NBA history has a few things to say about the Wizards, but not much of it is encouraging. Washington could radically improve — there are teams that started similar to the Wizards and got better — but the most likely outcome is a losing record, a trip to the lottery, and the possibility of a coaching change.
Combing through the archives at Basketball-Reference produced 39 teams since 1985-86 that had an efficiency differential through their first 32 games similar to Washington’s -3.2. Records varied from a high of 17 (two teams) to a low of 10 (six teams). The group average 12.9 wins — trailing Washington’s 15, but right in line with their expected wins (based on scoring differential).
Some teams like the Wizards (to the same point in the season) went remarkably different directions. At the low end are the 2012-13 Magic, which started 12-20 and managed just eight wins the rest of the season.
At the other extreme are the 2004-05 Nuggets, which started 14-18, fired head coach Jeff Bzdelik, and then finished out the year on a 32-8 run after hiring George Karl. The Nuggets earned the 7th seed in the playoffs, and lost in the first round.
Just 10 of the 39 teams finished with a record of .500 or better. Only four finished the season with a positive schedule-adjusted scoring differential.
On average, the group finished with 33.8 wins and a schedule-adjusted scoring differential of -2.62. Teams like the Wizards did improve, but only by about 0.8 wins per 82 games. Ten teams made the playoffs, but only one (the 2001-02 Charlotte Hornets) could win a series.
Ten teams fired coaches mid-season, but there was no better/worse trend from the changes. Some teams got better after a coaching change; some got worse. Twelve teams made coaching changes after the season. Six teams fired coaches mid-season, AND made a coaching change after the season.
Teams like the Wizards on average:
- Record: 33.8-48.2
- Average schedule-adjusted scoring differential: -2.62
- .500 or better winning percentage: 26%
- Average conference finish: 10.3
- Made playoffs: 26%
- Won a playoff series: 3%
- In-season coaching change: 26%
- Post-season coaching change: 31%
Three teams were 15-17 after their first 32 games with an efficiency differential about the same Washington’s. Only one of those teams made the playoffs (the 1992-93 Atlanta Hawks). The Hawks finished 43-39, got the 7th seed, and lost in the first round. After the season, they replaced Bob Weiss with Lenny Wilkens and won 57 games.
The other 15-17 teams — the 2008-09 New Jersey Nets, and the 1994-95 Dallas Mavericks — finished with 34 and 36 wins respectively. Both missed the playoffs, and neither made a coaching change.
Barring significant improvement from the Wizards, the most likely outcome is 35-38 wins and a scoring differential of around -2.0. While Washington is only 2.5 games out of 8th place in the East, it will probably take 44-45 wins. And they have to pull ahead of four other teams in contention for that spot.
There’s still 50 games remaining in the season, so there’s definitely still time for the Wizards to turn things around and salvage the season. Unfortunately, it’s rare for teams that started a year like them to have a happy ending.