Typically, a team, coming off of a 63 loss season in which it surrendered 103 points per game en route to 33 double digit losses, would be facing a rebuilding project for the ages. As often as that may be the case in the NBA, the Washington Wizards may just be the exception to the rule.
Though last season was an unmitigated disaster, there is cause for optimism going into this offseason.
Flip Saunders will be replacing interim coach Ed Tapscott, bringing in a more free-flowing offense which is much more suited to the team’s personnel.
The Wizards return a talented core as well, with Caron Butler, a healthy Gilbert Arenas, and a still-proficient Antawn Jamison forming the foundation. Brendan Haywood and promising youngsters Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee, and solid role players Dominic McGuire, Darius Songalia, and Nick Young fill out the roster.
In addition, there is the sole benefit to the horrid 19-63 record; the second-best chance to receive the number one overall pick in this year’s NBA Draft.
Going into the draft lottery, the Wizards will have a 17.75 percent chance of landing the top pick, trailing only the Sacramento Kings who finished the season at 17-65. Adding a top-flight rookie to an already talent-laden roster could finally push them past the first round of the playoffs.
If the ping pong balls bounce in the Wizards’ favor and they land the first pick, there will be significant pressure on GM Ernie Grunfeld and his staff to make the right choice. The pundits and fans alike will undoubtedly call for the team to draft stud power forward Blake Griffin from the University of Oklahoma.
Averaging nearly 23 points and 15 rebounds per game, Griffin displayed freakish athleticism and brute strength in carrying the Sooners to the Elite 8.
However, I have my doubts about Griffin and would be more than nervous about selecting him, as he is far from the “sure-thing” he has been labeled. Though he is listed at 6'10", there are rumors floating around that he is only 6'6".
Now, we all know that college and NBA teams alike add an extra inch or two on the height of each player, but if that is true, it raises major red flags. With a rather raw and unrefined offensive game in addition to below average measurements, Griffin could have trouble finishing at the next level.
The right pick for the Wizards is Ricky Rubio, a player the team would most likely be able to select even if they get the second pick. Rubio’s phenomenal court vision, superb handle, and tenacious defense would be incredibly welcome on a team that lacks a true point guard.
Drafting Rubio would allow the Wizards to move Arenas to the two spot and slide Butler back to his natural position, small forward. Jamison and Haywood would round out the starting lineup in what, on paper, looks to be a dangerous squad.
If the Wizards are unlucky and get a pick outside of the top two, the draft turns into a crapshoot.
Beyond Rubio and Griffin, the draft is very weak, lacking any surefire stars. If they land the third pick and Rubio and Griffin are gone, which is almost guaranteed, the safest pick would appear to be James Harden. Even though he took a hit after a subpar NCAA Tournament, he does not need to dominate the ball, which on a team that has three 20-point scorers, is important.
If they slip past three, and all of the aforementioned players are gone, the pick would most likely be Jordan Hill or Hasheem Thabeet, both of whom I would not touch with a ten-foot pole if I was Grunfeld. However, their status as the only proven college big men in the draft helps them immensely in a down draft year.
As for free agency, the team will definitely not be a player.
As it stands, their only unrestricted free agent is Juan Dixon, who represents a paltry $989,000 off of the cap. Since the team will be right up against the estimated $72 million Luxury Tax threshold, they will most likely let Dixon walk.
The only other players the Wizards could lose are Etan Thomas, who has an early termination option which would free up $7.35 million, and Mike James, who would take $6.4 million off the cap if he declined his player option.
However, both players were hurt all year and are highly unlikely to walk away from their contracts as they have almost zero chance of matching the pay they are slated to get next year.
All in all, if things go according to plan, the Wizards have a great chance to storm back into the national spotlight again next year. Adding an elite, instant-impact rookie like Rubio or Griffin to an already formidable core would undoubtedly put the rest of the Eastern Conference on notice, and the Wiz will once again be a force to reckon with.