Tuesday, April 13, 2010

2009-10 NBA Season in Review: Washington Wizards

Welcome back for part 3 of my epic NBA season-in-review.  Today we look at the Washington Wizards, the first team in the series with cap flexibility, but with an outlook for the future just as depressing as the Pistons or Pacers.  I'm not all that happy with how the Detroit and Indiana pieces turned out, so I'm going to make the unprecedented move of changing the format of these things midstream.  Now, instead of two sections of large blocks of text that you probably don't even read, I'm going to break things down into smaller categories including pre-season expectations, reality (what actually happened during the season), and the outlook going forward.  Enjoy.


Expectations:  Coming off a dismal 19-63 2008-09 season, the Wizards had two choices about the direction of their franchise going forward.  A.) They could trade veteran assets such as Caron Butler, Antawn Jamison, and Brendan Haywood for young talent and/or cap relief while re-tooling the roster around the number 5 overall pick in the 2009 draft, Gilbert Arenas, and the Javale McGee/Andray Blatche/Nick Young three-headed monster of potential.  Or, B.) they could keep the veteran core together, trade the number 5 pick for a collection of veteran role players to plug in around said core, and make a run at the 4-6 seed in the East.  With the trade of the number 5 pick to Minnesota (which became Ricky Rubio) for Randy Foye and Mike Miller, the Wizards obviously chose option B, banking on a healthy season from Arenas and the continued steadiness of Jamison and Butler to lead the Wizards back into the postseason.  

Reality:  Washington dug themselves an early hole, starting the season a disappointing 10-20 heading into the new year.  Arenas re-discovered his scoring touch (22.9 ppg), but his shooting (41%) was under 42% for the 4th consecutive year and he just didn't look like the explosive player who averaged 27.8 ppg from 2004-07.  Caron Butler (16.9 ppg on 42% shooting) failed to run new head coach Flip Saunder's plays while also dogging it on the defensive end, Mike Miller continued to be absurdly passive on offense (a trend that started the previous season in Minnesota), Randy Foye was gamely average, and the aforementioned three-headed monster of potential (McGee/Blatche/Young) appeared completely clueless.  Only Jamison and Haywood performed at their expected levels, but their professionalism wasn't nearly enough to raise the Wiz to their expected heights.  Then, of course, Arenas and JaVaris Crittenton decided to play Alexender Hamilton and Aaron Burr, and the wheels really flew off.  Arenas was suspended for the rest of the season (as was Crittenton, but who really cares?), and the Wizards decided to undertake plan A from above about seven months too late.  Butler and Haywood were dealt to Dallas for Josh Howard (who promptly tore his ACL), while Jamison was finally given his shot at a championship in Cleveland (in exchange for Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who's back in Cleveland, Al Thorton, and the 30th pick in the draft).

With the pesky veterans gone, the reins of the team were handed over to Thorton, Shaun Livingston and his inspiring comeback (we all remember this, don't we?), and the three-headed monster of potential, led by Andray Blatche.  Blatche took his opportunity as the number one scoring option and ran with it, going from pleasant surprise to complete jack ass in a little over a month.  With this many knuckleheads running around with apparent free reign (Livingston excluded), the Wizards nose-dived, compiling an 8-23 mark post-trade deadline, which included 16 straight losses at one point.  A season that started with playoffs expectations ended with lottery hopes.

Going Forward:

DRAFT-The Wizards are currently in the 3rd slot of the lottery, and while they have a better chance than most to move up into the top 2 spots, they will most likely be choosing between DeMarcus Cousins of Kentucky or Derrick Favors of Georgia Tech.  Cousins is bigger and more skilled than Favors, but the former Wildcat is also considered the bigger character risk (I have heard comparisons to Derrick Coleman and Rasheed Wallace).  After what the franchise just went through with the Arenas gun fiasco, I would not be shocked if the Wiz bypassed the more highly regarded Cousins for Favors.  The Wizards also have the number 30 pick from the Antawn Jamison trade, which is probably the least valuable pick in the draft, since they are probably going to end up with a second round talent guaranteed a first round salary.  The better value will be three picks later when Washington uses their own second rounder.

FREE AGENCY-The Wizards will have roughly $18.2 million in cap room this summer, which is enough for a max level player.  Unfortunately, I don't know which player worthy of a max contract would want to play with the current collection of talent in Washington, so the Wizards may be better served handing out smaller deals to a few different players.  The key free agents for the Wiz include Livingston (an almost guaranteed re-sign), Mike Miller (gone), Josh Howard (whose $11.8 million team option will not be exercised), and Randy Foye, who will be a restricted free agent.

PLAN-As mentioned above, the Wizards will probably have a difficult time convincing the LeBrons and Wades of the world to come to the nation's capitol, so they should instead target several lower priced free agents and/or use their cap space to facilitate a trade.  With Gilbert Arenas, his contract, and his injury history untradable, Washington would be best served trying to parlay the only asset they own with any buzz around him--Andray Blatche--into something while his value is at its peak.  While Blatche is young (23), and cheap ($3.2 million 2010 salary), and put up flashy numbers following the Wizards' big trades (22.1 points, 8.2 rebounds, 3.4 assists post-All-Star break), the way in which he put up those numbers just rubs me the wrong way.  Blatche has a very pre-Memphis Zach Randolph feel to him, and as fans in Portland, New York, and LA know, you aren't going to win anything with that kind of player on your team.  Perhaps the New Orleans Hornets will be enticed by Blatche's potential as a running mate for Chris Paul, and would be willing to part with Darren Collison in exchange for Blatche and the Wizards taking James Posey off the Hornets payroll.  With roughly $13.6 million left in cap space, the Wizards should then target Travis Outlaw and Udonis Haslem to fill out their starting lineup.  Randy Foye could also be brought back on his one year qualifying offer (but if anybody signed him to an offer sheet, the Wiz would have to let him go).  With these moves, the Wizards 2010 opening day roster would look something like this:

PG Darren Collison
SG Gilbert Arenas
SF Travis Outlaw
PF Udonis Haslem
C Derrick Favors
G Randy Foye
F James Posey
G/F Nick Young
G Shaun Livingston
C/F JaVale McGee
F Al Thorton
30th pick
2nd round pick
F/G Quinton Ross*

*Ross has a $1.1 million player option that I assume he will pick up.

The additions of Outlaw, Haslem, and Posey would give the Wizards glue guys who have been part of winning organizations, while Collison and Favors would provide a young big man/point guard foundation that would have most of the league envious.  This team could certainly challenge the Charlottes and Torontos of the world for the lower seeds in the East, and if Gilbert Arenas ever approached his previous heights, could even challenge Atlanta and Boston for home court advantage.   

NEXT: Minnesota Timberwolves 

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