It's a 66 game season starting two months behind schedule, and as anyone who is staring down an onrushing semi with decent depth perception would be able to tell you, it's coming on hard and fast. Practically half the season takes place in back-to-backs...but it gets better. I don't know who Ted Leonsis pissed off (maybe those 'hard cap' comments)...but our two week schedule from March 24 looks like this:
- 3/24-25-26: Back-to-back-to-back, Hawks-@Celtics-Pistons
- 3/29-30: Back-to-back, @Pacers-76ers
- 4/1-2: Back-to-back, @Raptors-Bucks
- 4/4-5-6: Back-to-back-to-back, Pacers-@Pistons-@Nets
10 games in 14 days. That's 480 minutes of maximum-speed basketball with the East playoff race in full swing (read: hyper-competitive). That's ignoring the back-to-back before this stretch AND the two after (because they come with two days rest in between, duh). Obviously, playing John Wall the entire third quarter with two minutes rest at the start of the fourth quarter is not going to cut it. Suddenly, the Wizards looking to add that third PG (or fourth, if we're double-counting Jordan Crawford) makes a little more sense.
Trial By Fire
We've seen limited rotations from Flip Saunders in the past, but that is no longer an option. Further exarcerbating the situation is the abbreviated preparation period due to the NBA lockout. Here's hoping Jan Vesely, Chris Singleton, and Shelvin Mack have spent their off hours plugged into an iPad, the more they can show out of the gate, the less Flip will hesitate to play them.
It seems like we're rattling off the roster every time we turn around, but the problem Flip is facing here is forming cohesive five-man units, so we can't just list depth at each position. If Flip is truly serious about playing Jordan Crawford at the point, that would at least obviate the necessity for signing a 4th PG (T.J. Ford, anyone?). Jordan will likely need some time figuring out how to feed Nick Young efficiently, and may benefit from playing alongside another combo guard in Shelvin Mack. Those two might be a poor man's Gilbert Arenas-Larry Hughes.
Or not. With Crawford possibly occupying an unfamiliar position, with either Nick Young in a less effective role receiving from JC or Shelvin Mack in a completely new one, it's likely Flip can only take so much youth at one time...especially until we see how Shelvin looks on defense. This is probably a situation where Flip looks to compensate in the front court. Maybe Trevor Booker at SF to fill the Nick Young leaking back on defense route. Figure some combination of Rashard Lewis/Andray Blatche/Javale McGee at PF/C. That prospective line-up isn't scaring anyone, of course. But this is the kind of problem Flip is going to have to have figured out by the team that late season crunch hits.
In The Hot Seat
We could call this a trial by fire for the players, but it's really an acid test for the coaching stuff being able to develop their young talent. Flip Saunders has taken a lot of flak the last two seasons, but most fans have been willing to withhold the red pen. The beginning of his tenure was marred by a player carousel that will no doubt result in half a dozen Trivial Pursuit: Basketball Edition questions. As they say, the conclusion of the 2009/10 season was the end of our beginning. With Ernie having put together a respectable stable of young talent, we, the fans, look to Flip with expectation. I don't expect winning out of our guys. I would love it if they all came together, but that's almost certainly too much to hope for.
What fans will definitely be looking for is more of a team identity. Last year, it seemed all too often that the game would devolve into hero ball (which noticeably lessened), contested jumpers taken early in the shot clock, etc. While injuries factored into the situation, a more complete roster with something resembling a player core that's been together a full season (even if everyone wasn't fully healthy) must look more complete.
Which brings us to the hot seat. Figuring out a starting five isn't usually too difficult. The juggling act starts when you make substitutions while balancing the on court skill set and taking aim at situational objectives. If the Wizards hit that grueling stretch of spring games and the starters are all logging heavy minutes, they'll wear down fast. Flip will have no choice but to dig deep into the bench. The major question is whether or not he will have a plan in place with a bench he trusts.
The Wind Blows Both Ways
The players are on the hook as well, naturally. Again, we have more questions than answers when it comes to even our fan favorites:
- What does John Wall at 100% mean for his man defense?
- How will Jordan Crawford function in a more disciplined offense?
- Will a healthy Nick Young (if he returns) make us forget about last season's post-injury Nick Young? Can he achieve Flip's goal of improved playmaking?
- Can Trevor Booker hit a jump shot?
- Jan Vesely IS a question mark.
- Can Chris Singleton hit the corner three while providing lockdown perimeter defense?
- Will Andray Blatche put on the hard-nosed attitude every NBA power forward must embrace to find sustainable success in the postseason?
- Does Javale McGee actually expect Chris Singleton to hold down the post while he goes hunting for blocks?
- Will either primary big learn how to set a pick?
- Just how much progress did Kevin Seraphin make with Caja Laboral? How much will being in basketball shape affect his season?
- Will this be the season Hamady N'Diaye wins the Wizards fashion competition? Can he find the floor and become a legitimate back-up, back-up Center?
The point is that all of these questions will affect the balance Flip looks to strike with each five man unit. It's a gargantuan challenge to develop all that youth and find as many line-ups as possible. That means I guess that's why Flip earns the big bucks.
And don't forget, there will be limited practices due to the compressed season, which means less opportunity for young players to demonstrate their comprehension of the playbook and earns Flip's trust. You guessed it; that means unless Flip is giving our unproven youth some meaningful burn, when that late season crush of games hits things are going to get ugly.