Why we're better

Through 20 games last year, with a healthy Gilbert Arenas and Etan Thomas, this team was 9-11.  With yesterday's win over the Nets, this team moved to 10-10 over the same 20-game stretch, even though Gilbert and Etan have been injured, leaving the team without enough bodies to practice on occassion.  

What gives?  The Wizards were once known for their inconsistency, but they've been incredibly consistent this year, beating teams they should beat and falling, albeit competitively, in the games they should lose (save for the Dallas game).  To be honest, when I heard about Arenas' injury, I was hopeful we'd stay afloat, but I was pessimistic about the chances of that happening.  Now, I'm a believer in the future of this team, no matter what happens with Arenas' injury and contract situation.

In order, the reasons why we've stayed afloat.

Caron Butler

I am simply amazed by how much his game has grown from this season to last.  If you asked me one guy who's production would remain constant this year compared to last year, I would have probably said Butler.  That wasn't to belittle his game, but he was dropping 21 and 8 as a third option in the first half of the season last year.  I figured that was as good as it gets, especially considering how efficiently he was shooting the ball last year.

Somehow, even though defenses are keying on him with Arenas out, and even though he's shooting longer shots, Butler is shooting even more efficiently.  It's amazing to see him work all offseason on developing his three-point shot and immediately go from being a career 30 percent shooter to a 47 percent one.  You figure that he will rely more and more on his jumper as his athleticism starts to go away (a la Antawn Jamison), but it's shocking to see this transition happen so quickly.  I mean, Caron has a 49% eFG% on jumpers this season.  The incredible shooting explains his entire offensive improvement, because he isn't using more possessions, and he drew a higher percentage of fouls last year than this year.  

I keep thinking to myself that he can't keep up his shooting streak, and I keep seeing it never happen.  Like Kevin Martin, Butler almost never forces bad shots, yet unlike Martin, Butler does more than just score.  He's remarkably unselfish, and even though he's hanging out on the perimeter more this year, he's still among the best rebounding wingmen in the league.  Perhaps we just have to accept that Butler is a remarkably efficient player that defies the odds of hot shooting.

Right now, Butler's playing as well, if not better, than Gilbert ever played.  More than anything, that's keeping us afloat.

Eddie Jordan's maturation as a coach

Last season was not a good one for Eddie Jordan.  He horribly mismanaged his bench, killed many games with silly small-ball tactics, and showed an unwillingness to adjust to game situations.  This season started off just as badly, as he kept trotting Gilbert out for 40 minutes a night no matter the state of his knee.  With a capable backup in Antonio Daniels there waiting to play a major role, suffice to say, Eddie blew it.

But since the Gilbert injury, I've been pleasantly surprised at his coaching chops.  Yesterday was really the first time we saw a lot of smallball, and with Andray Blatche struggling so much, it was probably the right decision.  More importantly, however, Eddie has created defined roles for everyone, which was the one thing that killed this team last year.  Andray Blatche is finally getting consistent minutes, and naturally, he's had a fantastic start to the season.  Brendan Haywood is consistently playing 30 minutes a game, and he also is having his best season.  Roger Mason has become the designated three-point man, and he's strung together a couple of nice games.  Most importantly, however, Nick Young has become a regular part of the rotation, and for those 15 minutes or so he plays, Eddie is turning him loose, taking advantage of his best NBA-ready skill.  

Sure, it would be nice if AD, Caron, and Antawn Jamison played fewer minutes, but Eddie has no choice in that regard.  Without Gilbert, Eddie has given everyone a defined role, and everyone, with the exception of DeShawn Stevenson, has responded.  

Brendan Haywood's defensive rebounding

Probably one you didn't think of right off the top of your head, but for all the things he's done well, Haywood's biggest improvement has been on the defensive glass.  The Wizards' defense is still not great, but they've at least risen to 22nd in the league in points allowed/100 possessions.  The major reason?  They're allowing opponents to grab just 25.3 percent of available rebounds, down from 29 percent last season.  Haywood himself hasn't seen much of a spike in his rebounding numbers, but he's been doing an excellent job of putting his body on a man and allowing someone else to grab the rebound.  And when Haywood goes out, Andray Blatche has done a great job of picking up the slack.  Their work banging bodies inside explains how we're actually grabbing defensive rebounds, even with our best rebounder statistically last year, Etan Thomas, out.

No more stiffs

Jarvis Hayes, Michael Ruffin, and Calvin Booth were the pu-pu platter off the bench, and I don't think it's too unfair to suggest that they cost the Wizards wins last year.  To a certain degree, Eddie had no choice but to overwork the starters with those guys as his best bench options.  Ernie Grunfeld's campaign to infuse the second unit with youth has paid immediate dividends.  Andray Blatche has been outstanding off the bench, and so has Young.  Darius Songaila is doing his Songaila-type things that don't necessarily show up in his individual stats, and even Roger Mason has played well recently.  Eddie deserves credit for handing Blatche and Young very defined roles, but those players also deserve credit for stepping up to the challenge.

If I had to weigh each of these factors, I'd put 60 percent of the credit on Butler, 20 percent on Eddie, and 10 percent each on the defensive rebounding and the lack of stiffs.  The great thing is, save for Butler perhaps cooling off, there's a high degree of likelihood that these factors continue to play out over the course of the season.  Simply put, it's exciting to be a Wizards fan again.

Any other factors I missed?  Discuss.  

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