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Taking the next step: Part 1

Yeah, so I'm back from my weeklong finals hell.  Thanks to Jake for taking over while I was gone. -Pradamaster

This offseason is arguably the franchise's most important in a very long time.  They have eight free agents, and next year, Antawn Jamison and Gilbert Arenas may likely not even be here.  What the Wizards do this offseason will determine whether Arenas stays and the team actually moves into the East's elite.

The old NBA axiom is that it's much harder to improve from 40 to 50 wins than to improve from 30 to 40 wins.  The Wizards are proving that right now.  Two years ago, the Arenas/Hughes/Jamison core won 45 games and made it to the second round of the playoffs.  Last year, after finding a third cog in Butler in the second half of the season, the Wizards lost three more games and fell in the first round.  At least there was an excuse there, because it's not easy to replace a member of your core.  

This year, the core was all here, the offseason netted Songaila and Stevenson, and things were supposed to be better.  But in the end, nothing really changed.  They fell all the way down to 41 wins and meekly surrendered in the first round of the playoffs.  Yes, injuries can be blamed to some degree, but other than December, this was not a top team in the league.  In fact, December and January were the Wizards' only winning months.

That's three years now of being a middling Eastern Conference team.  If the Wizards finish with the same type of season next year, I don't know if it will be enough to keep Arenas.  At the very least, that win total needs to get close to 50, and there needs to be a second-round playoff appearance.  

We've tossed out potential transactions this summer, but all of that is worthless without a clear philosophy.  And this offseason, the philosophy is clear.

The Wizards need to upgrade the defense.  Badly.  Last offseason, they missed an opportunity to do so, instead snagging the slow Songaila and the overrated (defensively) Stevenson (remember when he was supposed to be the answer on the wing).  That cannot happen again.

The last three years show an inverse trend in the offense and defense.  Just look.

You have to give Ernie Grunfeld credit for keeping this team at the same level despite losing key guys like Hughes and Jeffries.  The problem is that he's replaced those two with even worse defenders.  It's the biggest farce in the world that Caron Butler is considered a good defender.  He gets a lot of steals, but he gambles way too much, has poor fundamentals, and can get muscled easily by stronger small forwards.  This isn't anything new.  Check out his numbers from his 2004/05 season with the Lakers.  The opponents' numbers aren't pretty.

The biggest problem is that the Wizards' two best offensive players - Arenas and Jamison - aren't good defenders.  That's not the end of the world, to tell the truth.  Steve Nash and Amare Stoudamire are not very good defenders either, but Phoenix surrounds them with guys like Raja Bell, Kurt Thomas, and Shawn Marion.  But by losing Hughes and Jeffries, the Wizards lost the two guys that hid Arenas' and Jamison's defensive deficiencies.  

Making matters worse is the prospect of losing Brendan Haywood.  Haywood's a far better defensive center than Thomas, due to his length inside.  If he leaves, and an adequate defensive replacement is not found, the defense could get even worse.  That's a problem.

The ability of the offense to stay relatively efficient even without Arenas and Butler shows the offense will succeed no matter what.  People may have problems with Arenas' style, but it works.  There's nothing wrong with the offense as is.  

Because the Wizards' offense is so successful, the defense doesn't have to be amazing.  Phoenix, for example, succeeds with being middle of the pack on the defensive end.  This means trading a guy like Jamison would simply be a lateral move, because the defense would be upgraded at the cost of the offense.  It's the role players around the Big 3 that have to be good defenders, and right now, they aren't.  They need to be for this team to reach the next level.

In part 2, we'll discuss what specific positions need to be upgraded.