The Washington Wizards have had a whirlwind year for various reasons. They kicked off 2010 with fallen star Gilbert Arenas being suspended amid his now infamous gun display in the locker room and finished it with the NBA's fourth-worst record. Despite the dark days that befell the Wizards in 2010, there is a glimmer of hope for the struggling franchise.
The Wizards leave behind the distractions of 2010 and enter 2011 with their hopes resting on the bright future of No. 1 pick John Wall.
While change is never easy, the Wizards need to find better ways to cope. Rampant turnovers, poor team chemistry, immaturity and frustration will only succeed in digging the hole deeper. Washington, more than any other team in the NBA, needs to think long and hard about the year ahead.
At the very least, they need to set goals to start 2011 off on the right foot.
The Wizards enter the New Year with all of eight wins. Only Sacramento and Cleveland have fewer wins (8) and only three teams have a lower winning percentage. The lack of success is attributed to the wealth of change and youth the roster has taken on in the last year, but it seems to fall on head coach Flip Saunders for being the one constant between the failures of 2009 and 2010.
How can Saunders expect to win with a roster full of 20-somethings and role players built around a rookie who struggles with turnovers and shooting while battling knee problems?
Last year, the Wizards opted to blow up the previous iteration of their so-called contender of a team in favor of rebuilding. It wasn't until the waning weeks of December that we saw the last piece of that mess of a puzzle shipped elsewhere. What remains is a project player in JaVale McGee and a borderline headcase in Andray Blatche.
Saunders will have to work his magic with yet another young forward the same way he made the best of his years with Kevin Garnett in Minnesota. Not that Blatche is anywhere near the caliber player Garnett was in his prime.
Perhaps the Timberwolves during the KG era are not the best example of how to win, but rather paint the perfect picture of how not to win. Saunders is still a great coach, but it comes down to who he has at his disposal. The Wizards currently have a center with no post game, a forward with no head for the game, another trying to learn his place on the team, a trigger-happy shooting guard and a point guard trying to breathe new life into a long-buried franchise.
It isn't out of the question for Saunders to turn this somewhat ragtag group of players into a winner, but it is going to take some time and maybe another piece or two to get a real handle on things.
In the New Year, the Wizards need to either commit to this group of players or make a move or two to get the players they believe will lead them out of the league's basement. Until then, Saunders can't be held accountable for the team refusing to play his way or winning altogether.
With all of the changes the Wizards underwent in 2010, one man stood at the center of it all. General Manager Ernie Grunfeld was responsible for assembling the Washington Wizards team that went to the playoffs in four consecutive seasons. More recently, he was the man tasked with breaking up his Big Three in the name of rebuilding for the future.
His favorite signee, Gilbert Arenas, was the last man standing from that group and his exit should spell the end of the Grunfeld era in Washington.
Grunfeld isn't necessarily to blame for the way things went for the Wizards during their playoff runs. Arenas choked in the 2005-2006 series against the Cavaliers and was injured for the next two playoff appearances. Antawn Jamison was the only player healthy for each of the Wizards playoff appearances and averaged 32 points in the 2006-2007 series against Cleveland.
The entire roster has changed and even the ownership has changed, so why not the GM?
Grunfeld is partly responsible for the current roster in terms of the youth, but only under the watchful eye of owner Ted Leonsis. Leonsis' vision for the Wizards is to build through the draft while signing key free agents without relying too heavily on free agency to be successful. Grunfeld's approach before the 2010-2011 season was essentially the exact opposite.
Of the current roster, seven players were drafted by the team up from four in the previous two seasons.
Change is a great thing if it is seen through to the end. Letting Grunfeld stick around is an affront to the very notion of change and rebuilding. Considering years of his work of assembling players was traded away last season, I think it is time he be shown the door.
The NBA is nowhere near the same as the NHL, but owner Ted Leonsis has opted to give the Wizards the same treatment he has given to the Capitals. Build through the draft and fill in the gaps with key free agents or trades. Building on free agents and hoping to hit on trades hasn't worked for Washington and the future needs to be different.
Even if the Wizards haven't done much to this point, it is only the first year of rebuilding and derailing it now means success is put even further out of reach.
By all accounts, this season looks to be on a path similar to last season. The midway point is coming up and Washington has just nine wins, which will likely top out around 30 and give the Wizards a shot at a top five pick in next year's draft. With John Wall already in place as the future of the franchise, another lottery pick would be perfect to solidify the foundation the Wizards are trying to build.
It may also go a long way towards figuring out who on the current roster will be a part of that foundation.
The key to success for Washington is to stay the course. They cannot allow themselves to fall back on old habits and assemble their roster through trades and free agency. They need to be in constant evaluation mode because stagnation is also a surefire way to ruin progress.
Wall is the future, the jury is still out on Andray Blatche and there are a lot of question marks on the team. If Washington intends to build a winner, it will have to be patient and the fans will have to bear with them.
It is one thing to be active with trades, gauging interest and putting feelers out for potential deals. It is quite another to treat players as pawns in any manner of speaking. The most recent rumors of JaVale McGee and Andray Blatche being available stemmed from their late-night altercation with one another and were quelled just as quickly.
Yes, the NBA is a business, but when players are worried about their futures, they can't play the game with a clear mind.
Given the Wizards poor record, it would make sense that some of the players have been distracted by their names cropping up in trade talks. Given that Blatche just signed an extension and McGee is supposedly on the cusp of being a true talent for Washington, it makes no sense to float their names out there to see what others are willing to offer in return.
Especially if it is nothing more than a means of punishing them by showing them that they are expendable.
It is hardly abnormal for teams to mention players in trade rumors as a means of gathering information on the needs of other teams and what they will give up. It is senseless to do so with two players that the franchise has stated are part of the long-term plans for the Wizards. That being said, Blatche has some character issues and McGee is not progressing as he should.
With their respective potential, it actually makes sense for Washington to shop them around to see what they can get.
The point is, the Wizards need to put players up for discussion with real intent to trade. Teams aren't going to bite if they know it is a mere rouse to the players worried about their behavior. Fans would likely be split on whether they feel Blatche or McGee should be considered for trades, but it wouldn't be the worst thing to make it a clean sweep by getting rid of the last remnants of a poorly constructed roster.
Make a move or don't. Do not threaten trades as punishment in lieu of sending the kids to their rooms.
This is another issue that falls on Flip Saunders for no other reason than it being easier to blame one man than a dozen of them. The simplest idea that seems to be the most complicated feat to achieve for the Wizards is winning away from the Verizon Center. As if winning wasn't difficult enough for Washington, they have to add another monkey on their back with their current 0-18 record on the road.
Washington has lost 14 games by double-digits, 11 of those games have been on the road.
Chalk it up to youth, inexperience or still-developing chemistry, but the Wizards simply don't do enough right to win on the road. They are turnover prone to begin with, but being careless with the ball on the road is a different monster. Turnovers lead to points off of turnovers, which are often fast breaks, which are often dunks, which often keep the crowd in the game the whole time.
If the Wizards don't win on the road soon, they'll lose sight of what it takes to win on the road in the future.
Before they can win on the road, Washington needs to figure out how to win period. The last time they won back-to-back games was in April of last year and it was against two other lottery teams in New Jersey and Golden State. Turnovers are the biggest issue, but it is apparent that the Wizards don't know how to maintain a lead either.
On several occasions, the Wizards have built leads in the third quarter only to have them fall apart in the fourth and ultimately lose the game.
The first road win isn't going to come easy because Washington will carry the extra pressure of having to get that first road win out of the way. Every road game becomes a two-fold challenge and pressure does not suit this team well. They are learning to play together and there aren't really any clutch shooters on the team to seal victories late in games.
If the now-departed Gilbert Arenas was good for one thing it was hitting shots late in games.
With streaky scorers like Nick Young, Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee, it may take a perfect storm for the Wizards to shake their winless road record. The way things have gone, it is not out of the question to see Washington without a road win until after the All-Star break.