A night after making merry with the season's first win, the Washington Wizards got viciously yanked back down to reality on Wednesday. The Chicago Bulls were without their top two point guards -- reigning MVP Derrick Rose and reigning not-MVP C.J. Watson -- and the team's newly signed reserve Mike James could get from the airport to the arena in time to be eligible. That left John Lucas III as the only point guard available. He played more than 45 minutes.
And the Wizards still lost! Chicago's elite defense tightened up, and the Wizards struggled to score all night. Rose was out, John Lucas played 45 minutes, Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer combined to shoot 7-28 and the Wizards still lost by 14! Washington continues to look completely lost; it's been so bad that the one definite future star on the club, John Wall, is being openly questioned.
But the worst thing that the Wizards can do is panic. That may sound stange, given the team's status. If you can't panic at 1-9, with 17 straight road losses going back to last season, when can you panic, right? But the goal has to be kept in perspective. And the goal has a lot more to do with 2013, 2014 and 2015 than 2012. Any decision that the Wizards make -- on the coach, the roster -- needs to be made with the future, not these awful depths, in mind.
To his credit, it seems as if Ernie Grunfeld has done that. The Wizards stuck to one-year contracts in the offseason, refusing to overpay Nick Young on a long-term deal to keep one of the team's better players from 2010-11. The Wizards stayed out of the running for free agents like Nene, David West and Tyson Chandler despite gobs of salary cap space. (Of course, none of those players were likely interested in D.C., either.) Grunfeld seems to know his team's timeline, and that it didn't match up with many if any 2011 free agents. That's good.
When you're building, flexibility and draft assets are key. Look at the Minnesota Timberwolves. David Kahn has been absolutely grating as a basketball personality, he has botched a few key draft picks and free agent signings and his trade performance is mixed at best. But never has he limited the team's flexibility, he's always looking to stockpile picks and young players and because of that, Minnesota has a promising future.
The 2009 trade between the two clubs is a perfect example. At the time, the Wizards looked to be in the hunt for a playoff spot with Antawn Jamison, Caron Butler and a post-microfracture Gilbert Arenas. The Wizards had the No. 5 pick in the draft. To bolster the playoff bid, the Wizards sent the pick to Minnesota for Mike Miller and Randy Foye. Minnesota (eventually) ended up with Ricky Rubio. The Wiz fell apart and began rebuilding about six months after the trade. (Criticizing that trade from the Wizards' perspective is totally fair game: Miller had been awful in Minnesota, and Foye was no better. Those weren't pieces that would make a difference.)
Getting impatient is the worst thing the Wizards can do. It must be awful to watch Wall flail and wonder if the toxic environment following the team will ruin his development, but the Seattle SuperSonics and Oklahoma City Thunder were totally awful in Kevin Durant's first two seasons. Things seem fine. Kevin Love has played on a couple of the worst teams we've seen, and he's OK. If you narrow the focus to point guards, Russell Westbrook shared one of those seasons with Durant. This isn't ideal; you have preferred Wall came in with another budding star (one better than JaVale McGee), and that some immediate help would be added in the next draft (someone closer to ready than Jan Vesely). But this isn't the end of the world. Did anyone expect the Wizards to be respectable this season?
Whether or not Flip Saunders sticks around -- he won't likely be there in 2014 and 2015 anyways, so it could very well be a moot point -- the team needs to be opportunistic, like the Wolves were. Getting first-round picks for anyone on the roster other than Wall, McGee or Vesely would be a great triumph. It may be more practical to target young, sub-elite prospects that entice Washington to facilitate a three-team deal using the club's cap space. (The Wolves acquisition of Anthony Randolph last season is a perfect example.) Wall will improve, Vesely will develop in some form, McGee will continue to do what he does and the team will see brighter days. But those aren't coming any time soon, and the Wizards -- and their fans -- have to sit on those hands and be patient.
It's an awful wait -- my team has been waiting since 2006! -- but it's the only way to do it in the NBA.
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