The Washington Wizards were terrible last season. Injuries to Gilbert Arenas, Brendan Haywood, and DeShawn Stevenson derailed their season. After a woeful 1-10 start, head coach Eddie Jordan was probably unfairly fired. Interim coach Ed Tapscott apparently felt the pressure to win, as he persisted in playing vets Darius Songaila and Mike James 20 and 30 minutes a night, respectively, rather than giving more minutes to promising young players such as Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee, and Javaris Crittenton. Nevertheless, Tapscott’s coaching record stands at 18-53 and the Wiz finished the season tied with the L.A. Clippers for the 2nd-worst record in the league. This netted them the 5th pick in the 2009 NBA Draft.
Heading into the summer, the Wizards were in a tough spot because of the huge contracts management handed out a year prior. Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison were locked up long-term for big money and in-his-prime small forward Caron Butler was locked up till 2011. With Arenas and Jamison essentially unmovable, it made little sense to trade Butler, despite his high value. Even though most would agree that this core cannot win an NBA title, the extensions given out last summer made it too difficult to rebuild in 2009. So, they traded the fifth pick in the upcoming “weak” draft (plus Etan Thomas, Oleksiy Pecherov, and Darius Songaila) to Minnesota for Randy Foye and Mike Miller. At the time the deal was made, Washington was mostly praised – they had brought in two players who can score very well and can help them win more games right now. New hire Flip Saunders would seem like the perfect coach for this new assortment of players, given his ability to get the most out of his players on the offensive end of the court. The thing is, that #5 pick unexpectedly ended up becoming Ricky Rubio, the Spanish point guard every basketball fan has been drooling over for quite some time. This put the deal in a new light, and it left some Wizards fans asking, “What if we hadn’t extended Arenas and Jamison, what if we had drafted Rubio?” This is a very legitimate gripe and I know that I would be gutted if my team narrowly missed out on Rubio, but I still think that those in Washington have reason to be excited about next season.
With Flip Saunders coaching experienced guys like Arenas, Foye, Butler, Jamison, Haywood, Miller, and DeShawn Stevenson, the Wizards should have a deadly offense. With Blatche, McGee, Crittenton, and Nick Young, they have some young guys who have shown flashes of brilliance. The major challenge the team faces is how to develop these young guys now, as there is a lot of proven talent ahead of them in the rotation. This is especially a problem in the crowded backcourt. It seems there won’t be enough minutes for everyone, and Washington should probably think about addressing these looming chemistry issues before they come to the surface. One thing to think about would be dealing one of their young guys for a big, tough power forward who can rebound. As it stands, there are a ton of scorers on the team and not enough guys who do the dirty work or even play especially good defense.
Even if they do manage to make a minor deal like that, I don’t believe the Wizards will be in the title hunt next season. I’d be surprised if they made much noise in the playoffs, with the defensive problems they will likely have. Still, there is reason for optimism. To my eyes, this is definitely a playoff-calibre group if healthy, even though nobody’s really talking about them. They’re essentially a less-hyped Toronto Raptors right now, in that even if you’re not convinced that the franchise’s long-term plan is a great one, you have to be reasonably sure there will be a much-improved product on the floor with the season starts. Let’s just hope their main guys can stay healthy. Especially this guy, we’ve all missed him.