On May 18, 2010, the Washington Wizards won the NBA Draft Lottery, giving them some new hope after a rough 2009-10 season where the team underperformed, long-time owner Abe Pollin passed away, they handled a gun incident in the locker room and a lot more. The lottery result was pivotal for the Wizards’ future. They used the first pick in the draft on John Wall, a point guard from the University of Kentucky.
Let’s say that the Wizards didn’t select Wall that year. How could the franchise have looked different?
Where would the Wizards have picked?
The Wizards were 26-56 in the 2009-10 season, tied with the Golden State Warriors. They ultimately lost a coin flip with Golden State giving the Warriors a 10.4 percent chance (fourth best overall) of winning while the Wizards had a 10.3 percent chance (fifth best).
To keep things simple, let’s assume that the Wizards, Nets and 76ers, the teams with the actual top three picks of the 2010 NBA Draft remained in the Top 3. But instead of Washington winning the first pick and Philadelphia winning the second, let’s flip the order. The 76ers in this alternate universe get the first pick and John Wall as their starting point guard of the future, while the Wizards have the second pick and have a wider range of options.
Who would the Wizards pick?
Alright, let’s be then-President of Basketball Operations Ernie Grunfeld here. We know Wall is off the board no matter what. The 76ers are going to draft him since he’d be the biggest star there since Allen Iverson.
Arenas was entering the third year on a six-year, $111 million contract. Despite rumors and many calls for the Wizards to void his contract due to moral turpitude from the gun incident, they keep him.
Ultimately, the ideal starting lineup before the pick was Gilbert Arenas and Nick Young in the backcourt, Andray Blatche and Al Thornton or Josh Howard (since he tore his ACL) at the forward positions, and JaVale McGee at center.
Grunfeld is typically one to say “we picked so and so because of his multi-dimensional skill-set,” so let’s go with him picking Kentucky center DeMarcus Cousins with the No. 2 pick. Cousins averaged 15.1 points and 9.8 rebounds per game with the Wildcats in 2009-10. Most of the mock drafts didn’t have Cousins going this high, but Grunfeld also was willing to draft “higher risk, higher reward” players during his tenure in Washington.
How would Cousins and Washington have performed in 2010-11?
With Cousins in Washington, he would have likely become Washington’s starting center. McGee is relegated to being a backup. After officially becoming the Wizards’ majority owner in 2010, Ted Leonsis proclaims that a frontcourt of Cousins and Blatche will be a “foundation of the future.”
In the 2010-11 season itself, the Wizards finished with a 23-59 record, well outside of the playoff pack. Cousins finishes second in Rookie of the Year voting to Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin after averaging 17 points, 9 rebounds and 3 assists per game, pretty close to Blatche who averaged 17 points, 7 rebounds and 3 assists per game.
The Wizards’ offense looks quite fluid at times, but not unlike the actual team in 2019-20, they were the worst in the league defensively, Ultimately, averaging 114 points per game doesn’t help when the same team gives up an average of 125 points.
Arenas would have been “amnestied” after the 2011 lockout
Like in real life, Arenas didn’t seem happy to be Washington in the 2010-11 season. After all, it seemed awkward being the “last man standing” after “Gungate.” However, unlike the real-world 2010-11 Wizards, Washington didn’t have Wall. In fact, Arenas was the only serviceable point guard left. Kirk Hinrich and Jordan Crawford never suit up for Washington in this universe.
Ultimately, the Wizards found Arenas’ replacement, selecting Brandon Knight with the sixth overall pick of the 2011 Draft after internally debating whether to pick him or Czech prospect Jan Vesely. There was a lockout that cut the season short, and an “amnesty provision” was provided so teams could let go of a player off the cap while still paying him. The Wizards exercised that provision on Arenas right after the CBA was reached.
Cousins would have demanded his way out of D.C. before his first NBA contract ended in 2014
A new young Wizards core of Cousins, Blatche, Young and Knight was what Grunfeld and the ticket sales staffs sold fans on for the next couple seasons. However, not unlike the real-life Wizards, this core wasn’t going to work out. Cousins clashed with head coach Flip Saunders time and time again as a rookie and in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season when they actually managed to finish 28-38.
That was enough to help Saunders keep his job through the 2012-13 season, but a 2-14 start ultimately sparked Saunders’ ouster and lead assistant Randy Wittman took the job. He would only last through the rest of the year, clashing with Cousins multiple times about not being fed the ball enough on offense among other things. The Wizards finished with a 31-51 record in 2012-13.
After a protracted head coach search, assistant coach Sam Cassell ultimately took the job before the 2013-14 season. But even he couldn’t ease tensions between Cousins, Blatche and Young, all of whom thought they were the Wizards’ franchise cornerstone. Cousins, who was already not on the Wizards’ good side, reportedly claimed that he wanted out of Washington due to the “circus-like” atmosphere in their locker room. At least his scoring went up in the seasons ahead.
Leonsis, who noticed that the young core of the future wasn’t working out, months before that report, fired Grunfeld and Cassell after a 34-48 campaign in the 2013-14 NBA season. Despite another lottery bound season, Cousins earned his first All-Star nod and averaged 29 points and 15 rebounds per game. NBA analysts were high on Cousins’ talent and openly wished he’d play somewhere else.
What happens to the Wizards after the 2014 NBA Draft?
So who do the Wizards hire after firing Grunfeld in 2014? They ultimately hire a young but inexperienced basketball executive in Sean Marks to be the new General Manager from the San Antonio Spurs. Marks, a former NBA player, was part of the Wizards’ training camp roster in 2010-11. Marks then hired Oklahoma City Thunder guard Derek Fisher to be Washington’s new head coach.
Days after the 2014 NBA Draft. Cousins was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers in exchange for a package that included Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins, the first overall pick of the draft that year. Cousins would play alongside LeBron James, who returned to Cleveland from the Miami Heat and would win a championship a couple years later. On top of that, Cousins began to earn All-Star team nods for the Cavaliers while James was able to keep him in check.
The Wizards on the other hand begin a new rebuild around Wiggins while not re-signing the rest of the players from 2010 from that infamous “foundation for the future.”
With Fisher leading the team game-to-game and Marks handling things from the front office, the Wizards continue to miss the playoffs from 2014-15 through 2017-18, except the 2016-17 season when they had a 48-win season and made the second round of the playoffs, where they were swept by the Toronto Raptors. So why do the Wizards regress in 2018? That’s because Wiggins suffered a nagging ankle injury and was sidelined the rest of the year.
The Luka Doncic Era begins?
But Washington earned the third overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft despite having the tenth-best chance of winning the first overall pick. They select Real Madrid guard and Slovenian national Luka Doncic, which was received with significant criticism from local fans. After all, Ernie Grunfeld drafted many non-Americans who fizzled out in real life.
But remember, this is Sean Marks’ and Derek Fisher’s Washington Wizards team. Things are different in this universe!
Doncic puts on that Wizards uniform and plays a major role turning the team around. He becomes the 2018-19 Rookie of the Year where he averaged 24 points, 7 assists and 8 rebounds per game while shooting 52 percent from the field overall.
Along with Wiggins, who’s regarded as a “second star,” the Wizards’ dynamic duo races to a 51-31 regular season, and beat the Kawhi Leonard-led Raptors in the second round of the playoffs. In the Eastern Conference Finals, they lose 4 games to 3 to the Milwaukee Bucks, who would go on to beat the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals.
Drafting players is more of an art than a science. Sure, some players can instantly change a franchise’s fortunes, like LeBron James did for the Cavaliers, twice. However, the environment a player is in during his early years could very well be the difference between a player turning into a superstar or a good player who just doesn’t pan out.
In this scenario, it appears that Cousins, despite his talent in college and early in his career, just doesn’t work out in Washington, not unlike how his situation was with the Sacramento Kings, the team he actually played for. Talent level is part of what makes an NBA player great. But it also takes great coaching and a strong front office to ensure that every young player’s progress runs smoothly.
Admittedly, I took some big gambles here. If this scenario played out to a T, Andrew Wiggins would have to turn out to be a slightly better player than he’s currently perceived to be. And as for Derek Fisher, does he mesh well with a young Wizards team? I’ll give him some slack since he started his coaching career with the drama-filled New York Knicks. And currently, Fisher is just beginning his second season with the Los Angeles Sparks WNBA team.
But as you might have expected, I love to dream. And I love writing about “What ifs.”