Could Washington Wizards Be Playoff Team with Healthy John Wall, Nene?

Zach BuckleyNational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 8, 2013

March 3, 2013; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Wizards point guard John Wall (right) talks with Wizards center Nene (left) on the bench against the Philadelphia 76ers in the second quarter at Verizon Center. The Wizards won 90-87. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

It's hard to think of a worse way to start an NBA season than how these Washington Wizards did: slow and small.

Removed from the equation were two of Washington's biggest acquisitions in recent history.

John Wall, the first overall pick in 2010, began the year rehabbing a non-traumatic stress injury in his knee. Joining him on the sideline was Nene, a 2012 trade deadline coup, recovering from a bothersome battle with plantar fasciitis in his left foot.

The Wizards opened the year looking like, well, a team missing two of its biggest stars. An 84-82 win over the Portland Trail Blazers on Nov. 28, Nene's third game of the season, narrowly saved them from an empty month of basketball.

But Nene and the supporting cast couldn't save Washington from compiling an abysmal mark without Wall. By the time the electric point guard made his debut on Jan. 12, the Wizards were staring at an unsightly 5-28 record.

But once Wall came back on the floor, he clearly had no intentions of ever leaving it again. He's played all 44 games since making his return, guiding Washington to a 24-20 mark along the way. Nene was around for 38 of those games, 22 of them resulting in Wizards wins.

So on the season, Washington holds a 22-16 mark when both Wall and Nene play, good enough for a .579 winning percentage—the same such mark as the fourth-seeded Brooklyn Nets.

And it hasn't been a case of just feasting on a generous schedule. In fact, those same Nets are among the nine different playoff teams that Wall, Nene and the rest of the Wizards have handled over the past three months.

Of course, this run would have never been possible had the Wizards simply returned the same Wall that the hoops world has watched for the past two seasons. You know, the one floating around the league average player efficiency rating with nothing resembling a jump shot or a control of the basketball.

But this Wall was unlike anything hoops fans had seen before, save from perhaps the most optimistic visions stemming from his lone season speeding through the college ranks.

On the surface, the numbers don't capture his improvement. In fact, his 7.6 assists per game puts him on pace for a career low. His 18.0 points per game would be a career high, but suggest he's more of a complementary piece rather than a franchise cornerstone.

Looking beyond the base numbers, though, offers a clear glimpse of just how far along the third-year guard really is. His field-goal percentage (44.6), free-throw percentage (81.9) and player efficiency rating (20.7) are all career bests. And his scoring numbers would push him into the elite discussion if he hadn't been limited to just 32.3 minutes per game.

This improved version of Wall, combined with the steady hand of Nene (12.7 points, 6.7 rebounds per game) and tantalizing potential of rookie Bradley Beal (38.6 three-point percentage), won't simply put Washington into the playoff discussion.

It may offer the Wizards the brightest future in the Eastern Conference, assuming the Washington front office can lock up Wall in a long-term extension before he joins the star-studded 2014 free-agent class. 

The Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers and Atlanta Hawks will have their own free agency issues to sort out. The Boston Celtics are perhaps already showing signs of their age, and the Nets and New York Knicks may not be far away from doing the same.

So could these Wizards be a playoff team with a healthy Wall? Absolutely.

But really, why should they stop there?