 3. Lakers 4. Knicks. That’s terrifying company. Nene has already missed some time this season, as he tends to do. The Wizards haven’t looked fantastic against good teams, though they haven’t exactly been bad either (10-12 against teams .500 and above).

What really makes me uneasy though, and what prompted this article, is something I picked up on (or imagined, depending on how much you trust my ability to peer into the souls of players via a pixely stream) during Wednesday night’s game against the Thunder. The Wizards looked like the better team for most of the night against a team that, despite what their record suggests, is a contender. Going toe-to-toe with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook — that’s sitting at the adult table.

The Wizards eventually fell in overtime by 2 points. Not exactly a tragedy. But watching those last few minutes of regulation and overtime, you got the feeling Durant and Westbrook were comfortable and the Wizards weren’t. That might be the line.

I don’t mean to sound pessimistic. I love this team, and most of the time I’m irrationally confident about their chances. But they haven’t seized the contender tag yet.

The Wizards are a lock to make the playoffs. The second half of the season will be about crossing the line, making the leap — whatever you want to call it — into to the secret room that only the true power players are invited to.

 

 

 

Photo by Keith Allison (John Wall Josh Smith.jpg) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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