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The Wizards In 2010-2011: Savor This Moment

It's almost basketball season, and it couldn't come soon enough.

That's number one. I've missed writing about hoops, and especially over the past few months, haven't had the chance to give the NBA as much time and energy as I'd like. And if I'm not writing very much about basketball, that makes it even harder for me to write about the Washington Wizards under the guise of "covering the general NBA." The less I write about hoops, the more ridiculous it becomes to focus on my hometown team.

But that ends today. Next week, we'll start to get into more NBA stuff, but for now, there's no better way to kick things off than by breaking down my favorite team in all of sports, the Washington Wizards. (God it's depressing to say that out loud.)

And while I'll admit up front that this is a transparent attempt for me to come to terms with one of the more complicated situations in the NBA, maybe it'll interest non-Wizards fans, too. It's not like these are a bunch of local, meaningless stories.

The Wizards have the most heralded NBA rookie since Kevin Durant and Greg Oden entered the league, in Gilbert Arenas they've got one of the most infamous superstars in the league, with Ted Leonsis they've got an owner hell-bent on changing not just the Wizards culture, but maybe the NBA's. Javale McGee and Andray Blatche are two prospects that polarize scouts around the league, and whenever someone asks "Is Kirk Hinrich coaching yet?" or "What happened to Adam Morrison?" or "Did Josh Howard party himself out of the NBA yet?" or "How's the Yi Jianlian experiment coming along?", well... you're in luck.

All those players are on the Wizards!!! Feel the excitement!


Anyway, the SB Nation NBA bloggers have done an excellent job previewing each of their teams so far. And because I have some issues to work out with the Wizards, and just needed an excuse to start writing about hoops again, I'm throwing my hat in the ring. So here we go...

The 2010 Washington Wizards Preview

2009 Record: Terrible enough to get the No. 1 pick.

Key losses: Shaun Livingston, cap space that went to Yi, Hinrich, Josh Howard

Other losses: Caron Butler, Deshawn Stevenson, Brendan Haywood, a few others

Additions: Yi, Hinrich, Adam Morrison, Hilton Armstrong, Trevor Booker, Lester Hudson, Kevin Seraphin, Kevin Palmer, Hamady Ndiaye, Sean Marks, Mardy Collins... Christ, this is depressing.


Oh, right. Him. Hold on a second...


And as frustrating as the rest of the Wizards roster is, seeing John Wall in a Wizards jersey still makes me grin. Every single time, from ear-to-ear. How many players can you say that about in sports? Where just seeing them represent your hometown makes you kind of giddy. That's what John Wall does, at least for now. So, yeah: The Wizards offseason gets an A-plus. Which brings us to ...

1. What Significant Moves Were Made During The Offseason?

Getting Wall was a Godsend. That's not hyperbole. Anyone other than Wall would have been pretty depressing. Even DeMarcus Cousins. Because every other rookie in this year's draft class could have gone either way. There's no guarantee that Evan Turner will be an All-Star, and DeMarcus Cousins had all the makings of a classic DC athlete that squanders his potential for six years, then goes elsewhere and turns into a superstar.

But John Wall just feels different. The way he carries himself on and off the court, the way he competes, skills you can't teach, and athleticism you can't explain. He's exactly what we needed. A few years ago, the team's management fooled themselves into thinking we could win with a foundation of Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison. This past year, it all came crumbling down in the most spectacular fashion possible. The sort of thing that leaves a sour taste in your mouth.

Then Wall arrived as the breath of fresh air that we desperately, desperately needed.

There's also the new ownership. Ted Leonsis is an investor in SB Nation, the owner of the Washington Capitals, and by all accounts, a pretty wonderful person. He's also more shrewd than Abe Pollin ever was, and extremely competitive. Ted wants the Wizards to win championships, and after a while, it wasn't really clear whether Wizards fans could say that about Abe.

But Ted's been pretty clear--he wants to win, and he expects to win. Whether he knows how to win at this point remains an open question. His hockey background has taught him to stockpile draft picks, but hockey's more like football, where you can find hidden gems later in the draft. It's unclear whether that can work in the NBA--to win, you need marquee players. To get marquee players, you either trade for proven superstars, or you draft in the Top 5.

For instance, the two best teams in the league are the Lakers and Heat. The Lakers are built around Kobe Bryant (an aberration, since he was drafted 13th, but only because nobody had realized that high schoolers were worth top 5 picks), Lamar Odom (4th overall), Pau Gasol (3rd overall), and Ron Artest (16th... character issues helped him slide). The Heat are built around Chris Bosh (4th overall), Dwyane Wade (5th overall) and LeBron James (1st overall).

You can go up and down the league. Oklahoma City has three high lottery picks (Durant, Westbrook, Green) anchoring them for the next decade. Same with the Chicago Bulls (Rose and Noah), the Celtics (traded for superstars in Garnett and Allen, drafted Paul Pierce), the Blazers (Roy, Aldridge, Oden), and on and on. 

It's not a fool-proof theory, but the talent that wins championships usually gets taken at the top of the draft. Even the '04 Pistons, the NBA Champion that supposedly lacked superstars--Chauncey Billups (3rd overall), Rasheed Wallace (4th overall), and Richard Hamilton (7th overall). Tayshaun Prince (23rd overall) and Ben Wallace (undrafted) supplied the defense, but imagine that team without the trio of top 10 picks.

It's just something to keep in mind as we go forward here. In the NBA, you can't have your cake and eat it, too. You can build a championship team, but that probably means enduring a few brutal years, and enjoying the high lottery choices that come with them. Or, you can build a competitive team that will win between 30 and 50 games each season, and you'll sell out games, and maybe make the second round of the playoffs. It's not a bad blueprint. But Ted wants to win championships.


2. What Are The Team's Biggest Strengths?

Not to get repetitive, but... John Wall. And the budding chemistry between Wall and Javale McGee. And having Sam Cassell around to mentor John Wall. And Ted Leonsis, an owner that fans can trust to do what it takes to get the next level. Other than that, did I mention John Wall?

Having him around pretty much guarantees that the Wizards will be fun to watch in 2010, if only because, whether he fails or succeeds, watching Wall is its own story. The rest of the Wizards roster? Eh... Pretty much the same old story. Gilbert, Blatche, Josh Howard, Kirk Hinrich--these are not guys about to set the world aflame.

But none of it matters, because Wall is the spark, the flame and the fireworks.

2010-11 will be a fun season, the same way Kings fans loved watch Sacramento limp to 25 wins last year. Tyreke Evans single-handedly injected life into that franchise, and Wall should do the same.

3. What Are The Team's Biggest Weaknesses?

Well, let's start at the top. The lack of vision is a little concerning. The Wizards landed John Wall and suddenly, we began making the exact same mistakes that landed us at the top of the lottery. Which is to say, taking on guys expecting them to be a quick fix (Hinrich), putting faith in players that don't deserve it (Blatche), and trying to make the best of an incomplete roster.

That's on Ernie Grunfeld. It's also on Flip Saunders, because he's a really expensive coach that's expected to win now, and likely pushing to add these guys. But the truth is, Ernie and Flip aren't going to come out and say, "This team doesn't have what it takes, let's pack it in, play the rookies, lose 55 games, and continue the rebuilding process." Two aging, highly-paid, competitive basketball minds aren't going to choose the long route.


So the vision has to come from ownership. And Ted knows this much. As Leonsis points out in his 10-point rebuilding plan for sports franchises, it's imperative:

Make sure the GM, coach, owner and business folks are on the EXACT same page as to deliverables, metrics of success, ultimate goal, process and measured outcomes.

Right now, everyone's on the same page, but it's unclear whether they're reading from the right playbook. We're technically rebuilding, but this team might challenge for the 8th seed in the East. It's a confused strategy that trickles all the way down to the court. I mean, what's the point of ever having Josh Howard, Kirk Hinrich, Gilbert Arenas or Andray Blatche on the court? If the Wizards are going to win a championship with John Wall one day, it won't be with one of those guys. The only thing they'll do is win about 10 extra games for us, and ultimately cost us precious draft position.

***Quick tangent: Andray Blatche is not the answer for the Wizards. The longer he's here, the longer it is until the Wizards begin an earnest search for a big man that works for the long-term.

I had a writer friend tell me a story about Antawn Jamison a few years ago. A reporter mentioned to Antawn Jamison in the locker room that he planned on writing a piece praising Blatche's progress and increased. "Come on man," Jamison replied. "Don't write that." What player is so immature that his teammates caution against praising him? And that's Jamison! Pretty much the most benevolent pro basketball player on the planet.

There's also the rumor that Blatche was living paycheck-to-paycheck earlier in his career, and once had to sleep in the Verizon Center. Another writer I know had a roommate that got arrested one night, and wouldn't you know it? He just happened to share a cell with Andray Blatche. The Andray legend is long and distinguished.

When Blatche signed an extension recently, it was met with universal praise from Wizards fans. "We got a good deal!" they said. But we're also fooling ourselves into thinking that Blatche might be the long-term answer at power forward, and that's counter-productive. It'd be like signing Charlie Villanueva. On a championship team? Okay, makes sense. He can help off the bench. On a rebuilding team? What's the point? He just takes up space and minutes.

And if you got a great deal on a glorified Charlie Villanueva, what did you really get?

***End of tangent.

Anyway, it's all indicative of the biggest weakness with the Wizards--our tendency to talk ourselves into a losing plan. It's been happening for decades now, but with John Wall and Ted Leonsis, the Wizards have a fresh start. A chance to do things the right way, and build on a solid foundation.

Here's what the Wizards lineup would look like in a perfect world:

PG John Wall
SG Gilbert Arenas
SF Al Thornton
PF Trevor Booker
C Javale McGee
6th Kevin Seraphin
7th Lester Hudson
8th Yi Jianlian

That team would be a lot of fun to watch. They wouldn't win a whole lot, but that's sort of the point. Real winning isn't going to come for a few years, if it ever does. For now, we should keep our eye on the ball. As for the current Flip-Ernie regime, all I can say is that I read this passage from Spencer Hall, and immediately thought of the Wizards:

You may not know what it's like to not live in a democracy. I have, for short periods, had this experience. The general level of absurdity in life doubles. Minor bureaucrats assume occasionally godlike powers. Nothing makes any sense whatsoever, and soon people begin to cope by doing one of the following: 

  1. Sympathizing with their oppressor
  2. Standing in open rebellion
  3. Embracing absurdity 
  4. Withdrawing completely  
Then again, maybe you do know what it's like to live in a non-democratic state. Being a fan is to accept a certain level of dictatorship in your life. Unless you have a few million to give to an athletic department or even more than that to buy into a franchise, a large slice of your leisure time will be governed by someone with complete authority over their domain. Their removal will not be your decision. Their decisions will be their own. You will deal with it because being a fan is to be a form of peasant, and you must deal with the prevailing conditions...

4. What Are The Goals For This Season?

We need to figure out what to do with Gilbert Arenas. At this point, it would be stupid to trade him without A.) Seeing whether he and Wall can play together or B.) Allowing him to inflate his trade value over the first few months of the season.

Having said that... Gilbert's not okay right now. The Wizards bloggers bristle when someone has the temerity to question his mindstate, but he seems genuinely confused about who he is. And why shouldn't he be? He became the most popular athlete in D.C. by being immature and spontaneous, and then, bit by bit, the same qualities that made him our hero turned him into a villain. At this point, I think we're all just emotionally exhausted. Including Gilbert. He doesn't know what role to play, he's simultaneously apathetic and insecure about his public perception, and it's all complicated by a declining skill set that's transformed him from something like pre-Denver Allen Iverson to something like post-injuries Michael Redd. There's a lot of baggage in D.C.

Would it make sense to start fresh somewhere else? Probably. But either way, figuring out the Gilbert Conundrum will be one of the biggest goals of this season; whether he fits or not, it would be really nice to head into 2011 with a firm answer.

We should play Wall, Booker and Seraphin as much as possible. Self-explanatory, but with Hinrich, Arenas, Blatche and Josh Howard around, it will be pretty easy for Flip to "trust his veterans" on the way to a rollicking 38-win season. Let's hope that doesn't happen.

Enjoy these moments. This is probably the most important piece of the preview. Whatever happens with everyone else on the roster, John Wall carries a lot of promise for the future. And Ted Leonsis does, too. It won't take more than a year or two for Ted to figure out what needs to happen for the Wizards to be successful, and he's already better than at least two-thirds of the owners in the NBA. 

Same with Wall. He'll struggle this year, but it won't take more than a year or two before we're talking about one of the best point guards in the NBA. Already, he's better than two-thirds.

Together, they represent a new beginning for the Wizards. It's not a perfect beginning, but there's no such thing. It will take time for this imagined future to a coalesce. In the meantime, Wizards fans should savor this season for what it is; the first step in something much bigger--something with the potential to reverse a history of curses and curious decisions. We can get there. With John Wall and Ted Leonsis, we're on the right track.

And when we get there, we'll look back on this first season fondly. As Wall's rookie year, when we still wore those goofy ass uniforms. When we still thought Andray Blatche might put it all together someday. When we found out Javale McGee could put it all together. When Trevor Booker fouled out of every game he entered, and Kevin Seraphin couldn't hit an 8-foot hook. When Ernie and Flip insisted we could win now. When Gilbert was still there...

If things break just right and John Wall is everything we hope, it'll all be something that we'll romanticize one day. So for today, let's make sure to enjoy it. This is going to be a lot fun.