Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Team Preview: Washington Wizards

Okay, and we are back people. With the season just under a month away, I'll be doing a season prospectus of every team before the season starts, in reverse alphabetical order. The posts will vary in length, as quite frankly, some teams are simply less interesting than others. However, each post will give include a breakdown of the team's roster, interesting story lines (when applicable) and the aims for the upcoming season. So without further ado...

The Washington Wizards are a team which are coming out of a brutal rebuilding period, during which they cleaned out most of the roster on two separate occasions. However, despite this, they look to be one of the teams I am projecting to make a big jump in standings this season. Let's break it down;

The guard contingent for the Wizards consists of an injured John Wall, Jordan Crawford, newly-signed Jannero Pargo and incoming rookie Bradley Beal. Wall has languished since his meteoric rise from unknown recruit to #1 draft pick, hampered by nagging injuries, sub-par team mates and a lockout-lengthened off-season which resulted in Jimmy picking up a few bad habits. However, he remains the face of the franchise, a guy with limitless upside, and a pass-first mentality. While he has impressed people with his scoring ability, his capacity to play a pure point role is evident in his great career assist numbers when you consider the talent (or lack thereof) he's had around him. While he's resting his knee to avoid a stress fracture (something I've endured and wouldn't wish on anyone), he's only projected to miss eight weeks, and he should have plenty of time to take big strides this season. Crawford was acquired from Atlanta and immediately showed he could put up numbers in extended minutes, including a 42 point outburst at one point. That said, Crawford is somewhat undersized for the two-guard, and he is at his best with the ball in his hands as he isn't a catch-and-shoot type of player. Crawford was starting alongside Wall last season, but with sharpshooter Bradley Beal taken in the draft, it makes more sense to move him to the second unit where he can play a James Harden role for this deep Wizards team. Beal is also slightly undersized for the two, but he can play without the ball in his hands, has a smooth shooting stroke and proved his toughness by playing the small forward at times in college. The Wizards need Beal to blossom into a young running mate for Wall if they are going to keep their franchise player around after his rookie deal. While I have my doubts about the wisdom of taking Beal over Jeremy Lamb or Terrence Ross (both of whom have better size, length, and can shoot the lights out), I'm happy to be proven wrong. Beal failed to impress in the Summer League, shooting a terrible percentage from the field and struggling to get his shot off against NBA calibre athletes. While you shouldn't put too much stock in Summer League performances (after all, Derrick Rose stunk it up in his Summer League debut), it does send a few warning signs. Pargo is a veteran PG who not only gives them a player to run the show while Wall is recovering, but a great back-up off the bench when he's healthy.

Small Forwards:
The Wizards small forward rotation will likely consist of new acquisition Trevor Ariza, and second-year player Chris Singleton. Although Ariza has been much maligned since his departure from the Lakers, he's played on some pretty terrible teams and been forced into a scoring role that he could never live up to. Thankfully, the Wizards don't need him to be a 1st, 2nd or even 3rd option for them. Instead, Ariza will be asked to play lockdown defence, spread the floor and knock down open shots. Luckily for the Wizards, these happen to be his strengths, and at only 27 years old, he will has a number of years ahead of him where he can play a watered down version of Luol Deng to John Wall's Derrick Rose. Singleton was drafted purely as a defender and a hustle guy, although he shouldn't be a long-term solution as a starter, he's a great bench player for the energy and defensive versatility he brings to the table.

Although the Wizards are deep at every position this season, the real quality stems from their bigs. Nene Hilario, Emeka Okafor, Jan Vesely, Kevin Seraphin and Trevor Booker form an imposing frontcourt unit which few teams in the NBA can match. Nene and Okafor are both proven veterans who can play both the PF and C positions without a problem and both are excellent defenders. Nene is a good enough scorer in the post to draw a double team the majority of the time, and a good enough passer to make the right decision when the double comes. Okafor can hit the mid-range shot, will protect the rim and defend the low post. Having these two players manning the 4/5 is going to be a big reason for the Wizards' projected jump in the standings this season. But it doesn't stop there, because off the bench you have three young bigs who each bring something a little different to the table. Vesely is a terrific athlete for his size, can run the floor alongside Wall, has a motor that doesn't stop and has the potential to be a great shot-blocker at the PF. While he's still a project offensively, and could stand to put on some more bulk, the former #6 pick will be able to flourish without the pressure of starting right away, and should be ready to take over as Nene/Okafor age. Kevin Seraphin showed signs of being a true low-post scorer last season, and he continued his good form with his play for France in the Olympics. He has great footwork for a guy his size, soft touch around the basket, and is surprisingly agile given his build. That said, he's a little undersized and this makes him somewhat foul-prone on the defensive end, but with veteran players manning the starting positions, Seraphin should be able to give the Wizards some great production off the bench. Booker is the odd man out, and will likely see a reduced role next season, but despite being undersized, he's a banger inside, very athletic and will provide great insurance if any of the other bigs go down.

Interesting Storylines:
When the Wizards snagged Okafor and Ariza this off-season, many experts were underwhelmed and figured they had overpaid for players who aren't stars. However, I disagree, although individually these acquisitions won't jump out at you, the new-look Washington Wizards are far more than the sum of their parts. They are now 10-deep with quality rotation players, have a great mix of youth and experience, a franchise player to bring it all together and a chance at the playoffs for the first time since Gilbert Arenas was a top-5 shooting guard in the NBA. That said, this was a gamble by Ted Leonsis, as they are more or less locked in with this current group for a few years, and Nene and Okafor aren't exactly spring chickens, so this team needs to make a big jump or Wall might start looking elsewhere. How well former interim-head coach Randy Wittman can integrate all these pieces with a full training camp is going to be the difference between a 6-8 seed in the East, or another disappointing trip to the lottery.

Season Prospectus:
When healthy, the Wizards are amongst the deepest teams in the league, have a big man rotation matched only by Utah and select others in terms of depth, and a game-changer in Wall. That said, they have already had a few injury concerns, with Wall resting and Nene still a bit banged up. That said, I'm going to take the positive stance and say that the Wizards sneak into the playoffs with the 8th seed and do surprisingly well against Miami. This season is about win-now, but this roster is far from maxed out given the multitude of young talent they have in tow, so a post-season appearance and further development from their young players will be enough to call this season a success, and I think that is what will happen.

Up next, the Utah Jazz.

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