Unlike the unreasonably lofty expectations saddled on the Wizards going into last season, the 2010-2011 team wasn’t predicted to make the Eastern Conference playoffs. Gilbert Arenas spent a month behind bars for bringing loaded guns into the Wizards locker room, but in many ways it was that event that freed the team from salary cap purgatory and the middling success that suffocates franchises.
Instead of trying to win a suddenly stacked East, it prompted GM Ernie Grunfeld and the front office to “blow it up” and purge the hefty contracts of the remaining top four players from their roster.
In what may actually have been the best possible outcome for the Wizards, they then saw their most established trade pickup (Josh Howard) go down with season ending knee injury after only three games. I’m not one to celebrate someone’s misfortune, particularly Howard who I think can still play and isn’t coveted around the league, but this injury vaulted the Wizards into position to pick up a building block in the draft. And while Abe Pollin’s ghost had a hand—or finger—in winning the John Wall Sweepstakes, Wizards fans knew there was a hint of karma involved.
The Wizards are now the NBA’s 5th youngest team, and will collect another top 10 pick this off-season to help to address some needs. They were able to swap Arena’s cap-killing contract for the shorter, though more ludicrously lucrative, contract of Rashard Lewis. Given these major developments, what can the Wizards do, going forward, to build themselves a contender? Here are some suggestions that will make 2011-2012 a little less painful.
Grunfeld’s longstanding lust for Kirk Hinrich played a role in bringing him into town, but the guard’s work ethic and defensive intensity were thought to be good examples for budding star John Wall. Next up—tutoring the young big men.
JaVale McGee and Andray Blatche are talented but wildly inconsistent, particularly on the defensive end. As evidence—despite having an Offensive Rebound Rate in the top half of the league, the Wizards are second to last in Defensive Rebound Rate. While this is partly a byproduct of their own poor shooting on the offensive end and allowing opponents to make/take higher percentage shots, it’s also evidence they have the size, athleticism and energy to rebound.
But they don’t put themselves in the right position boxing out on defense. A one year rental like Marcus Camby or Chris Kaman, both seemingly available, could help teach those acquired skills. Samuel Dalembert, who will certainly get a drastic pay cut in free agency, is another possibility in a multi-year deal. And don’t rule out someone like Anderson Varajao, who’s under contract but unquestionably one of the best interior defenders in the league.
Be Active At the Deadline
Succeeding in the National Basketball Association is all about being opportunistic. Thorton, Yi, Armstrong, Martin and Howard all come off the books this summer, clearing about $12MM in salary. (Nick Young has a reasonable Qualifying Offer at $3.7MM). Hinrich’s $8MM salary is off in 2012. Yi has played well of late, and both he and Thorton could be had at reasonable price for next season. If the Wizards can entice someone to take a chance on these two former first round picks—and maybe even veteran Hinrich—they may be able to secure a late first/early second-round pick, an expiring contract, and/or cash.
There’s some talent in the 2011 Draft, and for the Wizards it’s in the right places. If they end up with a pick in the four to six range, they’ll have a shot at Enes Kanter, Jared Sullinger or Derrick Williams, and that would certainly parlay into improved interior performance. Sullinger and Kanter, despite his reported knee problems, are both particularly interesting and could contribute right away. In the early second round they have a shot to address the lack of depth at SG (more below) and scoop up someone like Nolan Smith, Alec Burks or LaceDarius Dunn.
Swing for The Fences
It’s pretty clear the Wiz also need an upgrade at the wing positions, currently held down by a Young-Lewis-Howard-Thorton combination. Young’s been a scoring machine, but he’s fairly one-dimensional and eventually may be better suited coming off the bench. Lewis’ contract isn’t going away anytime soon, so expect him to be part of the rotation through the 2012 trading deadline (the last year of his contract has only $10MM guaranteed). Howard has to prove he can finish his rehab and still be an athletic scorer and defender. Thorton is a solid mid-range jump shooter and passable one-on-one defender, but he’s a former first round pick and given additional opportunity could put up stats that increase his value in the eyes of playoff bound teams. Ideally, they can infuse some talent through the draft.
What is the Wizard's biggest need?
Certainly these suggestions are hinged upon certain assumptions—mainly that the younger guys will eventually “get it” and improve in areas of weakness. It is a difficult leap to make, but shot selection and jump shooting will be key areas of development—especially for Wall, Young and Blatche, none of whom shoot better than 45 percent from the field. Wall has given fans every reason to believe he’ll work hard to raise his game, but the league is full of immensely talented and athletic guards who suffered from a less-than-reliable jump shot (see: Iverson, Allen and even Arenas, Gilbert).
While these recommendations come from a fan’s perspective, I’m also trying to be reasonable about expectations. Marc Gasol, DeAndre Jordan, Kendrick Perkins, Tyson Chandler and Zach Randolph all become free agents this summer, and while they could all improve the Wizards in one way or another, it’s pretty clear salary or the desire to contend immediately would be deal breakers. But hey, even I could talk myself into Greg Oden—at the right price, of course.
I'd also be remiss not to at least mention Flip Saunders, who agreed to coach the once veteran Wizards but ended up with a group of young, offensive minded developing talents. This may not be his best fit, but he's been a successful coach and we've already paid him his money (four years, $18MM). I don't think we'll see him re-up, but I don't see him leaving town this summer either—particularly with a potential lockout looming.
With a lot of young talent and the right moves to develop that talent, there is hope that the Wizards can “Win (In) The Future”. Just be ready for a sizeable helping of “WTF” in the meantime.