On paper, the Wizards look like a playoff team for sure. If healthy, they can score with anyone in the league, with three guys who likely will average 20 points, and a coach in Flip Saunders -- not unlike the guy he replaced, Eddie Jordan -- who is known for doing a great job on the offensive end. His teams are known for being very efficient offensively and very precise in running his stuff. Flip was a great choice for this team because he'll let his guys play a little bit, which goes to the strengths of this team.
The only opening I could find to blame Jordan is that his teams did not defend. Is that the chicken or the egg? Is it because he didn't have a team built to defend, or did he not make them better as a coach defensively? Not only did his teams not defend, but he also worked very hard to mask their deficiencies. They would play multiple zones, trap in the half court and full court and all of the other gimmicks. The more mirrors you try to use defensively, the worse you are at all of them; the more simple you are, the better you are at it. We're going to find that defense will again be the area that holds this team back. When Saunders was in Detroit, the players knew that he was focused on the offensive end. That was one reason why the players there never fully bought in. Defending is not Flip's M.O.
The key player is obviously Gilbert Arenas, who is the ultimate boom-or-bust guy. At some point, you'd think the odds would fall his way and he'd be healthy enough to put in a full season after missing [most of] the last two years. He may not be able to maintain his health for the long term, but at some point he's going to have a healthy year. Even if he's essentially all the way back physically this year, I don't think he'll be as efficient as he was because there's going to be some rust to knock off. So, if he isn't the old Arenas, that really can't be held against him. What is within his control is just how willing he'll be to play for the team and not to just play for Gilbert. He's been a phenomenally talented player, and it's not that he doesn't want to win. I don't view him as a guy who just wants his numbers. But like a lot of the other more talented players, he seems to think that he increases his chances of winning if he's the guy making the plays. Arenas badly wants to win; it's just that he's a very passionate player who sometimes loses focus on what it takes. And because he has been out of the lineup so much, he'll need to be especially focused on keeping his other scorers involved while recognizing when the team needs him to turn it on himself.
This will be the first time Arenas will be playing for Washington without Jordan's Princeton offense, and you have to say he was pretty good in it. You'd also have to say when Arenas was in the game, the Wizards ran less of the Princeton because he broke off the offense more often than not. There will be more typical NBA sets now and more isolation-oriented plays that go to Arenas' strength, but it's not like Jordan held him strictly to the Princeton all those years.
Antawn Jamison is 33, but I haven't seen a drop-off yet. He may not be a franchise player, but he is a guy who plays hard every night. He obviously has a very unorthodox game so that you can't fit him into the typical slot at power forward. He's a guy who scores so much off his quickness in terms of his ability to leap the second time. That is truly special. Normally he finds himself playing against bigger players but doing well against them by being quicker off the floor and getting put-backs and easy opportunities around the basket while adding the dimension of making shots from the perimeter. One of the good things about Jamison is that he doesn't need the ball to score. He can get offensive rebounds and run the floor to get baskets, and he can make threes to supplement that. He isn't a good defender, but it's fair to say night in and night out that he gives you effort. Despite his excellent numbers, I don't think he's always been appreciated.
Caron Butler has exceeded my expectations for him. I never thought he'd be an All-Star. He has rounded out his game for someone who wasn't a very good shooter coming into the league. Of all their guys in Washington, he has been the most steady and seemed to display the most leadership, and without a doubt he's the guy who is willing to stick his nose in and do the dirty work of defending the best perimeter scorer and being physical and hitting people while also taking the hits. Has he been good enough to lift them when Arenas has been out and carry them to 50 wins? The record says no. But he's one of those guys who is more valuable on a better team because of all the little things he does to help you. And that edge he brings makes him more important on a finesse team like this one.
The trade for Mike Miller and Randy Foye told me a couple of things. First, they were tired of losing and they weren't going to dismantle it and rebuild, but instead they were going to try to win now despite their record last year. And second, they really didn't like what was available in the draft with the No. 5 pick they sent to Minnesota in that trade. They made the right move because no one at the No. 5 pick could help them like Miller and Foye. Miller fits right in as an offensive player who is a liability defensively. He did not play well in the first half last season with Minnesota, though he did improve as the year went on. He gives them a guy who can make shots to keep pressure off their three All-Stars. One of the things I noticed about Miller when he was with Memphis was that for 47 minutes he would try his damnedest to get up 20 shots, but then in the last minute he wanted nothing to do with shooting the ball. I don't think he has the desire to be the guy with the ball when the pressure is on. But that's not a bad thing on this team. He'll be a guy who will fit in, and I don't see him causing a problem if he isn't getting enough shots some nights.
Foye's strength and weakness is that he's a combo guard. To this day, I don't know which position he's better at. He's very versatile to be able to play both spots, but at the same time I'm not sure he's good enough to be a starter at either one. This will be his chance because I'm guessing they'll eventually decide to start Foye at shooting guard and then bring in Miller off the bench to replace either Foye at the 2 or Butler at the 3. I like Foye as the starter because of his ability to not only score but also to make plays for others, which will give them the equivalent of a second point guard on the floor. Having that option won't be so important in Saunders' offense, but it will be a nice option if Arenas is being pressured or if they want to play him off the ball. In any case, Foye will move ahead of DeShawn Stevenson in the rotation.
Etan Thomas, Darius Songaila and Oleksiy Pecherov are all gone, which makes Brendan Haywood more important than ever. One reason Haywood showed improvement two years ago was because he no longer had to look over his shoulder at Thomas, who wasn't able to share the minutes at center because of his heart condition. That comfort of knowing they had to stick with him had everything to do with his confidence and success. Haywood does things their other guys don't do. He blocks shots and rebounds, and he's one of the few physical bodies they have. I'm sure they are really high on second-year center JaVale McGee and what he may become, but he has a long way to go to get there. That's why they need Haywood to bounce back from his wrist injury last year. I don't expect to see a lot of rust on him because his game doesn't depend on scoring or having the ball in his hands. He has to defend the low post, rebound, block shots and occasionally give them a basket. On this team, the last thing they need is for Haywood to worry about scoring.
Andray Blatche is one of those young teases. Over the years he has played some small forward and last year he spent time at center, but ultimately his best position is going to be power forward. One advantage McGee has is that he is undoubtedly a center and you don't need to worry about what he is. Blatche has a tendency to want to hang out on the perimeter and shoot jumpers, while McGee is strictly an interior player. McGee is rough around the edges, but you can see his potential to be a starting center in the league. He may take away minutes from Blatche, who has never shown the mental maturity and willingness to take the game seriously that we've already seen from McGee.
I also like their pickup of Fabricio Oberto, who gives them a veteran big man to settle things down for a few minutes a game.
Nick Young is another guy -- like Blatche -- who is no longer going to have minutes promised to him. He showed the ability to score last year, but he still needs to raise the level of his entire game. I don't know if he's going to be able to earn minutes now that Miller and Foye have moved ahead of him in the rotation.
Even if Arenas, Haywood and everyone else stay healthy, this is going to be a playoff team that goes out in the first round. The lack of defense and continuity with so many guys being out and so many new parts coming in is going to be too much for them to get it all right in one year. It's asking a lot for this team to pull so many moving parts together in so short a time.
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