The Washington Wizards were expected by many to make the playoffs this season. I predicted them to finish with the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference before the year started.
Despite their current state (21-44, 13th place in the East,10 games back of the eighth seed), thinking the Wizards could go to the playoffs was not a stretch in any way. There were plenty of reasons to believe this team had what it took to be a playoff team.
For starters, after missing 149 games in the past two seasons, superstar point guard Gilbert Arenas was set to make his return to the hardwood and if he resembled his old self in any way, he could easily contribute 20 points and six assists a night for the Wizards. Surrounding Arenas, Washington had two very good veteran forwards, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler, that could score 18-20 points a game themselves, wanted to win and worked hard on both ends.
1,800+ more words on the Wizards and their new young stars after the break…
That trio of veterans isn’t a bad start when building a playoff team. But they had more. A trio of players were set to split minutes at the center position, most notably Brendan Haywood and JaVale McGee. Haywood is one of the best defensive centers in the league and was there to protect the rim and gather offensive rebounds and McGee is a raw young prospect.
And, there was more. Around draft night, the Wizards traded three back-up players in Etan Thomas, Darius Songaila and Oleksiy Pecherov and the fifth overall pick to the Minnesota Timberwolves for point/shooting guard Randy Foye and the tallest shooting guard in the league, three-point specialist Mike Miller. Though they traded a pick that could have landed them Stephen Curry, Brandon Jennings and many others that were available at that spot, they did receive on of the best three-point shooters in the league and a scoring guard that could power the second unit.
On paper, the depth chart was stacked with an all-star point guard, a pair of scoring shooting guards on the bench (as well as defensive specialist DeShawn Stevenson), veteran forwards Butler and Jamison and a defensive stud manning the paint with Haywood. That’s not a bad roster at all and, when healthy, could easily compete for a playoff spot (perhaps a top six spot) in the Eastern Conference.
But, basketball isn’t played on paper, as much as Wizards’ fans wish it was.
Jamison started the year off on the bench with an injury to his shoulder, the team started off just 5-10 in their first fifteen games (including a six game losing streak) and Agent Zero was shooting below 40% from the field as he struggled to find his groove on the offensive end. December wouldn’t go much better for Washington as they would finish the month 5-10, giving them a 10-20 record and a pair of six game losing streaks on the season.
And then, the whole season, though bad to this point, went down the drain thanks to one prank. You all know the story. Well, sort of. Arenas brought guns into the team locker room and may or may not have pulled it on teammate Javaris Crittenton. After a lot of legal actions took place, Arenas was charged with a felony and the NBA suspended him for the entire season.
Once Arenas was gone, the Wizards’ office had a lot of emotional pressure on them. They had to make a tough choice between keeping fan favorites on the team in order to attract some fans for the rest of the year or trading their veterans away to give them a chance at winning with a contending team. They chose the latter, and the fire sale began.
The first deal conjured up involved the Wizards and the Dallas Mavericks. The Mavs sent Josh Howard, Drew Gooden, Quinton Ross and James Singleton to Washington for Butler, Stevenson, and Haywood. There went two of their top three players (excluding Arenas). Next up, on deadline day, Washington sent Jamison to the Cleveland Cavaliers in a three-team deal that also involved the Los Angeles Clippers. With Žydrūnas Ilgauskas getting bought out, the only valuable piece that Washington got in return was Al Thornton from the Clippers.
Not a lot to show for three great players, but it was necessary as the Wizards needed to find their direction quickly before getting stuck in the cellar with aging veterans instead of young kids growing up with you. With their entire starting front court and half of their starting back court out, Washington had four starting jobs to offer to their newly acquired players as well as their youngsters that have been waiting in the wings.
At first, Josh Howard got the starting small forward job, but after three good looking games, he fell victim to a knee injury that ended his season early. Al Thornton took over from there and he hasn’t been bad. The six-foot-eight small forward out of Florida State is making a little bit of progress in the development of his game and he has been able to put up 13 points and six rebounds a game on 46% shooting from the field.
At the point guard spot, Randy Foye has handled the majority of the minutes in Arenas’ absence, though a recent funk (ppg and FG% dropped from 15 and 47% in January to just 10 and below 40% in February and March) has given six-foot-seven youngster Shaun Livingston, a former fourth overall pick, a chance to get some minutes. In limited action so far, Livingston has looked good. Finally, some of the potential he was believed to have is starting to show, and even though its his fourth year in the league, it isn’t too late for him to put it all together as he is just 24 years old.
It is unclear at this point whether or not the Wizards will be able to retain Josh Howard next year, but the recent news is that they will try to get him at a reduced rate. And, maybe unfortunately for Washington, there is still a whole lot of money and years left on Arenas’ contract. While both might return, it is still very helpful for Washington to see what they have with the rest of their guys, especially when almost all of the players getting significant minutes now are under the age of 25.
While I have been impressed with what Thornton has done and am intrigued by what Livingston might be conjuring up, by far the two players that have stood out the most since being given an increased share of minutes have been center JaVale McGee and power forward Andray Blatche.
McGee is a physical specimen. A seven-footer with extremely long arms that has no trouble running the floor even with his big frame. In fact, he’s one of the most athletic centers in the league, and flying down court seems to be rather easy for him. His long strides make him a threat on every fastbreak and his long arms make him a fantastic finisher at the rim.
His long arms also contribute to his defensively ability. The common perception of players with long arms is that they are or can become good shot blockers simply because, well, they can contest almost every shot. While most of the time that is false, because blocking a shot requires more than just the raw physical abilities to leap and contest the shot as players need to have anticipation skills and need to know how not foul the player shooting the ball. Well, in McGee’s case, its all about the physical aspect. If JaVale sees a player coming at him, he contests the shot. There’s no logic to it really. He’s not making quick assessments as to who the shooter is and whether or not allowing him to get a bad shot off is better than contesting and getting called for a foul, he’s just trying to block the shot.
And he’s good at it, too. For such a raw player in his second season, his 3.8 blocks per 36 minutes is a fantastic number. Once McGee develops a better feel for the game and starts comprehending defensive schemes, his physical abilities will turn him into one of the best defenders in the league at the center position.
Andray Blatche has been a bit of the opposite. Instead of showcasing his defensive talents, Blatche has looked like an all-star offensive player since the fire sale. A lot of his success has come because Flip Saunders has turned Blatche into the center of the Wizards’ offense, which isn’t a bad thing. He’s embraced the opportunity and has been making the most of it.
For a power forward, the best comparison for Blatche is David West of the New Orleans Hornets. Blatche prefers to play on the perimeter like West but also has another gear offensively with handles and the ability to get the basket and finish with various lay-ins. Andray is incredibly effective with his jumpshots. Blatche finishes at the rim 62% of the time and also shoots 48% from inside 10 feet, 46% from 10-15 feet, and 41% from 16-23 feet. Those numbers aren’t better than West’s, but they are close and it seems to me that West gets a few more open jumpers than Blatche.
The six-foot-11 power forward has been in the NBA for five seasons (counting this year) since being drafted out of high school in 2005 and, after spending four seasons mostly on the bench, he seems to have found himself a starting job that will give him consistent minutes to showcase his talents. In 19 starts since Jamison’s departure, Blatche has averaged 37 minutes a game, leading to what would be career high per game averages in points (22), rebounds (9), steals (1.2) if extrapolated over an entire season and a career high in field goal percentage (52%).
Blatche has such a variety of offensive weapons that he can keep any defender on his toes. Normal power forwards aren’t quick enough to stop his first step, small forwards generally aren’t tall enough, allowing Blatche to shoot over them, and centers are vulnerable to the drive and a nice fade away jumper. Though he is prone to take a lot of shots in his current role, which, in his defense, is to create offense when there isn’t any, or all the time for Washington, Blatche is a complete offensive player that can only get better as the teammates around him improve and learn how he plays.
With so many young players sitting on the bench to start the year, seeing them mature into solid ballplayers with bright futures now may make the Wizards happy they didn’t make the post season this year. I am sure they would do anything to avoid the Arenas’ controversy and probably didn’t want to deal their most popular players for basically nothing, but without all of that, they would not get to see guys like Blatche, McGee, Livingston and a few others have in them.
Would a team with these guys as their core be that bad in the Eastern Conference? I don’t think it is. Blatche is a proven scorer that can be the focal point of the offense, McGee is a soon to be defensive stud, Al Thornton is a work in progress at small forward but he can score the ball and Gilbert Arenas is still a great basketball player despite his off the court trouble this season. With Washington sitting in 13th place, not only have they found something to take away from their disappointing season, but they will also get a lottery pick out of it to add to their core. If this team is lucky enough to land one of the top two picks, an Arenas/John Wall or Arenas/Evan Turner backcourt will be straight up deadly with their emerging front court.