When I talked about the reasons for us treading water in the standings without Gilbert Arenas, I gave Caron Butler the majority of the credit. Looking back, I'm starting to realize that was poor analysis, because as we've continued to stay afloat without our superstar, I've come to realize that Brendan Haywood is playing as big of a role, if not bigger, in our season.
Last year, we got incredibly inconsistent play from the center position. Haywood feuded with Eddie Jordan, sulked his way into a part-time role, and gave way far too often to Etan Thomas, who plummeted our defense to a new low. Though Haywood was probably our best center last year, he didn't do a good job of consistently displaying his skills, and at the end of the season, even ardent Haywood supporters were ready to get rid of him, just because we felt the feud between him and Eddie Jordan had gone too far. Worst yet, at age 28, it seemed like we'd seen the best of Haywood already.
What's resulted this season is nothing short of extraordinary. One could make a legitimate argument that Haywood is the second-best center in the Eastern Conference behind Dwight Howard. Hell, that's the argument I'm going to make. Here's how he compares to other centers in the East.
(Note: Roland is Roland Rating, a stat popularized by 82Games.com.)
Looking at that list, Haywood isn't scoring like some of the other centers in the conference, and his rebounding numbers rank in the middle of the pack, but he's more efficient than anyone save for Dwight Howard. His true shooting percentage, PER, and Roland Rating all rank second among Eastern Conference centers, and that's not even including his free throw percentage, which has risen over 12 percentage points this year, thanks to the work of new shooting coach Dave Hopla. Unlike some of the guys on this list (Dalembert, Bogut), Haywood plays to his true strengths, never venturing too far outside the paint, and never taking ill-advised jumpers early in the shot clock. It explains why his counting numbers are not as high when his efficiency numbers are spectacular.
Haywood still remains a fantastic defensive center. The Wizards are surrendering 2.9 fewer points/100 possessions when Haywood is on the court, and they're grabbing an additional 4 percent of available rebounds. But many of these strengths were ones he's had his entire career. Why is it all coming together now?
Dogging his work ethic misses the point, as he's known as one of the hardest workers on the team. Instead, we have to look at Brendan's relationship with Eddie Jordan, which clearly affected both his play and the rest of the team. There was a major communication breakdown between the two last season. On the one hand, Eddie failed to convey explicitly what he wanted from his center. As friend of the blog Kevin Broom said last year, Eddie and the rest of the coaching staff's complaints centered around subjective terms like "energy," "intensity," and "force." These missed the point, because Haywood's effectiveness is in his ability to properly position himself to force misses rather than snatching them with enthusiasm, as Etan Thomas tended to do. On the other hand, Haywood didn't exactly deal with his benching maturely. When he was on the court at the end of the season, he contributed very little, particularly in the Cleveland series, where he wouldn't even step up to cut off the penetration of Larry Hughes. Then, he tore his nameplate down, had a whole saga where he sort of asked to be traded, but didn't, and generally went far enough to blame Eddie Jordan for his poor season. No matter how badly you're being treated, such behavior helps nobody.
Prior to the season, the two made a point to sit down and discuss, in concrete terms, how to fix their relationship. We don't really know the content of that conversation, but according to Gilbert Arenas, it was the only reason Brendan even came to training camp in the first place. In hindsight, that moment may have been the key to Brendan's improvement. All last season, I chastised Eddie for not trying to understand Haywood, and coping with remedial tactics like cutting his playing time instead of trying to find ways to bring out his potential. With that meeting, Eddie demonstrated that this season would be different. He was committing to Haywood, so long as Haywood committed to him.
On the other hand, perhaps this is as simple as getting defined minutes. The news of Etan Thomas' heart troubles was very sad, but in a basketball sense, perhaps it was a blessing in disguise. No longer did Haywood really have to worry about his minutes being handed to a guy he doesn't respect. Haywood has said many times that he's playing well because he feels comfortable with his minutes, which is a silent jab at Eddie and Etan. Normally, I'd be a little concerned about him saying stuff like that, but at this point, the results speak for themselves.
In the end, however, perhaps this improvement is something we can't pinpoint to one moment. When Etan went out with the heart problems, I expected it to positively impact Haywood, but even I didn't expect him to suddenly turn into an offensive threat equipped with a strong drop-step, a consistent jump-hook, and a 12-15 foot jump shot. One play last night really summed it up for me. It was sometime in the third quarter, and after a failed drive by Caron Butler, Haywood caught the ball in an awkward position on the elbow, with Yao Ming looming in the lane. Instead of doing something passively, Haywood made an aggressive move to the left, turned back right, and swished a jump hook as Yao pounded him with the body. In my wildest dreams, I could never have imagined Haywood making a play like that against a huge center like Yao. Now, he's doing it consistently enough that we no longer have to talk about needing a great big man to take us to the top.
If you think about it, only Dwight Howard is playing at a higher level among Eastern Conference starters than Brendan Haywood, and that may be the key reason why we're still fourth in the Eastern Conference without our best player.