There is a word that bonds all NBA franchises, that unites all fan bases; it a word every fan knows too well and cringes at: rebuilding. The performance of NBA teams is often a chart of even crests and troughs and the average fan is well aware that with every spring, there will necessarily be a winter. Stars get old, get injured, take their talents elsewhere and once again, that dreaded word is brandished by team management: rebuilding. What is understood, of course, is that teams get better with rebuilding, that teams slowly, within two or three years, start at least competing for a playoff berth. They have 30 win seasons at the very minimum, even teams like the Knicks of the past decade; they aren’t absolute cellar dwellers every year. The Washington Wizards are an exception to this – somewhat incredibly, the Wizards have been rebuilding over four years. Actually, scratch that – the Wizards have undergone two separate rebuilding processes in a four year span. In that stretch, they posted an 88-224 record; tied (with the Kings) for the worst in the NBA in that stretch.
These awful four years come in the wake of four forty win seasons where the Wizards made the playoffs every year; their core of Gilbert Arenas/Caron Butler/Antawn Jamison is in many aspects a precursor to the offense-centric Big Threes and super teams of today. In December 2010, when the Wiz got rid of Arenas, it marked what was meant to be a watershed in franchise history. Andray Blatche and Javale McGee, two gifted big men, had been marketed as the future of the franchise for a while before Arenas’ departure. The Wiz also wasted golden opportunities in the NBA drafts of the past four years save for one lucky bounce that landed them Kentucky star John Wall as the No. 1 pick in the 2010 Draft. Their other three lottery picks were hardly franchise-changing – they traded their 2009 No. 5 pick (which became Ricky Rubio) for Randy Foye and Mike Miller, neither of whom is with the team at present. Their 2011 pick was Jan Vesely, whose girlfriend attracted more attention that his on-court play last season. Their 2012 pick, Bradley Beal, is an unknown; he might prove to be Evan Turner, he might prove to be Ray Allen.
Last season, new team owner Ted Leonsis kick started his vision of the new Wizards with new jerseys, colours and logo. The red, white and blue colour combination is a throwback to the Washington glory days, back to when they were the Bullets and had one of the all time greats in Wes Unseld. Perhaps this change will signify something more in the future. For now, the Wiz are a team marked by a sense of transition that has paradoxically assumed a sort of permanence. They are caught in a limbo and seem unsure of how to escape.
Who’s Out: Andray Blatche, Javale McGee, Nick Young, Maurice Evans
At last, after seven long years, the Andray Blatche experiment has ended. While every team in the NBA has a few “project” players on their rosters, these experiments do not usually last more than a couple of years. The Wizards love affair with Blatche might have been driven more by necessity than choice; the number of good big men in the NBA has been decreasing for years now. Blatche’s best season with the Wiz – 2010-11 – when he averaged 16/8 on 44% shooting was still not good enough to win the Wiz games. He was hardly a major factor on either end of the court and with McGee, formed the most immature front court in the NBA. When he was amnestied this offseason, no teams bid for his services through the amnesty waiver auction, indicative of his perceived value in the league.
While McGee technically left last season, the trade with Denver happened at the deadline, which means the 2012-13 season will provide the first concrete indicator of the impact of the trade. McGee, though no doubt talented, added to a roster of young misfits and immature players, headlined by Nick Young and Blatche. McGee contributed .115 Win Shares per 48 minutes (an estimate of the number of wins contributed by each player – the league average is .100), had a defensive rating of 106 and an offensive rating of 111 in 2010-11 – his last full season as a Wizard. While these are above average numbers, they are hardly overwhelming. His replacement, Nene, on the other hand recorded .201 WS/48 minutes, a defensive rating of 104 and an offensive rating of 123, making him one of the most efficient players in the league. McGee is 24, promising and much less injury prone but the Wiz decided to move in a different direction, choosing to add efficient veterans (Nene is 29) to supplement John Wall. Trading Nick Young, who provided offensive firepower to a roster that sorely needed it, was another step in this direction.
Who’s In: Emeka Okafor, Trevor Ariza, Nene Hilario, Bradley Beal, Tomas Satoransky
The Wizards had an excellent offseason (by their standards) when they were handed Okafor and Ariza on a silver platter by the Hornets, who were seeking salary cap flexibility. Okafor is a solid defensive big man who averaged 10ppg/8rpg on 53% shooting last season and posted a PER of 15 (league average). Along with Nene, the Wiz have the best front court in the Eastern Conference, which should give Wizards fans something to be excited about after a (very) long time. Ariza is an athletic forward who should do better than his stats (11ppg/5rpg/3apg on 41% shooting, 14 PER) suggest in a lineup with more offensive options than the Hornets had in the past few years. He’ll add to the defensive capability of the team.
Nene is the big hope for the Wizards. If he can stay healthy, the Wizards will give their opponents all sorts of headaches. He’s an offensively skilled big man who can defense as well as pass out of the high/low post. His numbers from last season – 13.7 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 1 bpg on 56% shooting with a PER of 18.65 was despite splitting the season between two teams and battling injuries.
The Wizards posted a Rebound Percent of .489 last season, good for 24th in the NBA. They had an Offensive Rating of 101 (25th) while shooting 44% (21st). They should better – in the 10-20 range – in all these categories next season due to their probably front court edge every game. Nene and Okafor consistently shoot better than 50% from the field and Nene provides a viable option for an inside/outside game with Wall/Beal. The addition of Beal should make them a better 3-pt shooting outfit at once, given that the team shot 33% (good for 28th) from downtown last season. The addition of Ariza and improved play from Jan Vesely should make the Wizards significantly better at perimeter defense as well. The overall defensive capability of the roster improves significantly in a lineup that features Ariza/Okafor/Nene in the front court. John Wall’s explosive dribble-penetration will still remain vital to the overall offensive success of this roster. This Wizards team will be much better than last year’s sorry excuse for a team.
Even with Beal, the Wizards are a lousy perimeter shooting team. The backcourt rotation is especially weak, featuring Wall, Beal, Jordan Crawford, Shelvin Mack and A. J. Price. The Wiz really need to stop playing Crawford, who launches shots on a whim. Here’s a fun stat: Crawford averaged 15 ppg last season on 13.6 field goal attempts every game. That’s a lousy one-point-per-shot that is one of primary causes for their woefully inefficient offense. Wall and Beal are the only real threats on both offense and defense, and Beal is a wet-behind-his-ears rookie who is going to learn from Crawford, a frightening possibility. The Wizards would do well to add a tough, defensive-minded veteran guard who can shoot the 3-ball.
X-Factor: John Beal.
The success of the 2012-13 Wizards will hinge upon the combination of John Wall and Bradley Beal. If Beal doesn’t pan out, that means Jordan Crawford gets much more burn than any coach in his right mind will give him, immediately affecting the team’s offensive flow and efficiency. John Wall needs to shoot better, defend better, and generally improve. The stats from rookie season and the last season are identical; apart from the fact that he shot 29% from downtown in the first and 7% last season. Wall’s penetration and quickness will be integral to the Wizards’ offense and he needs to find better shots (42% shooting from the field last season). Nene+Okafor, at this stage of their careers, are a known quantity. It will be up to Wall (and in some degree, Beal) to step up and take control of the team next season. As Wall goes, so will the Wizards
What to Expect: The Wiz are finally capable of contending for a playoff berth next season. The 7-8th seeds in the East are up for grabs and the Wiz should be favoured against the field to land one of the two spots. It’s really tough to predict how this new roster will gel, but I’m betting on the Wizards improving radically from last season. W/L Prediction (provided team stays healthy): 39-43 (8th seed).
Playoff meter (the likelihood a team makes the playoffs): 50%
Fan Meter – the rating for newbie NBA fans looking for a young, exciting team to support: 7/10.