With the first day of Wizards training camp coming, Bullets Forever is asking 20 questions about key issues with the team in 2010/11.
Following the trade deadline the Wizards fielded a completely different team. Gone were all of the vets (that could be traded) who had contributed to the team's past success, and its more recent disappointment. As a result of the team's moves, and an unfortunate injury to newly acquired Josh Howard, the Wizards young core of Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee, Nick Young and Al Thornton were forced into the spotlight.
This more energetic and scrappy version of the Wizards got off to a great start winning four of its first seven games. The team then went on a fairly protracted losing streak, nearly going winless in March. As the young players received more playing time, their performances became more consistent, and combined with more energy and defensive intensity the Wizards finished the year playing some of its best basketball of the season. During this stretch Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee and Nick Young began to answer a few of the questions about them and the fans began to see some small glimmers of hope for the future.
Question 18: How will last season's "strong-ish" finish affect this season?
In a season that began with a great deal of promise, but finished with a final record of 26-56, there wasn't a tremendous amount to feel excited about. The Wizards with Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee and Nick Young playing major minutes finished the season playing a better brand of basketball. The team finished the last 10 games of the season on a bit of a high note - winning half of their games.
During that 10 game stretch the team actually scored at a higher rate (99.4 PPG) than it did pre-All-Star break (97.5 PPG). The team's scoring average was helped by its ability to top 100 points four times during this period. The Wizards offensive output is surprising when you consider that none of the players remaining on the roster were considered to be a proven or consistent scorer in the league. This feat becomes even more impressive when considering that this was accomplished minus Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler who collectively were good for 60 pts per night.
The Wizards made progress on the defensive end as well. The Wizards were able to hold seven out of its 10 final opponents to less than 100 points. This helped them to lower their season average slightly from 101.7 PPG (pre-All-Star) to 101. This particular number doesn't fully demonstrate the team's progress as it is heavily influenced by the 121 points the Orlando Magic put on them during a blowout. Had this game not been a blowout, the Wizards progress on defense would have been much more impressive, shaving more than a full point off of its average.
The Wizards beat the teams that they should - New Orleans, New Jersey, Golden State and Indiana. They struggled against teams with greater talent and depth - Chicago, Orlando, and Atlanta. They even shocked a more experienced and talented team, and eventually Eastern Conference Champion, in Boston. But they also gave up a couple of games that they probably should have won against New York and Houston.
A significant piece of the team's relative success came as a result of individual improvement by Andray Blatche, Nick Young and JaVale McGee. (A number of articles have been written about their individual development; feel free to follow the above links.) In each of their cases, their numbers increased with playing time. And while each player had lapses in their play, each player seemed to respond positively to the fact that they were "operating without a net." There is still plenty of room for these players to develop, but during this stretch each took a significant step forward and played some of the best basketball of their relatively young careers.
So what can we hope that the team carries forward into 2010/11?
...continued individual development, energy and intensity, defense and rebounding.
While the Wizards roster is mostly set, it is likely that the team will only have a maximum of six players return from the team that finished the season - Andray Blatche, Nick Young, JaVale McGee, Al Thornton and possibly Fabricio Oberto and Cartier Martin. As a result, the team that begins the 2010/11 season will be dramatically different. On the bright-side the roster will be greatly improved with the additions of Gilbert Arenas, Josh Howard, Kirk Hinrich, John Wall, Yi Jianlian, Kevin Seraphin, Trevor Booker and Hilton Armstrong.
Blatche, McGee, Young and Thornton received a 32-game crash course in what it takes to be a significant contributor to a NBA team. The expectation is that they will use this education to help them prepare both their minds and their bodies for a full 82-game season. On this front, the news this off-season has been positive. Each of the returning young players has spent a significant amount of time working this off-season - even Blatche has continued to work while recovering from a broken foot.
The team was most successful when it played with energy and intensity. The 2010/11 Wizards roster should play to this nicely as they have an interesting mix of young, hungry players as well as a nucleus of veterans who have something to prove (Arenas, Howard and Hinrich). This should make for some exciting basketball; however the goal of the coaching staff will be to level the natural peaks and valleys making for a more consistent effort.
The Wizards late season success was also in large part due to playing solid defense and rebounding the ball. The front office went about trying to improve this further through its trades (Hinrich) and draft picks (Wall, Seraphin and Booker). And while Yi Jianlian has not been known for his defense and rebounding, he has made progress in both of these areas during the FIBA Worlds. We should also expect continued development in these areas by Gilbert Arenas (defense), JaVale McGee, Andray Blatche, Al Thornton and Nick Young. In addition the free agent signing of Hilton Armstrong and the healthy return of Josh Howard should help in both of these areas as well.