The Washington Wizards are among the many teams looking for redemption from poor 2009-2010 showings, and are arguably the best candidate for the most improved team heading into this season. Owner Ted Leonsis has taken his formula for rebuilding the Washington Capitals and translated it to his new full ownership of the Wizards.
In keeping with the formula, he constructed a Wizards edition of his 101 things to-do list, facilitated greater fan/player interaction, stressed the importance of the draft and developing talent in-house and building a foundation rather than raiding free agency and patching a team together.
Drafting John Wall, extending Andray Blatche's contract and trading for Kirk Hinrich and Yi Jianlian were all moves made for the future, but don't tell the Wizards not to expect to win this season. They consider this a season of renovation more than rebuilding.
John Wall is the biggest thing the Washington Wizards have going for them. He is already garnering praise for his play through summer league and preseason. The regular season is a different game than either of those and Wall is just 20 years old with limited experience coming out of college. He is still raw by many experts' standards, but it should be good enough for 15 points, eight assists and a handful of rebounds.
Wall excels at getting the ball to his teammates in an offense set up to allow for a lot of outlets. With Gilbert Arenas spotting up on the outside, JaVale McGee playing the vulture around the rim and Andray Blatche roaming everywhere within 15 feet of the basket, Wall will have his choice of targets. He will have to work on his range, but is perfectly capable getting the ball to the rim and finishing or dishing to anyone available.
Turnovers are an area of concern for Wall, but every rookie has their growing pains.
In terms of his competition, rookie holdover Blake Griffin could give Wall a push in the Rookie of the Year voting. He doesn't appear any worse for wear from his injury last year, and made his presence known in preseason. In his six preseason games, Griffin averaged 17 points and 12 rebounds.
By virtue of not being in this year's class, though, Griffin will fail to surpass the hype that has been around Wall since he committed to Kentucky over a year ago.
Gilbert Arenas is already providing the Wizards with a healthy dose of headaches and the season hasn't even started. After last season's felony gun charges and the season-long suspension, it would make sense that he keep his head down this year.
Arenas appears to have already mentally checked out of Washington. He faked an injury out of generosity so Nick Young could get the start in a preseason game. He was fined for the action, and delivered a telling but half-hearted apology thereafter.
He said that he was here to show John Wall the ropes, but he's moving on. Does that mean he's moving on from the team or trying to distance himself from the media persona he built for himself with the handling of his gun charges? Either way, Arenas is not going to be the starter for the entire season.
Young has always been a streaky player in his brief career, but when he is on it is something to behold. He will have to compete with Arenas and Kirk Hinrich for minutes. Hinrich is the veteran presence with experience at both guard spots and is arguably a more efficient shooter than either Arenas or Young. He is also a better defender and passer than either Arenas or Young, which lends itself to more time on the floor.
Whether he succumbs to another injury, rubs head coach Flip Saunders the wrong way or just loses his grip on the starting job, Arenas will start around half of the Wizards games this year.
Before Antawn Jamison was traded to the Cavaliers, Andray Blatche was nothing more than a bench player with a ton of potential and just as much immaturity. The latter hindered the former, and extended into a few offseason run-ins with the law.
After Jamison was traded, Blatche became the starting power forward and proceeded to run up career-highs in almost every statistical category of relevance. He started 36 games and averaged 14 points, six rebounds and two assists per game, while shooting nearly 75 percent from the field.
Post All-Star break, Blatche averaged 22.1 points, 8.6 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.5 steals per game.
He spent a brief evening in the coach's doghouse for not getting back on defense, but it didn't stop him from scoring in double figures every night before and after since becoming the starter.
One night, he scored a career-high 36 points, and another night he pulled down a career-high 18 rebounds. He suffered a broken foot during the offseason, but it did not hold him out of many offseason activities or any of the Wizards preseason games. The Wizards showed their faith in Blatche by extending his contract to the tune of $35 million over the next five years.
JaVale McGee is a year older, an inch taller and a few pounds heavier following a season that saw him achieve starter status and lose it shortly after. McGee is another case of tremendous potential, and with his physical gifts there is no reason he shouldn't be one of the best centers in the NBA. One play sees him leaping over opponents for a dunk and the next play sees him out of position on defense and giving up an easy bucket.
After beefing up a bit, handling his asthma problem and working on his floor positioning, McGee still suffers from being a raw physical talent.
He thrives on work around the basket, offensive put-backs, alley-oops and simply out-jumping his opponents. Young players without the pressure of production can get away with that, but McGee will be the starting center this year. He needs to bring his physical abilities together with a refined approach to the intricacies of basketball before he can fulfill his potential.
McGee will likely average 10 points and eight rebounds over the course of the season, and chip in a couple of blocks a night, but will fail to really burst onto the NBA scene. He provides the nightly awesome dunks and intensity, which has become his trademark, but his lack of go-to post moves hinders his ability to create for himself. He will be John Wall's best friend under the basket, but that can only take a player and a team so far.
Best case scenario has McGee on the receiving end of a lot of Wall alley-oops, pick and rolls and put-backs. If that is the case, he could easily put up 15 points and 10 rebounds a night, but that is simply the best-case scenario.
John Wall is known as a strong defender on the ball, but is only a rookie and can't be expected to lock down every point guard he faces. Kirk Hinrich will come off the bench for both guard spots and offer a stronger defensive presence than either Wall or Gilbert Arenas can offer.
Hinrich isn't as fast as Wall and isn't as strong as Arenas, but he is a smart player with a lot of experience guarding anyone and everyone he is asked to guard. He has averaged just 1.3 steals for his career, but his ability to deny the ball and contest shots is what makes him a valuable defender.
The Wizards have not been a defensive-minded team, much like the rest of the NBA, but Hinrich's work ethic on the defensive end of the floor should rub off on the impressionable Wall. With the physical talents of JaVale McGee, perhaps it is only a matter of corralling ball-handlers to the big man and letting him erase whatever shots may come his way.
With the major shift in talent that took place during the offseason, it is easy to see how the Wizards could get lost in the shuffle. After their 26-56 showing last season, it is easy to write them off as another team in the midst of rebuilding with no chance to really compete. Considering the exodus of talent the Wizards conducted at the trade deadline, it is even easier to buy into those philosophies.
Of course, in the process you disregard Andray Blatche's second-half explosion, Gilbert Arenas's return to shooting guard, the progression of JaVale McGee, the expected midseason boost provided by Josh Howard, the additions of Yi Jianlian and Kirk Hinrich and the drafting of Trevor Booker, Kevin Seraphin and Hamady N'Diaye.
As the Wizard with the most playoff experience, it may come down to Arenas shrugging off his sad sack act and doing more than just co-existing with Wall. He can be a leader, but has to put his ego in check to do so.
Roster turnover doesn't typically lend itself to success, but only Miami seems to matter in the East. It is safe to say that the Heat, Magic, Celtics and Bulls will be in the playoffs. The Hawks are on track to return after laying an egg against the Magic in the second round. Cleveland isn't going to the playoffs, and neither Charlotte nor Milwaukee are locks at this point.
There is a lot of room for the Wizards to sneak in with a record at or around .500 for the season.