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The official Bullets Forever season preview

Written by: Mike Prada
Videos by: Jake Whitacre
Contributing ideas: BF users mamemimo, AL, josh, and finkad01

Last year's record: 41-41
Key additions: Nick Young, Dominic McGuire, Oleksiy Pecherov
Key losses: Jarvis Hayes, Michael Ruffin, Calvin Booth (none of these count, by the way)

Let's be honest here, being a Wizards fan last season was fun.  Any Wizard fan that tells you otherwise either has no soul, is delusional, or is trying to hide it because they're ashamed they love a team that mutilated the psyche of basketball purists.  The whole season was like a rollercoaster ride, one that started at its absolute low, rose to a high more than anyone could imagine, and then suddenly stooped even lower than we thought with the injuries to Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler.  I'll admit that I had to fight my own personal objections to watch this team after Arenas' injury against Charlotte; it was just that depressing.

Lest we forget the highlights, here they are.

But Wizards fans also have to be honest about last year in a different way.  Sure, they were on top of the Eastern Conference, but that was a bit of a fluke.  They were winning games by shooting at a ridiculous clip, playing even less defense than in previous years, and relying on Gilbert to bail them out at the end after the inevitable fourth quarter collapse spurred by coach Eddie Jordan playing Jarvis Hayes at power forward and Antawn Jamison at center.  Was that really the most sustainable way to win?  The starters were playing 40 minutes a game, while bench guys were used incorrectly, infrequently, and strangely (too many synonyms?  Sorry).  Moments like these simply made Wizards fans laugh sardonically.

In the end, perhaps it wasn't terrible for Butler and Arenas to get hurt.  Things probably would have ended more disappointingly had they been healthy.

So what happens in the offseason?  Status quo reigns.  The Wizards drafted Nick Young and Dominic McGure, re-signed DeShawn Stevenson and Andray Blatche, and dumped Juan Carlos Navarro to Memphis when it became clear he wanted to renew his secret relationship with Pau Gasol.  This is a problem, right?  Well, not exactly, I guess.

But before we get into why, let's clear some things up, shall we?

The two biggest non-stories in the history of mankind.

This list would have been included the stupid Brendan Haywood/Etan Thomas feud had Thomas not been ruled out for most of the season with a heart ailment.  Look, teammates fight sometimes, especially in professional sports.  Fighting between two of the more mediocre players on the team isn't going to tear anyone apart.

NONSTORY 1: Gilbert Arenas is opting out!  Panic!  How dare he!  It's now or never!

All of the above emotions have, in some way or another, described the reactions of several national pundits.  The fact that we're talking about Arenas, a guy who makes unpredictability an art form, certainly adds to that hysteria.  To be fair, I don't want this to sound like it doesn't matter at all that Arenas is opting out, but let's think about this for a second.

Why are we worrying about this now?  There is so much that can happen between now and the end of next year that no discussion will go anywhere.  What happens if Arenas gets hurt again?  What if he comes back really strong and leads this team to the conference finals?  Too many things can happen between now and the end of the season before we know about Arenas.

Adding to the issue is that the Wizards still have the keys to the car.  They can pay Arenas more than any other team can.  They're the only ones that can offer Arenas a sixth year, and I doubt there will be too many enticing teams that can give Arenas a max contract in the offseason.  There still could be a sign and trade, but again, let's see how this plays out.

Finally, we're talking about Arenas here.  Any attempt to understand his brain will end in failure.  Can't we just stop speculating on what he's thinking and let things happen?

NONSTORY 2: Teammates hate Arenas!  Arenas hates the coach!  Arenas is selfish!  Chemistry problems will tear them apart!

Does anyone need a reminder of moments like these?

With that said, they still might want him to clean up the locker room:

Alright, so what is the story here?

As much as I hate to admit it, this season comes down to just one thing: playing better defense.  You would think that, after LeBron James made the Wizards defense look silly in the 2006 playoffs, it couldn't get any worse, but it did.  By defensive efficiency measures (points/100 posessions), the Wizards went from 23rd in the league to 28th, and it was a sad story everywhere.  They gave up too made easy jumpers, they didn't rebound, they gambled for too many steals, leading to easy layups, and they lost concentration at the end of the shot clock.  Pretty much, everything went wrong.

The Wizards addressed this problem by getting former Sixers assistant Randy Ayers to take over the defense, after former Rockets assistant Tom Thibodeau spurned them at the last minute.  Ayers will certainly help, at least in theory.  His Sixers teams in the early part of the decade had one of the best defenses in the league (contrary to popular belief, it was their defense, and not Allen Iverson, that was the key to their success).  

But as we all know, defense is played by people, not by schemes.  Popular opinion is that the players need to "get serious" about playing defense, but I do believe that coaching and scheming is part of the problem.  Still, there are certain things that must happen for the defense to improve.

  1. Arenas needs to step it up: The Wizards were awful at depending the pick and roll, mostly because Arenas moved his feet like a glorified turtle.  It seems weird that someone like Gilbert, who's so fast offensively, could be so slow defensively, so there's no reason why he can't get better on that end.  Hopefully, Ayers can light a fire under him.  
  2. Caron Butler needs to stop gambling: Popular opinion states that Butler is the only good defensive player on the team, but he actually might be one of its worst.  Physically, he's a little small for playing small forward, which works to his advantage offensively, but hurts defensively.  Big small forwards like Tayshaun Prince and Gerald Wallace simply overpower him in the post.  But beyond that, Butler does an awful job of playing his man because he's always in the passing lanes.  That meant he was among the league leaders in steals, but it also meant that there were many times when he missed and the defense broke down.  When he wants to, Butler can be very quick with man defense, but he has to stop gambling.
  3. Brendan Haywood needs to play: Lots of fans think the problem with this team is none other than Brenda(n) Haywood, but this seems foolish to me.  When he played more than 25 minutes last year, the Wizards were 20-11; when he didn't, they were 21-34 (including playoffs).  He's the closest thing they have to a defensive presence, and he has actually been one of the team's best players, based on plus/minus numbers, over the last three seasons.  He's a terrible offensive player and a so-so rebounder, which is why fans jump on him, but not having Etan Thomas, a fake physical player who's too small to be anything better than a poor man's Reggie Evans, might be a blessing in disguise.

    Just don't have Haywood guard any point guards, and we're all set.

I'm confident about the third one, sort of confident about #2, and not so confident about the first.  Either way, I think the defense will be marginally better, which should be worth a few more wins.

Fresh Faces

Even though the Wizards didn't make any major moves, they did rebuild a bench that was one of the worst in basketball last year.  Gone is perpetual disappointment Jarvis Hayes and overrated grit guys like Michael Ruffin, Calvin Booth, and, to a certain extent, Thomas.  In their place is the rookie trio of Nick Young, Dominic McGuire, and Oleksiy Pecherov.  Young has struggled a bit so far in preseason, but he can score like crazy, and Pecherov provides a warm body who gives a different look from Haywood with his ability to hit outside shots.  The rookie to watch, however, is McGuire, who was clearly a second-round steal at 47.  Knick fans who loved watching Renaldo Balkman play would love McGuire as well.  He has freak athleticism defensively, as evidenced by the fact that he was one of the top shot-blockers and rebounders in college basketball last year, despite being only 6'8''.  The more time McGuire gets, the better.

Bullets Forever are already smitten with McGuire, one reader even took the step of nicknaming him Taser, as in, "Don't Tase Me Bro!" which is what most of the players going up against him in college were probably saying in this highlight reel.

Then, there is Andray Blatche, the talented youngster who became the bane of so many of our jokes when he was arrested for solicitation.  Since he signed a 5 year/15 million dollar contract right after that incident, he has looked like an entirely different player.  He's bulked up considerably, which is important, because with Thomas out, he's now the backup center.  Throughout the preseason, Blatche has been the Wizards' MVP, and his quickness, length, and outstanding board work will give the Wizards yet another defensive guy off the bench.  That's worst-case scenario.  Best case scenario is he develops an offensive game in addition to all of that, which he's shown flashes of doing this preseason.  

The point is, Bullets Forever members are confident the bench is much improved over last year.  Just getting rid of Hayes, Ruffin, and Booth is addition by subtraction, but when you add in guys like Young, McGuire, Pecherov, Blatche, and a healthy Darius Songaila, you've even made improvements.  Well, at least if Songaila's shoulder is okay.

All together now

This team still doesn't have enough of an interior presence down low to be a real Eastern Conference contender, but there's a sense that this team absolutely needs to get out of the first round of the playoffs.  I'm a little worried about Arenas' knee, which hasn't looked all that great in the preseason, and I'm not so confident that Eddie Jordan, who mismanaged the rotation so badly last year, can properly cultivate our talent on the bench.  But when healthy, this was a 44-45 win team last year, and even though the East got better, I still think they're slightly better than last year.  I'm also not sold on the Southeast, especially Orlando, who still lacks good guard play, and Miami, who still lacks anyone behind Wade and Shaq (Ricky Davis doesn't count).  Therefore, I think the Southeast is Washington's division to lose, though I'm not sure they'll get to 50 wins.

My predicted record: 46-36
Jake's predicted record: 47-35
BF community: 46-50 wins.