If you recall, last season was supposed to be a return to grace for the Wizards franchise. They were getting a healthy Gilbert Areas back, the had acquired Randy Foye and Mike Miller in trades and new head coach Flip Saunders was supposed to lead the team back to the top of the heap in the Eastern Conference.
The fact that the Wizards were actually quite bad last year has been too often pinned on Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton's gun issues. This team was 11-21 in January when Arenas was finally suspended and the club never looked composed or prepared to be any kind of threat in the East. They finished the season below the league average in just about every measurable statistical category both on offense and defense and never seemed to click as a team, even after a flurry of mid-season trades. Part of the problem was Arenas, in that he had trouble out of the gate balancing his score-first instincts with his desire to be a pass-first point guard. Another problem was that the team's bench was littered with immature and unprepared pseudo-talent, the kind of players that ooze potential but never actually apply it towards winning basketball. Guys like Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee and Nick Young may put up monster games here and there, but none have been able to put their skills to use in a team setting, regardless of how good they have looked individually at various points throughout their career. Still, when faced with formidable salary obligations the Wizards opted to shed their pricy vets and turned the team over to the youngsters, though the rebuilding process is far from complete on this Wizards' roster.
The biggest reason for optimism is obviously number-one overall draft pick John Wall, he of the ultra-athletic body poised to take over Arenas' position of point guard. The problem? Arenas is still on the team. While most expect that he'll eventually be traded (as soon as the team can net a worthwhile return while shedding $80-million in Arenas salary), starting the season with both he and Wall in the backcourt makes for some confusing notions of who's team this really is. While Wall is obviously the future of this franchise, there is no way a man with Arenas' ego is going to simply cede the club to him just because it's expected of him. Remember, this is a guy who vowed revenge on Mike D'Antoni and Nate McMillan when he was cut from Team USA (they were assistants on the club) and he went mano-a-mano against both the Suns and the Blazers, shooting his team out of games in the process. He thinks more of himself than anyone else does and he will not be stepping out of the spotlight for a 20-year-old rookie.
However, regardless of how that drama plays out, there are other concerns on this club. Saunders still has to try and find a way to reach Blatche and McGee and prevent them from handcuffing the team to their whims, and the same could be said of Al Thornton, the forward they received in return for Antawn Jamison last winter. He has to figure out how aging veterans Josh Howard and Kirk Hinrich fit into the big picture, and how many minutes they warrant on a team looking to develop their youth with an eye to the future. This is a team in transition, there is no doubt, and the only sure thing one can say about them right now is that they probably aren't going to be much of a factor in an Eastern Conference race that really only includes Miami, Orlando, Boston and Chicago. Last year this club had an offensive rating that ranked them 25th in the entire NBA, and a ranking of 18th in terms of their defensive rating. That was a team that was meant to make noise in the East. Now that the club has wholly embraced rebuilding, it's tough to imagine how hard a fall they may have ahead of them. Some may still cling to hopes of relevance for this team, but in truth this organization hasn't been relevant in very long time.
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUP
PG – John Wall
Even though their present is a bit of a jumble right now, getting Wall as a centerpiece for the future was a major boon to this club in June. Wall plays the position in the mold of Derrick Rose, and if he can play at even 80% of what Rose did in his first year on a veteran-laden club then the Wizards should be ecstatic. However, if he can develop a level of leadership that reigns in some of the more egocentric personalities on the club and get them to buy into team-first basketball, the future of this club becomes exponentially brighter. Wall is a great start, but he's going to need help if he's supposed to reinvigorate this franchise and point them back towards the post-season.
SG – Gilbert Arenas
The team was purportedly hot to trade Arenas when they won out in the draft lottery and got the right to draft Wall first overall. However, they were disappointed with the caliber of the offers they received and opted to hang on to him, ostensibly with the intention of boosting his value with minutes on the court. There is no denying Arenas' talent, of course, as even last season he was averaging 22.6-points and 7.2-assists (which would have been a career-high) before the was suspended for bringing guns into the team's locker room. His thrice-surgically repaired knees, though, combined with his unpredictable personality make for a hard sell for even interested parties, and no one can be sure what exactly they'll be taking on if they opt to give the requisite assets to acquire Arenas. As long as he's playing in Washington, though, he'll be a distraction since nearly all media personalities expect that he will be traded at some point this season.
SF – Josh Howard
In one sense you can understand why the team opted to re-sign Howard this summer: he's a former All-Star that came cheap (1-year, $4-million) because of a knee injury that knocked him out for the last third of the season. However, Howard's game has been on a steady decline in recent years, and as a 30-year-old swingman that posted a 12.7 PER last season it isn't as though his best years are ahead of him. His temperamental personality got him shipped out of Dallas and one wonders, too, how that will impact the impressionable youth on this roster, who need stable leadership around them from their veterans.
PF – Andray Blatche
You knew that after Blatche exploded at the end of last season (he averaged 20.8-points and 7.3-rebounds per-game in March and April) that people would sit up and take notice, but what they should have been noticing was the 20 losses in 25 games that also occurred during that stretch. Blatche is entering his sixth NBA season and while he has potential to dominate the game he's never shown the willingness to learn the nuances that would allow him to do that while still playing within a team concept. His 0.93 assist-to-turnover ratio, for instance, puts him at 296th in the entire NBA. This is not a future star on a winning team, and coach knows it, too, after a late-season benching sent a direct message to Blatche and his irrepressible ego.
C – JaVale McGee
McGee was catapulted into the limelight this summer by playing ‘catch-the-lob' with John Wall during Vegas Summer League and then parlaying that performance into an invitation to join the preparations for Team USA's entry for the World Championships. While McGee's boundless athleticism can leave jaws hanging, he is still incredibly raw when it comes to the subtler aspects of the game. He took exception to the media criticism he received after being cut from Team USA, but the fact is that Team USA was in desperate need of bigs and he couldn't win out a spot to even sit at the end of their bench in case of an injury to Tyson Chandler. If he puts it together he could be stellar (unlike Blatche he's only played two years in the NBA and still offers reason for optimism), but he's going to have to show this season that he can be more than a dunk machine if he wants to be taken seriously as a pro.