Coming off one of their worst seasons in franchise history, the 2009 NBA Draft will be critical to the future success of the Washington Wizards and general manager Ernie Grunfeld.
After the ping-pong balls failed the Wizards, Washington was forced to settle for the fifth pick in this year's draft, but that's not to say that is a negative.
Let's look back and note a few players taken with the fifth or sixth picks over recent years. In 2003, the fifth pick brought the Miami Heat Dwayne Wade, and ultimately a NBA Championship. In 2004, the Wizards found themselves with the fifth pick and selected point guard Devin Harris (traded to Dallas for, most notably, Antwan Jamison), now a NBA All-Star.
If you look at the 2006 NBA Draft, I believe the Wizards would find the sixth pick of that draft most intriguing. In 2006, the Portland Trailblazers selected shooting guard Brandon Roy from the University of Washington. Roy was then considered the best scoring guard available in the draft, and we are all aware of how successful that pick was for Portland.
What is interesting about that pick for the Washington Wizards is that with the number five pick in this year's draft, Washington has the chance to select this year's top ranked scoring guard in college basketball; essentially this year's Brandon Roy, Arizona State's James Harden.
Based on recent draft projections, it is a good possibility that Harden could fall to the Wizards at the five spot, and if this were to occur, the Wizards should not even consider hesitating to call Harden's name.
James Harden, in his two years at Arizona State, averaged 19 points per game, and shot over 50 percent from the field, including 37.6 percent from the three-point line.
He became just the fifth player in Pac-10 Conference history to lead the league in scoring (20.1 ppg) and steals (1.69 per game) in his last year at Arizona State, and also led the Pac-10 in steals in each of his two seasons with 132 in his career. In 69 career games, he led ASU in scoring 46 times, in rebounding 21 times, and in assists in 29 times.
There are no guarantees in the NBA Draft, but this guy is as close as you can get to the real deal.
If Harden cannot match the success of a Brandon Roy, the least he could do is be a good scorer, like a Michael Redd, to accommodate Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler as they attract defenders off the perimeter. Having a pure shooter available would really provide the Wizards with a new dimension to their offense they haven't had since, dare I say, His Airness?
The Wizards' best draft day strategy for 2009 would include selecting James Harden, or if he is gone, Tyreke Evans or DeMar DeRozan to play along side a healthy—sigh—Gilbert Arenas, and in the second round, select the best available power forward, i.e. Taj Gibson out of USC, or fellow Sun Devil, Jeff Pendergraph.
So have I sold you, Mr. Grunfeld, and/or any of you Wizard followers reading this, on James Harden as the next potential Wizard All-Star? Those of you who are buying, I say great! Those who are nay-sayers, here are the other options:
1) The Wizards recently worked out point guards Stephen Curry (Davidson), Jonny Flynn (Syracuse), and Brandon Jennings (Lottomatica Roma via Oak Hill Academy, VA).
Washington may look to add a solid floor general, and may trade down from five to select one to allow Arenas to play his more natural shooting guard position, but would Arenas be happy without the ball constantly in his hands? I say not.
2) There is always the exciting trade option. Washington has made it known they are open, and more than willing, to consider trading the fifth pick along with some expiring contracts (Etan Thomas & Mike James) and, maybe, even star forward Antwan Jamison.
Jamison, who is synonymous with the words Wizards, trade and the fifth pick, would likely assist the Wizards in acquiring a proven veteran, with more upside than Jamison, that could help them become relevant again in the Eastern Conference.
There were rumors about the Wizards talking to Phoenix about Amare Stoudemire, but the chances of that are slim to none.
Most recently, the rumors tied Washington to Cleveland with talks of Jamison to the Cavs for the expiring contract of Ben Wallace and forward Sasha Pavlovic.
This is somewhat intriguing, because Wallace and Pavlovic have been linked to a trade for Shaquille O'Neal. Could Washington parlay this deal with Cleveland to bring someone like Shaq or, even younger and more promising, Josh Smith of Atlanta?
The best scenario for the Washington Wizards come Draft Day 2009 will be, in my opinion, holding on to their lottery pick and wishing James Harden falls in their lap at number five. After the first round, they can build depth with the rest of their draft picks.
If Ernie Grunfeld gets the itch to wheel 'n' deal this offseason, I would recommend he do his best to package something around Antwan Jamison and the expiring contracts of Etan Thomas and Mike James. In today's NBA where money is tight, I think the Wiz could find several teams willing to make such a deal for a top-shelf talent with a big contract, or in search of that next big payday.
It is no secret that Jamison's knees will start barking real soon and his window of productivity is shutting fast. If Washington could draft a scoring threat like Harden and trade for a effective low post player like Josh Smith or Shaq, then a lineup of Arenas, Harden, Butler, Josh Smith/Jamison and Haywood/Shaq would make the 2009 Wizards a team who could go straight from the lottery to the later rounds of the NBA Playoffs.