If there's a team that came out and shot itself in the knees this past season, it was the Washington Wizards. It wasn't a prolonged shooting, everyone knew what to expect when the team went 1-10 and fired its coach. There was no late season collapse, no clutch disappointments. It was a disaster from game one.
To be fair, they had very little to work with. Gilbert Arenas: Out. Brendan Haywood: Out. Deshawn Stevenson: Out by the first game in January. The backups: Antonio Daniels (later Mike James and Javaris Crittenton), Etan Thomas (and JaVale McGee), and Nick Young, respectively, were less than spectacular.
This isn't to say that those players aren't worth anything, they just aren't who you want starting games regularly.
Injury woes aside, the Wizards are really stuck when it comes to the salary cap. According to reports from late February, the cap is expected to fall to around $57.3 million next season.
At their current salaries, the Wizards are set to be about $10 million over that cap, according to sportscity.com. Unless they make a move, they will see no cap relief until the summer of 2011 - a year after the LeBron sweepstakes.
And this is the problem the Wizards face: do they trust this roster can win when healthy, or look for immediate cap relief and try to regroup?
There are pitfalls with each answer. The reality is that this team is a few years away from sniffing the title. Really, the only position that has no immediate need of upgrading or no possibility of moving is small forward—Caron Butler's job is pretty secure.
Sure Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison might play at a level equal to or higher than Butler, but Arenas hasn't played a full season in almost three years, and Antawn Jamison is the most likely of the "Big Three" to be traded.
Jamison consistently performs at a high level, averaging 22.2 points and 8.9 rebounds per game this season. He was one game shy of playing all 82 games (again). Reports around the trade deadline suggested that the Wizards declined to move him even though a few teams persisted.
They believe in him and the roster, but so long as the phones are ringing and the salary cap is going down, it's not out of the question.
My prediction: if the Wizards land Blake Griffin, and he delivers, Antawn Jamison will be gone by the trade deadline. Removing his contract puts the Wizards back under the cap, and if Griffin performs well then they might not lose a disastrous amount of production.
The Wizards getting the first overall pick is the dream scenario, however. As it stands now, they have the second highest chance of landing it behind Sacramento. If they get the second pick, I think the possibilities are a bit more fun. Imagine this lineup:
Ricky Rubio, PG
Gilbert Arenas, SG
Caron Butler, SF
Antawn Jamison, PF
Brendan Haywood, C
That could be a lot of fun to watch.
Is Arenas a two-guard? Maybe. In the few comeback attempts he's made, he's gone for the assists more than the points, and it's unlikely we'll ever see him average 30 points per game again.
But will he still be a solid-to-great shooter? Absolutely. Assuming Ricky Rubio develops, this is a lineup the Wizards have to consider.
Most analysts are less optimistic about picks three through 60 of this draft, but the top five, of which the Wizards are guaranteed a pick, is still solid. If the Wizards fall to three, four, or five, they have a few options.
The first option is trade the pick. If they do, it has to be for a shooting guard or a true center. Trying to improve any other position would be foolish, especially with all the money they have tied into the starters at the one, three, and four spots.
If they were going to move one of those players along with the pick, then that's a different story. The problem then transforms from a cap-crunch to a scary lack of depth.
Starting at Forward...Number Nine...Darius Songaila!
Trading the pick to get an expiring contract at the two, four, or five spot is about the only thing they can do in this option. No team is going to take on Arenas' contract, and the Wizards (should) have no interest in moving Butler.
The other option if they fall to spot three, four, or five, is to draft either James Harden (SG out of Arizona State) or DeMar DeRozan (SG out of USC). Both are not polished, but have very high potential.
Based on scouting reports and player profiles, I'd put Harden over DeRozan by about a hair. The Wizards need to upgrade at shooting guard and/or center, this would help that goal.
Astute readers are questioning my dismissal of Hasheem Thabeet. I really think that adding another center prospect would throw what they're trying to do with JaVale McGee completely off.
McGee looked very promising in the limited role coach Ed Tapscott gave him this past season. It's in the Wizards best interest to pursue his development. If he learns how to use his seven-foot frame, only three inches shorter than Thabeet, he can be just as dominant in the NBA.
The bottom line is that the Wizards have to take a wait and see approach while making a big move. A paradox no doubt, but this roster hasn't truly been tested yet. At the same time, they are about to select very high in the draft, or move the top five pick in a big trade. The roster is staying the course while getting rocked.
Whatever happens, the Wizards have a lot of tough choices to make this coming offseason, let's hope they make the right decisions.