Knicks Vs. Wizards: Solving Washington's small forward dilemma

Geoff Burke-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

During their preseason game against the Knicks, the Wizards' plan at small forward slowly began to unfold.

WASHINGTON -- In the Wizards second preseason game, they lost to the Knicks at home. Is there anything that can be learned about the team after last night?

The cynical view from last night's game is that there may not be much to take away; after all, 60 percent of the starting lineup (John Wall, Nene, and Emeka Okafor) and last year's starter/first big off the bench (Trevor Booker) didn't play. But these four guys were set. There were no questions: they had proven themselves to be where they were in the rotation, and they were going to stay there.

John Wall's injury has the team trying to figure out who'll steer the ship. Will it fall on Shelvin Mack, AJ Price, or Jannero Pargo? Or will the ball-handling shooting guards Bradley Beal and Jordan Crawford do most of the, well, ball-handling?

And what about the younger bigs? This season is crucial for them because they've got to apply the lessons they learned from last year to figure out how to complement the veteran bigs this year. With Okafor, Nene, and Booker out, both Jan Vesely and Kevin Seraphin are getting their feet held to the fire.

But what about the small forward position? Chris Singleton is now in his second year with the team. Trevor Ariza came to DC in a trade with New Orleans before the draft in June, and Martell Webster was signed as a free agent in August. Three seemingly capable players with three different styles and skill-sets. None seem perfect for the job, but each brings more value to the position than the team has had in years.

Since Caron Butler was traded to Dallas in February 2010, there's been a pretty obvious void at small forward. The team rotated Mike Miller, Josh Howard, James Singleton, and Al Thornton in 2009 and 2010. The team finally thought the problem was on its way to being solved when they drafted ACC defensive player of the year Singleton to be a defensive presence on the team and plug the hole in the middle of the lineup. As we now know, he didn't turn out to be the savior the team had envisioned. And after a lackluster summer league performance an the acquisition of Ariza and Webster, the small forward position became a big question mark for the team right before training camp.

But in this first home preseason game, a few things became clear:

1) Ariza's not exactly the savior one thought he'd be when he arrived. He didn't look great coming out of the gate: his defense on Carmelo Anthony left something to be desired, and he "determin[es] plays in his mind, no matter what the defense gives him," according to coach Randy Wittman. While he did pass up a few open jumpers in favor of getting into the lane, his ability to space the floor is something the Wizards haven't had in a few years.

2) It's easy to say that Martell Webster is the best small forward on the team after the small sample size of two games (and after he notched a double-double last night). Webster provided a "good spark off the bench," and he "spread the floor" and rebounded nicely for the team, Wittman said. He may have been better than Ariza was last night (he was part of that second unit that went on a 22-0 run against New York to regain the lead before halftime), but there's something to be said for having that kind of spacing, scoring, and "tenacity" -- as Webster described his own play -- coming off the bench.

3) Singleton is an interesting case. He's a small forward, but both last night and in the final scrimmage at George Mason camp on Tuesday night, he played power forward. According to the man himself, he's much more comfortable at the 3, but playing the 4 "comes with the territory [of] being versatile." Singleton has also improved his overall play since the beginning of preseason and camp. He has reduced his fouls, but he hasn't sacrificed his defense (he was pretty much the only guy who could prevent Steve Novak from scoring 4,000 points). Unfortunately with Nene and Booker coming back, there may not be room for Singleton at the 4. If he gets moved back to the 3, I suspect he and Ariza will compete for minutes and rotation position. In the end, though, there may not be enough room on the roster for both in February.

But for now, and from Wittman's rotation last night, the small forward position finally seemed to make sense. Starting Ariza to set the tone for spacing, while letting the guards and the bigs control the offense. Then bringing Webster off the bench for secondary firepower, all the while slotting Singleton at power forward behind Vesely because of his comparative length, speed, and defensive prowess. That plan seems to use each player's strengths without jeopardizing the flow of offense or defense.

That sounds like a good plan to me.

What did you all think of the small forwards last night? And who do you believe should start for the Wizards on opening night?

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