Washington Wizards: Biggest Issues Behind the Franchise's Playoff Drought
When a franchise only musters 19 road wins in three seasons, that franchise is in a state of disarray.
This losing culture that characterizes the Washington Wizards, and has even before Ted Leonsis bought the team in 2010, still lingers as the team looks forward to the NBA draft on June 27 in Brooklyn, New York.
A strong selection could go a long way towards changing that culture. The Wizards were fortunate to receive some good luck in the lottery process, They should have some options with the No. 3 pick that are capable of making an immediate impact on the struggling team.
The Wizards, despite these years of struggles, have drafted relatively well. With the same No. 3 pick in the 2012 draft, the team selected 2-guard Bradley Beal, a player with the makings of an effective NBA offensive player. Coupled with 2010’s No. 1 overall pick, John Wall, there is a young nucleus of talent in Washington’s backcourt that should aid in Washington’s goal of returning to the playoffs.
The upcoming draft day could mark the official turnaround of the Wizards, who have been plagued by a series of issues since 2008, the last season they finished above the .500 mark.
Here are some of those issues, all of which could send any once-stable franchise into a crippling spiral.
It's Not Ted Leonsis
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Typically when franchises endure years of failure, fans and skeptics point to ownership as the source of the problem.
This reasoning is usually fair. A losing culture starts with those responsible for the atmosphere in the building where players, coaches and staff go to work everyday.
Owners who take a hands-off approach, are uninvolved with their players and coaches, or do the opposite and take too much control of the team’s operations can do great harm to this atmosphere and the confidence of those working in the building.
None of these is the case for Ted Leonsis. The owner has been a breath of fresh air for Wizards employees and fans.
According to a 2010 Washington Business Journal article, Leonsis provided free refreshments and addressed Wizards fans outside the team's stadium by saying, “This is your team, not my team, and we are in it together.”
The owner certainly made a good first impression on his new fans.
Leonsis continued to involve the fans in major team decision-making. He responded to a myriad of requests to change the team name back to the Bullets, the franchise’s inaugural nickname, by returning team uniforms to their old Bullet colors (via Tracee Hamilton of the Washington Post).
Moves such as these are a direct attempt by the owner to change the culture of the team. While he could not return the team name to the Bullets for obvious reasons, Leonsis did all that he could to appease frustrated fans.
The owner's efforts to restore excitement are not part of the struggles of the Washington Wizards. It would be easy to blame any owner for such an abysmal stretch of seasons, but in Washington, this is not the case.
It Is Jan Vesely, Among Others
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While the Wizards have had good luck with recent drafts, the 2011 draft was an exception to that trend.
Taken No. 6 overall in that draft, Jan Vesely not only failed to live up to early expectations, but he finished with only 19 more points (126) than personal fouls (107) in 2012-13.
The 6'11" forward has been unable to find quality minutes behind Emeka Okafor and Nene on the depth chart. A member of Wizards head coach Randy Wittman’s doghouse, Vesely has reportedly been putting in the time to find his way out of this unenviable home.
Michael Lee of the Washington Post reported that Vesley is regaining his confidence, an issue he clearly needs to work out if he wants to find more time on the floor for the Wizards.
While the majority of Vesely’s draft class has yet to pan out as well, hindsight says the pick could have been better spent on the Spurs' Kawhi Leonard or in a trade for a veteran player. Leonard has been a breakout performer in this year’s NBA Finals and certainly would have provided more grit and toughness than Vesely has thus far.
Should Vesely develop in the coming years, the Wizards will have an even more exciting, young and talented team. Nevertheless, a brutal 2012-13 season makes this look less and less likely.
John Wall's 2012 Injury
2012 was a season that began with more optimism for the Wizards than any year since 2008.
After receiving Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza in a draft-day trade with New Orleans, the Wizards seemingly had the frontcourt talent to complement their emerging star, third-year guard John Wall.
That was until late September, when news broke that Wall would miss eight weeks with a leg injury.
The Wizards went 5-28 without Wall, but according to James Herbert of SB Nation, upon Wall's return they “went 15-7 with Wall, Bradley Beal, and Nene in the lineup.”
That sort of record was what Wizards fans hoped to see all year from their favorite squad. Unfortunately, 5-28 was too large a hole for the Wizards to dig out of, and the culture of losing continued into 2013 despite a talented roster.
Look for the Wizards to perform well in the future so long as they have a healthy Wall in the lineup. He should emerge as one of the most talented point guards in the NBA come next season.
Missing Roy Hibbert in the 2008 Draft
JaVale McGee in a nutshell.
Before getting into the catastrophes that occurred for the Wizards in the 2008 offseason, a stroke of bad luck on draft day should be examined as a reason for the Wizard’s recent failures.
With the 18th pick in the 2008 draft, the Wizards selected center JaVale McGee, just one spot after hometown hero and Georgetown standout Roy Hibbert was taken by the Toronto Raptors.
Had the Wizards found a way to beat the Indiana Pacers to attaining the rights to Hibbert, who is one of the dominant big men in the league, one can only speculate as to how many more games the Wizards would have won by now.
Not only was McGee a disappointment in terms of production, but his head-scratching antics epitomized just how lost and directionless the organization was at the time.
The humorous video compilation above sums it up wel. Though a few of these lowlights come while McGee is a Denver Nugget, the pure ridiculousness of the center's play deserves the negative reaction outlined by the clip.
Even if the Wizards did not pick Hibbert, however, there were other strong options that in hindsight would have been a better fit for a team already dealing with character issues.
The 2008 NBA draft, which produced a tremendous amount of talent, saw the likes of Ryan Anderson, J.J. Hickson, Serge Ibaka and DeAndre Jordan all go after McGee. Any of these players would have been better, more mentally sound 4- or 5-types to bring into the Wizards locker room.
McGee was the wrong guy for the Wizards to target, and without a doubt trading him before the end of 2012 was one of the better recent moves the organization has made.
The Gilbert Arenas Contract Extension
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The draft was not the only mistake of 2008. Several key decisions of the 2008 offseason sent the Wizards into a salary cap nightmare.
After signing potential free agent Gilbert Arenas to a six-year, $111 million contract despite a horde of issues with both knees, the Wizards began their downward spiral (via Mike Jones of the Washington Times). Knee issues followed Arenas into the season, as he missed five months of action, several more than fans and local media expected.
Antawn Jamison, who also signed a lucrative four-year, $50 million deal in the 2008 offseason, suffered a preseason knee injury that limited him throughout the early goings. Without its two stars at full strength, the team started out 1-10.
With two huge contracts dedicated to stars on the downsides of their careers, the Wizards were in big trouble after getting bitten by the injury bug in 2008.
Arenas returned in March of 2009, but his undedicated approach to handling his knee injuries had soured the star player’s reputation in many fans' eyes.
With his trade options very limited due to no other team wanting to absorb such a large contract, Arenas had become very heavy dead weight for the franchise.
Strangely, it was not until a New Year’s Day, 2010 locker room gun incident involving Arenas that things appeared to improve for the Wizards and Arenas’ whopping contract. While the incident is still disturbing, it allowed the Wizards the opportunity to void Gilbert's large contract (via David Aldridge of NBA.com).
Even so, the Wizards elected not to void the Arenas contract as a way of displaying their loyalty to their star (via Michael Lee of the Washington Post). While it appeared as an obvious get-out-of-jail-free card from a business standpoint for Washington, it decided against the move.
Taking the moral high road and defending their player undoubtedly impacted the future of the Wizards.
Simply put, for all he brought Washington in terms of buzzer-beaters, regular-season success and occasionally deep playoff runs, Arenas is unquestionably the man most responsible for the recent failures of the Washington Wizards.
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There are a few others who just missed receiving blame for the Washington Wizards' poor regular-season performances of late. Do not worry, you are not forgotten.
Blaming Eddie Jordan for the 2008 catastrophe
The brutal start to 2008 led then-head coach Eddie Jordan, who had been a big part of Washington’s playoff runs from 2005-2008, to be fired after the abysmal start (NBC Sports).
The knee-jerk reaction that occurred after the 1-10 start was one of the major players in Washington's collapse.
Jordan designed an offense that not only allowed Arenas to be the star he was, but it also involved Jamison and players like Caron Butler in a manner that kept them at or near their All-Star potential.
Jordan was the right coach for that Wizards team, and though replacements like Flip Saunders and now coach Randy Wittman have put forth the best effort possible, neither has fared as well as Jordan did during his six-year tenure with the team.
Years of Inadequate Center Play
Even when the big three of Arenas, Jamison, and Larry Hughes was making strong playoff runs, there was one obvious weak spot on the Wizards roster. Brendan Haywood and Etan Thomas combined for years of unspectacular play at center, as the position became a revolving door throughout the Gilbert Arenas era and beyond.
Though both had occasionally strong defensive moments, neither Haywood nor Thomas was an effective offensive player. They were good for a few key offensive rebounds a game, but neither could handle the ball at an NBA level and were constantly exploited by better NBA big men.
There was another first-round pick of 2011 not named Jan Vesely. His name was Chris Singleton, and he has done very little since his strong career at Florida State ended. The small forward registered just a shade over four points a game in his second season and is arguably deeper in Wittman's doghouse than Vesely going into 2013-14.
Lack of Depth
This is sort of a cop-out reason, but it is certainly an issue and was made clear after Wall went down in 2012. The team is lacking a backup point guard, and more often than not players like Wall, Beal, and whoever this year's selection is are forced to start right away because of poor depth.
This drastically limits the development potential of a player and leads to early bust labels, as has been the case with Vesely.
As one sees with the San Antonio Spurs, the success of veterans like Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Tim Duncan allows for younger players like Danny Green, Gary Neal and Kawhi Leonard to develop at their own pace.
This very natural transition for players to evolve from the bench to larger roles leads to success, but it's a luxury the Wizards simply have not had in years.