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2009/10 NBA Blog Preview: Washington Wizards

This post is a part of the annual NBA Blog Preview series, sponsored by Celtics Blog and SB Nation.  The project  asks prominent NBA team bloggers to write a season preview for their respective squads.  You can find links to all the other previews here.  Today is the date for all the Wizards previews, so here is ours.  Make the jump to read the whole thing.

Team Name: Washington Wizards
Last Year's Record: 19-63
Key Additions: Randy Foye, Mike Miller, Fabricio Oberto, Flip Saunders.  If you want to be clever: a healthy Gilbert Arenas, a healthy Brendan Haywood, a healthy DeShawn Stevenson and $2.5 million from selling the 32nd pick in the draft
Key Losses: Darius Songaila, Etan Thomas (not key), Oleksiy Pecherov (not key), whoever was available with that fifth pick in the draft, the chance to draft DeJuan Blair.

1. What significant moves were made during the off-season? 

Two days before the draft, the Wizards swapped the fifth pick and some frontcourt deadweight for Randy Foye and Mike Miller, two guys that certainly bring something to the table, but were overextended on an awful Minnesota Timberwolves team.  Once Ricky Rubio slipped to the fifth pick, the trade was labeled as the Wizards "choosing" two role players over Ricky Rubio.  This is a mischaracterization because neither Minnesota nor the Wizards expected Rubio to slip - keep in mind that the Timberwolves were desperately trying to swap the fifth and sixth picks to move up to the number two slot - but it is fair to say the Wizards went for proven guys rather than rookies.  Ernie Grunfeld didn't want to draft a prospect that would need to develop, so he took sure things even though they might have lower ceilings.

As to whether the Wizards got as much value as they could ... that's a tough one.  On the one hand, it was the league's worst-kept secret that the Wizards were going to swap that pick. Grunfeld certainly wasn't operating out of a position of strength, so it's impressive that he at least got two solid guys like Foye and Miller in a weak draft. On the other hand, Foye and Miller certainly aren't difference-makers on the level of, say, a Vince Carter, who was swapped for arguably a less enticing package that the Wizards could have put together. In addition, why do the move two days before draft day, when you don't know which players will slip?  Maybe that fifth pick becomes more valuable once a team like Golden State or the Knicks or someone else sees Rubio dangling. 

To this day, I'm not sure how to answer that question. 

The underreported thing about the move is that Grunfeld was able to improve the team while shaving off some long-term salary.  Miller and Foye both have contracts that end this year (though Foye has his qualifying offer), and by making this trade, the Wizards were able to eliminate the extra year on Darius Songaila's contract and the cost of paying the fifth pick from their payroll.  This can be viewed either as a major coup for Grunfeld or a sign that the Wizards have conflicting priorities (winning and also saving money).  The answer will probably depend on what happens down the road.

Regardless, the Wizards picked up two guys that fit into new coach Flip Saunders' system and the general win-now culture of the organization, though Foye has struggled to remember how to play the point guard position during the preseason.  They'll improve the team in the short term, that's for sure. 

If you're confused, let me try a poker analogy.  (Maybe that confuses you more, we'll see).  If this is the Wizards' idea of an all-in move, then it's very underwhelming.  It's like shoving in 30 big blinds before the flop on Ace-Jack offsuit.  However, if this is instead one of those plays you make to alter your table image in a way to help you make a bigger move later, or if this is one of those pots you go after in order to build your stack to become a difference-maker later in a tournament, then it's a worthwhile one.  Here's hoping the Foye/Miller trade is a prelude of something bigger rather than a final move. 

The Wizards also signed veteran Fabricio Oberto for the biannual exception to serve as an insurance big man and a good example to some of the young players on the team.  Oberto had an excellent preseason, and I suspect he'll be a very good fit and a helpful piece to the puzzle.  That said, it's tough for Wizards fans to look at the Spurs right now and see DeJuan Blair tearing things up in preseason.  The Wizards could have drafted Blair with the 32nd pick, but instead sold it for $2.5 million in cash.  That cash helped serve as a financial windfall for owner Abe Pollin for paying the luxury tax, and it made it easier to drop another $4 million if you include luxury-tax payments to sign Oberto, but Blair certainly provides a lot of elements (rebounding, toughness, a paint presence) the Wizards have lacked for years.  Right now, one can't help but think that passing on Blair was a missed opportunity.

Am I forgetting something?  Oh yeah, the Wizards hired a new coach, bringing in Saunders in late April.  Saunders was clearly the best coach on the market, and that's even if Avery Johnson would have decided to leave his cushy ESPN job. 

Saunders' balanced approach is perfect for this roster.  He'll make subtle changes on offense to make the Wizards even more deadly in the half court, and he is a significant upgrade as a defensive coach over Eddie Jordan.  He commands respect from the players because of his track record of success, and that's significant, because I don't know if this cast of veterans would have respected a young coach.  Critics say that Saunders doesn't have a particularly great defensive reputation, but while he may not have as pronounced effect on his teams' defense as, say, Scott Skiles, the record shows his teams have been pretty solid defensively.  Grunfeld was looking for a coach that could maintain the teams' offense while simultaneously upgrading the defense.  Saunders fits the bill.

Saunders is also perfectly equipped to coach Gilbert Arenas.  He's done a great job of involving Arenas in the team's decision-making, talking to him regularly over the summer and being completely transparent with his expectations.  His offense is also known to improve the productivity and "pureness" of point guards.  Just ask Stephon Marbury, Terrell Brandon, Troy Hudson, Sam Cassell and Chauncey Billups.  Saunders is low-drama and all business, which sets a perfect tone in a locker room that may have gotten a little too crazy in recent years. 

I'd venture to say Saunders is a bigger addition than any player the Wizards could have acquired.  He's that good as a coach.  The fact that it took me this long to remember to mention him shows you how much of an imprint he's already made on this organization.

2. What are the team's biggest strengths? 

When healthy, this has always been a team that could score a lot of points.  Now, with Saunders in tow, this should be a team that will score even more efficiently than before, spreading the ball around more than they used to and maintaining the proper floor balance to help fix their poor transition defense.

Saunders' grand plan is to put the ball in Arenas' hands and have him create a vast majority of the scoring opportunities.  This is consistent with what Saunders has done with his point guards in the past, and it's a subtle, but significant change for Arenas.  In Eddie Jordan's Princeton offense, Arenas was asked both to make plays on his own and score off others.  He was essentially playing two roles - the point guard and the shooting guard.  Saunders will instead use Arenas exclusively as a point guard, asking him to set up others more and do his own bidding off the dribble.  Arenas has always been a better passer than he's perceived to be, and of course he's a spectacular scorer when healthy, but he often has struggled to balance those skills properly in such a way so that his teammates can play off him.  Saunders' offense should simplify things for Arenas, and I expect him to have a very good year if healthy.  He will likely lose some points off his scoring average, but I suspect he'll pick up more assists.

Saunders' offense should also help Caron Butler because Butler won't be asked to have the ball in his hands as much as before.  Butler is not a bad creator, but it's clearly not his strength.  Saunders should have him getting his touches in his comfort areas - 17 feet and in, on the baseline - rather than having him at the top of the key carrying the burden to create for everyone.  It should help Butler's game and his longevity, as Butler has been hampered by nagging injuries in recent years. 

Otherwise, Saunders' system, which emphasizes making the extra pass and getting the ball to the hot hand, should help a Wizards teams that has a lot of scorers, but hasn't really played much with each other.  It's not that the Wizards are selfish - Miller, for example, was too unselfish last season, and Foye and Butler are good passers for their position - but they are still learning about each other's strengths.  Saunders' pro-style system should ease the learning curve.

The Wizards are also a very deep team, though much of their depth is focused on the wing positions.  They have several guys who have started games in the past couple years coming off their bench, and have some multi-position guys that can give Saunders the chance to trot out a ton of different lineups.  It's a bit unclear how Saunders plans on using his depth, because he's favored tight, short rotations in the past, but he's an innovative guy who will figure out a good solution.

3. What are the team's biggest weaknesses?

Staying healthy.  But that's a given.  (Of course, two days after I write this, Antawn Jamison goes down for the first month with a shoulder injury.  Boo karma).

Clearly, defense remains a weakness.  Saunders is definitely a better defensive coach than Eddie Jordan.  His Minnesota teams played very good defense, and I suspect the reason Saunders focused on offense so much in Detroit was because he knew offense, and not defense, was Detroit's weakness at the time.  However, Saunders doesn't have a Kevin Garnett, Ben Wallace or Rasheed Wallace that can inspire the rest of his team to defend.  The closest thing he has is Brendan Haywood, who is a tremendously underrated defender, but isn't the type of guy to light a fire under everyone else on the team.

There's actually a legitimate argument the Wizards are worse defensively than in the past on paper.  DeShawn Stevenson, previously the team's stopper, might have his minutes squeezed with the additions of Foye and Miller, neither of which carry positive defensive reputations.  Long, athletic Dominic McGuire started 57 games last year with all the injuries, but is unlikely to get too many minutes.  Oberto is a solid position defender who is probably the best defensive backup to Haywood this team has seen in years, but he can't guard quicker post players and might not play much anyway.   

The Wizards are hoping that a new voice will inspire a better defensive performance.  Saunders has talked extensively about having one set defensive philosophy rather than several gimmick defenses to hide the teams' weaknesses, which is essentially what Jordan did.  That should help a ton and eliminate a lot of confusion.  It should be noted that, while Saunders is a big proponent of matchup zone, we haven't seen the Wizards practice it or go to it in games much, probably because Saunders wants to instill a core defensive philosophy first. 

The Wizards are also hoping that a renewed commitment to defense in practice will help.  Several players have said that Jordan didn't emphasize defense much in practice, and as skeptical as one should be with that statement, it is true that the Princeton offense takes a lot of time to pick up, meaning it needs to be practiced more than most offensive systems.  With only a finite amount of time to practice, the more time spent making sure the players understand Jordan's complicated offense, the less time spent on practicing defense.  Then again, the Wizards have used this rhetoric before.  It means nothing until they prove it.

Those changes, along with reduced minutes for Arenas, Butler and Jamison and a healthy return for Haywood could easily vault the Wizards to the middle of the pack on defense.  However, as we all know, unless your offense is historically good (think Phoenix circa 2005-2007), you need to be better than average on defense to be a legitimate championship contender.  The Wizards are light years away from that status.

In particular, the Wizards are weak inside, at least compared to the other top teams in the league.  Haywood is tremendously underrated, and Jamison is still very productive, but questions remain behind them.  Andray Blatche is heading into his umpteenth must-produce year, and while he doesn't get enough credit for his diverse array of skills, he also has yet to show he can consistently be a role player for this team.  Oberto is an effective player, but at 34, he is too old and in decline to be an effective third big man.  Youngster JaVale McGee is a highlight player, but he still doesn't understand basic fundamental defense well enough to stay on the floor, and the Wizards have less patience for his mistakes this year than they did last year.  A trade might have to happen to shore up this weakness in the short term.

The other potential problem is that there's just too much newness to adjust to quickly in a short period of time.  Saunders still hasn't decided on a regular rotation, which hurts youngsters like Nick Young, McGee and Blatche because they're pretty inconsistent to begin with.  Jamison's shoulder injury doesn't help because it's yet another thing to adjust to early in the season.  I worry that, while the Wizards may be very dangerous late in the season once they've all learned to play with to each other, they may give up some games and key playoff seeding to get there. 

4. What are the goals for this team?

I suspect the Wizards are thinking about this season like it's an Eastern Conference Finals or bust campaign.  There's all this vague talk about "advancing in the playoffs," but the standard for organizational success seems to be making the NBA's Final Four.  Still, with Boston, Orlando and Cleveland all making their move now, that's probably a pretty unrealistic goal to have.  The Wizards could make a big trade and still be running fourth in a three-horse race.  Unless one of those three suffers a rash of injuries, I have a hard time believing the Wizards will crack the top three in the East.

A more realistic goal would be to secure home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, win their first-round series and put up a decent fight against one of those top three teams.  What would a "decent fight" entail?  I'm not sure, but I think it's safe to say it would be a better performance than what Atlanta gave against Cleveland in the second round of the playoffs last year.  The Wizards could then more easily justify another round of going over the luxury tax, which would include re-signing Haywood, Miller and maybe Foye while making a talent upgrade. 

5.  Why isn't Gilbert Arenas talking to the media?  Isn't this a problem?

Two reasons.  One, he wants to be a little more serious about his game, and maybe he feels talking is a distraction.  Two, he feels like they took advantage of his crazy personality to write unfair things about him.  His logic is, if he doesn't talk, nobody will be able to twist his words. 

Does it make sense?  No, not really.  Most of the league finds a way to talk without getting their words spun out of control.  But that's just Gilbert.  He always has to position himself on one extreme or the other.

Does this all matter?  No, not in the slightest.  All that matters is his health.  Arenas is still the most important player on this team, and with so few options behind him at point guard in a point guard-heavy offense, one could even argue he's more important than ever.  We've already talked about why he fits in well with Saunders' offense, so as long as he's healthy, I suspect he'll have a great year.  For now, his knee looks good, but this is clearly as much of a long-term question as a short-term one.  We'll just have to hope for the best.   

Projected Finish: 47-35