Perhaps JaVale McGee really is the victim of several years of a horrendous culture. Perhaps JaVale McGee really is the one that gets away and makes the Washington Wizards pay several years down the road like predecessors Chris Webber, Rasheed Wallace and Rip Hamilton. But those are fears of the great unknown, and they say way more about things that have little to do with McGee than with McGee himself.
In the here and the now, the reality is this: the Wizards are creeping up on a day where they must start to view McGee as a certainty instead of a project, and McGee's demonstrated very little hope that he can be a certainty.
Blame whoever you want, but that's where we're at right now. The latest episode doesn't really tell us anything we didn't know already. Randy Wittman, fed up with McGee's inattention to detail and his inability to process all the things that he needs to process to play center in the NBA in 2012, benched him for the second half of Tuesday's game against the Milwaukee Bucks. The Wizards went on a major run in the second half before losing, so Wittman rewarded the players who nearly won the game by giving them more playing time against Orlando. After McGee was reduced to a second-line player in what proved to be another relatively acceptable effort against the Magic, both he and Wittman revealed that they talked between games. When asked whether he "understood" Wittman's message, McGee said he didn't, but is sure he'll figure it out soon.
Wittman denied that he was sending a message at practice on Thursday, saying he was just coaching. But part of coaching is sending messages, and the message to McGee was strong. The Wizards have tried to figure out a way to coax some cerebral play from McGee's numerous gifts, and it just hasn't happened. Blame whatever factors you want on that -- McGee's physical condition stemming from his asthma, his lack of lateral quickness given his frame, his mother being in his ear, his own desire to skip algebra and go straight to advanced calculus -- but that's the reality.
And now, it's time for the organization to move on.
McGee is a restricted free agent this summer, and he's likely to command a lot of money because he's seven feet tall and plays a premium position. Paying for his development suddenly becomes far more expensive and far more of a risk. This is a guy, mind you, that currently has the third-worst on/off differential in the league this year. It's just one number, but it paint a fairly accurate picture of someone that isn't doing enough directly to make winning plays rather than just making plays that'll get him numbers. Is that the kind of guy you want anchoring your defense as you're trying to change your culture? I say no.
I've heard all the reasons for giving the guy his money this summer. Here's my response to all of those.
He's a center and centers get paid
This is true, but all the centers that have been paid contribute in winning ways. DeAndre Jordan, who many compare to McGee, is basically his complete opposite when it comes to on/off differential. At some point, Jordan showed growth in grasping defensive concepts, playing within himself and doing what his team needs him to do. McGee, who is older than Jordan, has not.
Let someone else pay a premium with the hopes that he'll figure that out.
He's got a PER of 19.5 and he's only 24! How do you let that get away?
As said above, all that would be dandy if he was actually helping his team win, but he's not, especially on defense, where the objective is to beat a player to his spot, not let him get there and hope to compensate with your athleticism. There's no individual stat to measure missed defensive rotations. There's no individual stat to measure screens set, an act that helps improve the rest of his team. These are areas where McGee comes up short.
These qualities can be redeemable in a perimeter player, provided they are channeled into a specific, limited role and aren't paid much. (In other words: don't get any ideas, Nick Young fans). For a center, though, these are a killer. The way defenses are set up now, your center is the most important guy on the roster. If your point guard is a quarterback, your center is your linebacker, barking out defensive instructions, covering the most ground and doing so even without getting touches offensively. It's a different kind of value, one that NBA teams recognize, but won't show up on the stat sheet.
This is where the disconnect between Wittman and McGee occurs. When McGee gets benched, he thinks it's because he's not grabbing enough rebounds or blocking enough shots. The reality is exactly what Wittman said when McGee was ridiculed for that volleyball spike against the Kings. It's not the spike that enrages Wittman, it's that McGee let that man get to the basket before he spiked it away.
The entire framework of a modern NBA defense rests on the abilities of the best big man on the roster. McGee is in line to be the highest-paid big man on any roster, but he's also the furthest behind with his on-court intelligence. That's a terrible combination.
If there's an issue between an interim coach and a player, why are you siding with the interim coach?
I'd be sympathetic to this viewpoint if Wittman was the first coach to express frustration with McGee's play, but he's not. Wittman, honestly, is only doing what Flip Saunders, Ed Tapscott and (briefly) Eddie Jordan did before him. This isn't like Jordan favoring Etan Thomas over Brendan Haywood when literally every advanced statistic known to man showed how the Wizards were better with Haywood in the game. The Wizards are playing better with McGee on the bench, so it can't really be a personal grudge, can it?
But what if he breaks out with another team? How could we let him get away?
Short answer: I'll take that risk.
Long answer: let's not discount what environment means to a player. Why do we assume that McGee breaking out in another jersey automatically means he would have broken out in D.C., where his fans are frustrated with his development, his coaches keep shaking their heads at his mental breakdowns and his teammates continue to see the old JaVale in the back of their minds. These aren't robots we're dealing with; these are human beings. Focusing on what a player might become elsewhere distracts from the main question: what might he become here?
The former is an irrational fear developed from years of franchise ineptitude. The latter actually has some practical application to this specific situation.
But doesn't this set back the rebuild? How will the Wizards replace him?
Here's where the fear of the unknown is really dangerous. Is it really wise in any walk of life to settle for something you may not want because you're scared of the alternatives? Of course not. It's no different in the NBA, especially when we're talking about a team with loads of cap space in the event that McGee isn't re-signed.
The specific free-agent situations are numerous. Several centers are hitting the market, from players at McGee's level to cheaper players slightly below him. The draft offers a couple potential options, especially later on. There are folks who could be available in trades, and there's always the option of upgrading the rest of the roster and figuring things out later down the line. All these are better than making a big, long-term financial commitment to a player in hopes that more money and more expectations will cause him to be a different player when the pressure was off.
The Wizards got burned once before with that line of thinking. Don't let it happen a second time.
If I ran the Wizards (I don't), I'd be looking around to see McGee's trade value right now. Perhaps it's nothing, considering teams could just sign him as a free agent this summer. But still, I'd try to see if a team like the Golden State Warriors, who have made their intentions to acquire a big man very clear, might be willing to give up a couple pieces so they can get McGee's Bird Rights.
Regardless, though, now is the time to move forward, not backwards or sideways into the world of hypotheticals, when it comes to McGee's future with the Wizards. If the Wizards ever draft a project center like McGee again, I'd hope they'd do better to try to coax more out of him, but that's crying over spilled milk.
When it comes to McGee's future, moving forward is the only way to go.