Washington Wizards: 10 Steps to Build a Successful Team Around John Wall
As a sports fan, it's often hard to admit: my team is one of the worst in the league.
But I encourage fellow 'Zard heads to embrace it. Even say it out loud. It can be cathartic.
In all likelihood it will be 2013 before we see the makings of a competitive Wizards team. But there is hope, as the franchise has assembled a group of talented, young prospects to build upon and found direction under new ownership.
John Wall was a godsend, both talent-wise and because the Wizards desperately needed a fresh face to sell tickets after Gilbert Arenas' epic fall from grace. They've added some other pieces with potential, and can actually be fun to watch in stretches.
It's not going to be easy; Rome wasn't built in a day, etc.
I submit to you my 10-step (recovery) program for the Washington Wizards.
No. 1: Keep Giving the Youngsters Experience
I don't care if Josh Howard, Nick Young and Rashard Lewis meet the Phoenix Suns training staff on the street and make a miraculously recovery. Keep giving the young ’uns some burn.
Seeing Jordan Crawford, Trevor Booker, Kevin Seraphin and Hamady Ndiaye get minutes in the regular season is going to pay dividends long term.
Besides, when it means they get their two best road wins of the season in Utah and Charlotte, maybe the young guys are an upgrade over those grizzled vets.
Crawford still jacks up some of the most ill-advised shots in the league, and Seraphin is tough to watch when he gets the ball outside the paint. Regardless, the reps are key to their development.
Crawford's herky-jerky style may not always be pleasing to the eyes, but it's confusing and often effective. In March he's besting Nick Young's per-game average in points, rebounds, assists and steals. His shooting efficiency is too low, and he turns the ball over at too high a rate, but he's also three years younger than his competition at shooting guard.
And Trevor Booker has been a revelation, proving he is capable of incredible feats of athleticism and competent enough to play as a PF/C despite measuring out as a 'tweener. Would you bet against him averaging a double-double at some point in his career? I wouldn't.
Young and Blatche got the same courtesy last year, so let's say we let the old guys out to pasture while the young guns play?
No. 2: Accumulate More Assets
The Wizards will likely have a top-five pick in this year's draft and, while it is generally considered thin on talent, there are still players at the top of the boards who could help the team in short order. We'll know soon who declares themselves eligible (the top prospects are all underclassmen), but there are ballers to be had.
The Wizards also own the Atlanta Hawks first-rounder from the Kirk Hinrich trade—one that will end up in the high teens or low 20s. In retrospect, that pickup was tenfold more productive for the team than when it swapped its top pick for Mike Miller and Randy Foye in 2009.
Ignoring for a minute who they'll actually take, they should leverage the three picks they'll have in the top 35 into as much talent as possible. Some scenarios the Wizards should consider:
1. The Utah Jazz will probably have two picks in the top 12 of the draft. The Cavaliers have two in the top 10. While the Cavaliers will have the best odds of winning the lottery, the Wizards will have decent odds as well.
If the Wiz lucked into the top spot again—or at least moved ahead of the Cavs—they could swap their top two picks for Cleveland's. Since Kyrie Irving is at the top of the Cavs list (and won't last past the second spot), the Cavs might consider swapping their pick and the Clippers first-rounder (outside the "pretty much sure thing" picks) to get him. The Jazz may also be interested, although the Wizards probably would not be best served trading out of the top four picks in a draft with limited prospects.
2. There will be plenty of talent available when they have the Atlanta Hawks pick in the second half of the first round. Prospects include Perry Jones (formerly considered a potential top pick), Terrence Jones (fell off after a fast start), Jonas Valanciunas (who some consider the top international prospect above Kanter), Brandon Knight (just now coming on strong), Kemba Walker (undeniable talent, though not a position of need for the Wiz) and Kenneth Faried (Division I's all-time leading rebounder). One or several of these guys may be around when the franchise is on the clock for the second time.
I'd be ecstatic to get any of them—particularly the first three—because they'd be assembling starting talent and building for the future. Even if it's not a great positional or tactical fit, that player can be turned into something of better value down the road.
No. 3: Smart Drafting (aka "Don't Whiff 101")
How did the Chicago Bulls and Oklahoma City Thunder rise from the NBA doldrums to conference prominence in just a few years? It certainly required some savvy moves in free agency...but mostly it meant not missing on draft picks.
Chicago lucked into Rose by getting the draft's top pick, and bookended that franchise-altering draft by getting solid contributors Joakim Noah (ninth overall in 2007) and Taj Gibson (26th in 2010).
OKC (Seattle) had Kevin Durant fall into its lap drafting second in 2007, then picked Russell Westbrook (fourth) and Serge Ibaka (24th) in 2008, and James Harden (third) in 2009.
During those years a number of other teams had a potential advantage drafting high in the first round, yet none of them have had the success of Chicago and OKC. There have even been Hasheem Thabeet-level fails (Joe Alexander and Yi Jianlian come to mind)—moves that impacted their teams as negatively as the home runs did positively.
The key is consistency. OKC may have erred in taking Harden over Tyreke Evans (fourth) and Steph Curry (seventh), but it got a quality talent who complements its other pieces well. It doesn't have to be a home run at every pick, but you have to add the piece that can be useful in the future.
Perhaps the best example is Jeff Green, picked fifth in 2007 and eventually swapped for Kendrick Perkins, a defensive center with playoff experience that OKC sorely needed.
Whether you're getting the right piece to the puzzle or the right asset for down the road, it pays to take someone with buzz and upside.
No. 4: Make These Picks, Please
Who in this draft could be a difference-maker for the Wizards? With youth at every position on the floor and only one starting spot locked up (Wall at PG), they could go in a number of different directions with their pick in June:
SG: Harrison Barnes can play the 2 in the NBA, and was the consensus top pick last fall.
SF: Derrick Williams showed athleticism, versatility and a high-powered motor in the tourney.
PF/C: Jared Sullinger is headed back to school, so Enes Kanter is decidedly the top big in the draft.
Barnes is my personal preference, but depending on the lottery results at least one of the above should be available. Other guys the Wiz should look at with their remaining picks:
Atlanta Hawks' First-Round Pick (around No. 19)
Terrence Jones, Perry Jones, Jonas Valanciunas, Kenneth Faried, Chris Singleton, Markieff Morris, Alec Burks, Brandon Knight, Kemba Walker
Washington Wizards' Second-Round Pick (around No. 33)
Charles Jenkins, Jeremy Tyler, Josh Selby, Marshon Brooks, Norris Cole, Keith Benson
No. 5: Change in Coach...ing Style
I'm not going to throw Flip Saunders under the bus, because technically he didn't sign up for this. In 2009 the Wizards were expected to trot out a top seven of Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler, Antwan Jamison, Mike Miller, Brendan Haywood, Randy Foye and DeShawn Stevenson.
Instead his game plan fell victim to a locker room prank, and he's got one of the youngest teams in the league with very little starting experience. None of the "top seven" are currently with the team
Whether it's Flip or some other coach, this new makeup requires a different coaching strategy. At times this season he's seemed frustrated with player effort and IQ, and he's admirably attempted to adapt his playbook.
While Saunders has typically been viewed as a defensive-minded coach, the young Wizards are clearly not picking up his schemes. They rank in the bottom 10 in points allowed per game, and in the bottom five in FG percentage, three-point percentage and rebound rate. (Although it should be noted that they are in the top five in forcing turnovers). At some point you have to stop making excuses.
Sam Cassell is someone who can provide great insight into playing point guard in the NBA, and a couple other former players could be added as assistants during the offseason. Would Wes Unseld be amicable to a contract position working with the team's bigs? I can't say I know who'd be interested in a rebuilding process with no immediate payoff, but it's worth asking around.
I wouldn't expect Shaka Smart or Brad Stevens rumors to pop up over the summer, so Flip will likely have to try to right this ship until his contract winds down in the summer of 2013.
No. 6: Always Be Opportunistic
So much in today's NBA is just being able to pounce when opportunity presents itself. Some teams, for better or worse, are determined to jettison a productive player because he doesn't fit their needs or system.
It happens every season, so here are some players who might become available over the next year:
The Grizzlies were looking like they'd give the talented SG away at the deadline, almost agreeing to a deal with Indiana that involved Josh McRoberts, a mid-first-round pick and a ham sandwich. It might take a pick and one of the Wizards' young guys, but they would be getting back a potential 20/5/5 prospect and former top-three pick who can immediately contribute.
An unrestricted free agent (assuming Portland is serious about not extending him a qualifying offer) in the high-risk, high-upside mold. It may take $6 million-plus a year to do it, but in a two-year deal I'd be happy to take the chance on a game-changing defender.
Sure, he's basically a 10th man for the Dallas Mavericks has an un-guaranteed contract for 2011-12. But the kid can really play. He's currently only making about $1 million a year, and would be worth more than that to the Wizards. He would add another big frame who's willing to play defense, and has a lot of upside considering his youth (24) and athleticism. He would also be a fellow Frenchman for Kevin Seraphin to pal around with. Dallas probably will pick up the contract, but if not Ernie Grunfeld would be wise to make a run.
No. 7: Add Veteran Seasoning
The Wizards are young, and that won't change overnight. What can change quickly is the contractual makeup of the team—otherwise known as free agency and trades. And in some cases the coaching staff isn't enough to develop young players, which is why adding veterans with a desired skill set can be a means to that end.
Some veterans I'd like to see the Wizards make a run at:
Cleveland might be interested in young big Andray Blatche in exchange, which would give the Wizards a 28-year-old defensive specialist with playoff experience. They've got similar contracts, and Varajao comes off the books a year earlier.
As a free agent, he'll make far less than his current $13 million per salary. In the "tall and gangly" mold of JaVale McGee, he'd be a positive influence for the team's current bigs on a short-term contract. He's already playing for a rebuilding squad in Sacramento (Anaheim?), so he might be up to the task.
Not sure how this trade would work semantically (Jackson and Diaw/Diop for Rashard Lewis and a pick, please?), but despite the "head case" label Captain Jack wants to win and isn't afraid to take a big shot. His long-range abilities would be a good fit for John Wall, who will attract defenders and dish to the open man.
Theo Ratliff/Joel Pryzbilla/Ben Wallace
It's entirely possible all three of these guys will retire after this season, so I'm not suggesting these as long-term options. However, if they're available on the free-agent wire the Wizards would be wise to at least inquire about their yearly rental fees.
No. 8: Cultivate Defensive Intensity
Learning a defense is one thing; trying hard on defense is another.
The best teams, and the best to watch in my opinion, are those that can really lock down their opponents in the fourth quarter. It means being particularly attentive to positioning, and requires spending the majority of your energy on the defensive end. That's something the young Wizards are having trouble grasping at this point.
Perhaps it's because they're so often playing from behind, but they're constantly frantic on offense and delayed in reacting on defense. The pride in performance on that end of the court just doesn't seem to be there.
If I were Flip Saunders, I'd be telling guys to practice their half-court and behind-the-backboard shots on their own time, and spend 75 percent of practice nailing down defensive rotations and working on shell drills and positioning.
One of the most puzzling deficiencies is that the team rarely has its arms out in passing lanes. Standing straight up occupies around 12 square feet of court space. With arms out, it almost doubles and creates the illusion of a full 36 square feet of coverage. If you look at teams like Chicago, Boston and the LA Lakers they consistently have hands in passing lanes at the end of close games.
This is stuff you learn in high school, and while some of the players aren't far removed from their state championship teams it may have been lost in translation somewhere along the line.
No. 9: Offseason Focus on Shooting and Shot Selection
The Wizards have been starting a lineup where only their center, JaVale McGee, shoots better than 50 percent from the field. John Wall is barely shooting over 40 percent, and Andray Blatche shoots worse than half the starting power forwards in the league.
That won't win many ball games, especially when they lack the experience and intangibles that help other teams persevere in a close game.
In addition to working hard to improve physically in the offseason, much of the emphasis needs to be on increasing offensive efficiency. None of the Wizards are posting an 18-plus PER (John Hollinger's player efficiency rating)—almost every other club has at least one, including Cleveland, and the good ones all have at least two.
JaVale McGee's 17.5, which is the highest on the team by about two points, is inflated because he's not a major part of the Wizards offense. He gets most of his points on putbacks, lobs and in transition. If he shot five midrange jumpers a game, he'd fall back to the league average.
Every player on the roster has something to work on. Wall needs a solid midrange jumper that will make teams pay for sagging off him. Young should work on a floater that would improve his percentages from inside 10 feet. Crawford has range, but abysmal shot selection—he needs to improve everything but his free-throw numbers.
Blatche is already too willing to take a jumper, and should work tirelessly on his post moves. McGee may need to work hardest of all, both on his jump shot and refining his low-post repertoire.
If the team could lift its "true shooting" percentage (factoring in three-pointers and free throws) three to five percentage points next year—optimistic but definitely doable—they would rank in the top half of the league, up from the 51.2 percent mark that ranks 29th in the NBA.
No. 10: A Winning Attitude
Perhaps the hardest thing to develop is a confidence in the team's ability to win games. Moreover, it requires dedication to doing the things that give you the best chance to win.
Shooting after practice, lifting weights, eating right and working on your weaknesses are all big difference-makers when it comes to preparing for success.
Andray Blatche is a great example. His eating habits do not cater (pun intended) to peak performance, and he sometimes seems out of shape and low on energy. And while Kevin Seraphin has obviously been hitting the weight room to live up to his "banger" reputation, it's not clear any other Wizards are weight room junkies.
Extra gym and court time is something many of the players may be doing already, but the biggest room in the world is the room for improvement. When the Lakers lost to the Heat after the All-Star break in Miami, the media salivated over Kobe Bryant's postgame shooting practice. It's the type of calculated move that can motivate teammates and silence questions that you're doing everything in your power to correct your mistakes and win games at any cost.
Say what you want about Kobe Bryant as a person (I love saying that), but he leaves no doubt about his desire to compete and dominate—whether it's after practice, in the weight room or improving his diet.
The Wizards could use some of that. It'll be a long road to recovery.