The OFFICIAL BF Washington Wizards Season Preview

As bad as it may seem now, it used to be a lot worse. 

Last year's record: 82-0 43-39.
Playoffs: Beat Cleveland 4-0, upset Boston 4-3, shocked Detroit 4-2, beat LA 4-2. Lost to the LeBrons 4-2.
Key losses: Roger Mason Junior (Spurs), Brendan Haywood (injury), Bill Walker (draft)
Key additions: Dee Brown, JaVale McGee, Juan Dixon, cash, a full half a season of Gilbert Arenas

What significant moves were made in the offseason?

Didn't you hear?  The Wizards re-signed shoot-first, injured, selfish drama queen Gilbert Arenas to an 111-million-dollar deal for six years.  What idiots!  They should have known that Arenas was going to have a third surgery and that nobody wanted him anyway (the Warriors don't count, remember!).  I mean, whenever you have the chance to pass on a guy like Arenas in favor of getting luxury tax room and using your mid-level exception on Chris Duhon, you have to do it!

In all seriousness, the biggest moves the Wizards made were signing Arenas and fellow all-star Antawn Jamison to new contracts.  Arenas' deal is certainly hefty and risky and it may end up blowing the Wizards in the face, but unless you're ready for the Corey Maggette era or really felt there was a sign-and-trade market out there, it was probably the best move.  It's not a slam dunk, mind you, and the shine rubs off a little if Wizards management was committed to giving him the max even before Golden State's 5 year, 100-million-dollar-offer, but the current state of the roster isn't conducive to a major makeover, with no expiring contracts until 2010 and prime or post-prime guys like Antonio Daniels, Brendan Haywood, Darius Songaila, DeShawn Stevenson and Etan Thomas in the rotation.  Once Jamison was re-signed, Arenas probably had to be as well.  All bets are off, of course, if Arenas cannot recover from yet another knee surgery.

Jamison's contract was also a bit hefty, especially because he'll be making major money when he's 36, but Antawn has aged well and losing him would have really hurt for the short term.  Plus, judging by Arenas' comments, losing Antawn was effectively losing Gilbert as well.

Besides that, the Wizards let Roger Mason sign with the San Antonio Spurs, thereby losing a key reserve from last year.  The Wizards didn't have enough room under the luxury tax or the roster at the time, but with Arenas hurting again, Mason would have been nice to have.  Instead, the Wizards signed Brown from Turkey to be a third point guard to replace Mason and are hoping for Nick Young to improve.  Once Arenas got hurt, Dixon was signed to provide insurance.

The Wizards also drafted raw JaVale McGee with the 18th pick, only to see him turn some heads in the preseason.  He's a ways away, but his physical tools are just off the charts.

What are the team's biggest strengths?

Forwards: Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison form what may be the most underrated forward duo in the NBA.  Both stepped up their games with Arenas sidelined last season and both deserved their all-star accolades.  Butler improved his passing and shooting range significantly, allowing him to be the focal point of the offense, while Jamison devoted himself more to rebounding and defense.  Both should be back to similar levels this season, assuming Butler can get over the injury bug.

Turnovers: The Wizards' offense has been outstanding for many years primarily because they do not turn the ball over.  The Wizards have been in the top 10 in lowest turnover percentage every year since 2005.  There are many reasons for this.  One is Arenas, who posts incredibly low turnover percentages while using so many possessions.  Besides that, though, Antonio Daniels is among the league's surest ball-handlers, ensuring there was no drop-off with Arenas being injured.  Jamison also turned the ball over on a mind-boggingly low 6.1% of his possessions last season.  This allows the Wizards to have a remarkably efficient offense despite remarkably pedestrian shooting percentages.

Free-throws*: Despite not having a true back-to-the-basket guy, the Wizards draw a lot of fouls.  They do an excellent job of opening the floor and allowing their perimeter threats plenty of room to go to the basket.  Once again, it is Arenas and Daniels that lead the way in this department.  Of concern, however, is Butler, who only attempted 4.1 free throws per 36 minutes last year.  That's remarkably low for a top offensive option.

*: Only applies when Arenas is healthy

What are the team's biggest weaknesses (besides health, which is a given)?

Perimeter defense: Many believe the Wizards' defense made significant strides last year, but this is obscured by the major change in pace (see below).  The Wizards defense made small strides, but continued to be mostly a madator unit, albeit in fewer possessions.  In particular, the Wizards were terrible at guarding open shooters.  Washington was dead-last in opponents' three-point percentage and set an NBA record by allowing 683 three-point makes this season.  Undoubtedly, the first step of reforming a good defense is to protect the paint, and Randy Ayers tried to emphasize that this season, but the Wizards took his message to heart too heavily and were really bad at closing out on shooters. Wizards helpside defenders were always too eager to sag into the paint to close off penetration and double-team the post. 

The center position: Prior to Brendan Haywood's injury, this would have been a relative strength.  Haywood is annually one of the league's most underrated defensive players, capable of bodying up even the best post options all by himself and protecting his perimeter defenders when they were beaten off the dribble.  Haywood was also the team's defensive leader in terms of communicating responsibilities to the other player. In the last few years, the Wizards' defense has been significantly better with Haywood in the game

His loss means the Wizards must rely on the undersized duo of Etan Thomas and Andray Blatche.  Thomas is a good rebounder and an aggressive individual defender, but he is a poor helpside defender that tends to go for the spectacular block instead of positioning himself in the right place.  He's also not nearly as good a finisher in the lane.  Blatche has potential, but has really struggled this preseason and is undersized to boot.  Rookie JaVale McGee has impressed doubters such as myself this preseason, but he's probably a year away from making a major contribution.

The backcourt sans Arenas: Antonio Daniels and DeShawn Stevenson are hardly an imposing starting tandem.  Daniels is getting up there in years and is at the age where point guards like him fall off.  He's also playing the year with an injured wrist.  Stevenson is not a bad player, but he's hardly a difference maker.  Behind them, Young is the top reserve, and he still has to significantly improve his non-scoring production to fill the role.  There's also Dixon, but he's basically an older, worse version of Young.  Brown's expected to be the backup point guard, but he was hardly impressive when he last played in the NBA.

What are the goals for this team?

Prior to the injuries, I would have said advance past the first round of the playoffs, but that may be unrealistic now.  Just getting into the playoffs seems reasonable.  Anything more is gravy.

If the injuries continue, the goal should be to get as good a lottery pick as possible.

The pace question:

This is the single most defining issue the Wizards face in bringing Gilbert Arenas back into the fold, and yet nobody talks about it, or worse, its shrouded in the ridiculous "Are the Wizards better without Gilbert" speculation.

In the past, the Wizards were an up-tempo team with a lights-out offense and a putrid defense.  The Wizards offense had all the elements.  They had a primary scorer who was an incredible one-on-one player, perfectly suited to their open-floor style.  That guy could hit a shot from anywhere, but when things weren't working, he could also drive and force his way to the free-throw line.  They had an inside-out forward that moved incredibly without the ball, and another forward who was emerging as one of the best mid-range shooters in basketball.  Everybody else played a role without committing too many turnovers. 

Last year, however, once Arenas went out, the Wizards shifted into almost exclusively a half-court club.  In 2007, the Wizards played at the fifth-fastest pace in basketball; last year, they were 27th.  They ran more Princeton sets, a system that emphasizes ball movement, in lieu of giving Arenas space to do his thing.  The team stayed about the same, but the offense lost that quick-strike ability and was easy to shut down come playoff time. Nobody could function as a go-to scorer and the Wizards struggled to generate offense when Cleveland shut down the Princeton.  That was Arenas' role, and it's one Butler will never be able to fill.

Some players improved because of the slow pace, but for others, they developed areas of their game that didn't exist before.  Butler developed a three-point shot and facilitating ability he had never flashed in any of his previous five years.  Jamison, at age 31, somehow had his best rebounding season of his career.  Andray Blatche fulfilled some of his vast potential early in the season as well.  Finally, while the defense didn't improve tremendously, it made enough strides to make up whatever difference was lost with Arenas' offensive ability.

This is not the same thing as saying Arenas' loss made the Wizards better.  Yes, Arenas takes some very quick shots, and yes, he does stink defensively.  But is Arenas absense really responsible for Butler developing a three-point shot?  Is it really responsible for Jamison rebounding more (and it's important to note that Jamison's shooting percentages were way down without Arenas)?  Is it responsible for Brendan Haywood's remarkable free-throw shooting accuracy, Blatche's relative emergence or Roger Mason's remarkable season?  Was Arenas really the only bad defensive player on the roster prior to his injury?  Perhaps on some level, it made some of those skills stand out (in particular, Butler's passing skills).  But to say it caused everything is just insane and is downright insulting to the players who worked hard to improve their games.

Yet Arenas' return will still cause problems because of the stylistic change.  The Wizards have proven that they can compete playing slow-paced basketball.  It's also proven that many of the players' skills were enhanced doing that.  Arenas' usage rate has been climbing every year since he got to D.C., even as the talent around him has improved.  It's time for Arenas to curb the 20-footers with 18 seconds on the shot clock routine and allow his teammates the chance to initiate more offense.  It might improve his efficiency to play off Butler's passing rather than vice versa.  This is not suggesting Arenas should get more assists; rather, it is suggesting Arenas just touch the ball less.  When the fourth quarter comes, it's Hibachi time.  Before then, get everyone else involved.

Before one considers that an impossibility, consider what Arenas watched from the sidelines.  Consider how the Wizards played without him.  He was watching, as were we.  Consider how Paul Pierce sacrificed some scoring to become a champion and still managed to improve his image.  Arenas is 26 now and will likely not have the capability to be Agent Zero as he used to be.  He'll adjust, though it will probably take some time. 

Prediction: 40-42.

I think they survive relatively well early (~3-4 games under .500), struggle initially when Gilbert returns adjusting to each other and then make a late run to steal the eighth spot away from Miami.  Then, they'll be out quickly to Boston.  That, of course, assumes there will be no more injuries.

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