UPDATE: Added a poll.
In the interest of not piggybacking too much on others' work, go read Mike Wise's case for starting Epic Vale before you read any further.
Done? Wise, as an outstanding sportswriter, makes the poetic case. I hope this analysis adds something to his writing.
Starting JaVale McGee is a pretty open and shut case at this point (edit: I should make this clear that this is very much my opinion. It is one I feel pretty strongly about though). Yes, it's only been six games, and one of those was one in which JaVale didn't play, but the difference between JaVale and Etan Thomas is staggering. Last night really sealed it for me. JaVale McGee starred last night against a Utah frontline that's short, but formidable. In a game that featured the Wizards' best defensive effort of the season as a whole, those moments where McGee was playing center were the best of the best. Not to mention, he played down the stretch and more than held his own in a tight game.
You'll notice that I haven't even discussed the highlight plays, the raw athleticism or the bountless enthusiasm that he brings to the table. All that stuff is nice, but this case is really much simpler.
Right now, JaVale McGee, a 20-year old rookie that is still extremely raw, is playing better than a nine-year veteran that's undersized, overpaid and coming off a surgery that might affect him for the rest of his career. The team plays better with the 20-year old rookie, arguably significantly so. The team is also 1-5, playing without two of its best players, which prevents a chance to be a significant Eastern Conference contender.
What do you do when your 20-year old raw rookie is significantly outplaying your veteran undersized starter on a 1-5 team that's missing two of its best players? You get more minutes for the 20-year old, to develop him and to make the team better. More minutes means starting.
At this point, playing JaVale McGee is the only chance the Wizards have any interior defense and rebounding on the court. We all know JaVale's shot-blocking ability, but he's also rebounding 21.5 percent of available misses this year (and 30 percent of defensive rebounds). The latter mark is something I really didn't expect. We all remember how poor a rebounder he was in summer league, but he wasn't that great in college either. I figured he might become a good rebounder in a couple years, but it's rare for a player to suddenly turn into a rebounding beast, particularly in such a short amount of time. There's always the chance that he's just on a hot streak, but that doesn't happen much with rebounding. That's been the major surpise for me.
How much is he affecting the defense? It's six games, so take it for what you will, but look at these on/off numbers. Without JaVale off the court, the Wizards are surrendering 118.5 points per 100 possessions. Opponents are shooting an effective field goal percentage of 56.5%, and the Wizards are grabbing only 67% of their defensive rebounds, which is a pretty mediocre mark. With JaVale on the court, the Wizards are surrendering 104.6 points per 100 possessions. The effective field goal percentage against is down to 50.8 percent, and the Wizards are grabbing an astounding 81 percent of defensive rebounds. The latter is the thing that's huge about JaVale. Not only does he grab defensive boards, but he makes it easier for the rest of the team to grab defensive boards. That's always been my biggest complaint against Etan's rebounding -- he grabs a lot, but he doesn't take up space to make it easier for everyone else. JaVale does.
This is all happening while JaVale is still making so many rookie mistakes. He's biting for pump fakes, flying out at three-point shooters and not rotating quickly enough a lot of the time. Even with all of that, he's making our defense so much better. Imagine what happens when he gets over those rookie mistakes.
To be fair, a large part of McGee's early success is that he's not Etan Thomas, Darius Songaila or Andray Blatche. Etan's an easy player to like because he tries hard, but he's just not getting it done. Peruse Etan's off/on numbers at your own peril, folks. He can't finish inside, he doesn't clear enough space defensively and his freelancing really hurts us. Again, he's a nice guy, but he's just not getting it done. Same with Songaila, but to the extreme. Darius just doesn't rebound at all, so we can't ever end defensive possessions. Blatche actually helps the defense a lot, but he's so pathetic offensively right now that it's not worth playing him at center. None of those three is going to cut it at center, so McGee gets the job basically by default.
I've noticed that many here are saying it makes more sense for McGee to bring his "energy" coming off the bench, but this is silly for many reasons. First off, we already have an energy spark off the bench and his name is Nick Young. But the thing is, while there's something to the "don't always start your best five guys" theory, that entails sitting only one of your top five. It doesn't mean sitting several of your best players to dominate the bench scoring. If you sit two of your top five, you'll find yourselves in big deficits that you inevitably have to overcome, which is exactly what's happened to us this year. There's no reason to spot ourselves a deficit just in the name of "energy" or "bench scoring."
The theory also works best when you actually have someone decent to play ahead of your better bench guy. The Celtics could bring Kevin McHale off the bench because Cedric Maxwell and Kevin Gamble were very good players. The Spurs could bring Manu Ginobili off the bench because they have Tony Parker and Tim Duncan. Etan Thomas isn't anywhere near that level, and Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler aren't Duncan and Parker.
Instead of arguing about JaVale vs. Etan, I think the bigger question is JaVale vs. a healthy Haywood. Brendan still has the edge, but if the kid keeps developing, re-signing Haywood after 2010 suddenly doesn't become a necessity. I can't believe I'm even speculating about that, but the kid's been that good so far.
So Eddie, please start JaVale. And Ernie, I'm ready to admit that I was wrong for doubting your selection.