I keep looking back to when the Wizards were in 1st place in the Eastern Conference...
The Naysayers incessantly point out that the Eastern Conference has gotten a whole lot better (Boston with KG, Cleveland, and even Atlanta, yada yada yada) - - - but what the "Eastern Conference has gotten better" crowd fails to realize is that the Wizards have become a LOT better too. Let's look at the facts.
It wasn't 5 years ago that Eddie Jordan coached the Eastern Conference All-Stars..... it was just two short years ago that the Wizards were leading the Eastern Conference. They did it with a bench that consisted of Donell Taylor, Jarvis Hayes, Darius Songaila, Michael Ruffin, Mike Hall, Calvin Booth, and Roger Mason (pre breakout, 2.7 ppg Roger Mason).... Haywood, the best defender on the team, was fighting with Eddie Jordan for minutes. They did it with a Coach that didn't or couldn't teach defense. They did it with a Coach that was clueless about proper rotations, player development and play calling.
Here are the reasons I'm convinced the Wizards will be competing for a top spot in the East next year:
- The Wizards are a better team than in 2006-07. Butler is a better player. Jamison is a better player. Andray Blatche is better. Even Darius Songaila is a better player than in 2006.
- The Wizard's bench is light years better than in 2006-07 - with players like Nick Young, Andray Blatche, Dominic McGuire, Javaris Crittenton, Darius Songaila, I believe the Wizards will have one of the deepest and most productive benches in the League.
- The return of Brendan Haywood. Nuff said.
- A new and improved Gilbert Arenas. Say goodbye to Agent Zero, and hello to the new Arenas.... In his return this year, I believe we got a glimpse of what Gil's game will be like next year. He showed us a high assist, low turnover game. A game that included pushing the ball up court for scintillating fast breaks. Incredible passing and court awareness. He showed us Gilbert Arenas, "Agent Facilitator" - Calm, cool and collected... Ready to lead a team full of great Offensive talent. But at no point during his return did I feel like he was playing out of control, or outside the Offensive scheme. We didn't see any of the infamous Agent Zero reckless drives to the basket hoping for And-1's, or pull up from 30 three pointers.
- Assets, assets, assets. Ernie Grunfeld has them, in spades. Expiring contracts. Young talent. High Draft picks. If the Wizards don't get a top 2 pick in the Draft Lottery, look for Ernie to improve the team through some type of creative trade this Summer. Perhaps picking up a veteran Shooting Guard that can defend.... or a defensive minded low post player..... or a dead eye 3-point shooter. Even if the Wizards DO get the # 1 pick, I think Grunfeld will still look to bolster the existing core with some veteran help.
- The anticipated hiring of Flip Saunders is a plus. Flip is a very good X's and O's play caller. His coaching turned the Detroit Pistons into an extremely efficient scoring machine, while still playing pretty good defense. His match-up zone defense is a much better scheme than the "protect-the-paint, give help inside but let shooters have all day long to set up and drain 3's" approach that we've seen over the last 4 years.
- The Flip Saunders - Gilbert Arenas connection. I think Flip can help Arenas become the best Point Guard in the Association. And yes, I mean better than Steve Nash, Deron Williams or even Chris Paul. Flip helped Chauncy Billups, at 30 years old, elevate his game from being considered a very good Point Guard, to a 4-time All-Star, Second Team All-NBA and MVP candidate. Billups was never an All-Star until he played for Saunders. How much can Saunders help Arenas improve? Since he's starting with a 3 time All-Star, I believe the improvement will be dramatic. Can Arenas average 12-13 assists per night, while limiting his turn-overs, and running a highly efficient Offensive team?
The pieces are all there - the All-Star talent (Butler, Jamison) - the athletic "fast break" players (Young, McGuire, McGee) - and the Coach that has done it before. Just need a couple of deadly 3-point shooters (Stevenson, ????), and Arenas' buy in to Saunders approach - and we could be hearing MVP chants again in the Verizon Center.
So, is this team again ready to lead the Eastern Conference? As constructed, NO. They're a 4th seed team... but let's not forget # 5 above. With a little luck, the Wizards may be adding Blake Griffin to the fold. AND, there's still assets to use for a trade. So they could get dramatically better, very fast.