Sunday, October 28, 2007


After being unceremoniously swept out of the playoffs by the Eastern Conference Champion Cleveland Cavaliers last season, it’s easy to forget that the Wizards were leading the Southeast Division and cruising right along as one of the top teams in the East before the injury plague knocked out all three of their big guns. First Caron Butler went down with a broken hand, then Antawn Jamison with a knee injury. When Gilbert Arenas tore his MCL with only eight games remaining, the Wizards had lost their entire nucleus and thus their hopes for making any noise in their third consecutive playoff appearance.

The Wizards finished an even 41-41, but were as many as nine games over .500 several throughout much of the middle of the season. With their depleted roster, they limped into the playoffs, losing 12 of their final 16 games. Washington led the Southeastern division for most of the season and was anchored by their big three of Arenas, Butler and Jamison. Butler put up career numbers across the board, averaging more than 19 points and 7 rebounds per game, in spite of a rash of injuries to his back, knee and eventually the broken hand.

Let’s take a look at how the Wizards stack up against the competition in an improved Eastern Conference that features several up-and-coming young teams (Chicago, Toronto, Orlando) and a few squads of wily vets desperate for a ring (Boston, Detroit, Miami).


  • The Big 3 – Arenas, Butler and Jamison are all back to full health as the Wiz return the league’s highest scoring trio and the core of their roster. With Agent Zero running the show and Antawn dropping his patented runners, Washington’s high-octane offense will return to form. But you know what you’re getting with those two. Jamison has provided instant offense since his days in Chapel Hill and Gil is one of the few NBA stars who can flat out take over a game – see the Lakers game last season. But it was Butler who really came into his own a year ago. His numbers have gone up in each of his five seasons in the league and when Caron is on, the Wizards are very tough to beat. Not only does Butler possess a silky smooth mid-range jumper and a potent post up game, but he, along with DeShawn Stevenson and Antonio Daniels provide that defensive spark that helps get the transition offense flowing. Butler is a beast on the boards, can get up to block shots, was second on the team in free throw percentage (86%), and finished second in the league with 2.1 steals per game. He should be back for his second straight All-Star appearance this season. As long as these three guys can stay healthy, the Wizards are as good offensively as anyone in the conference.

Also worth noting: Both Arenas and Jamison are in contract years.

  • Perimeter Depth – A lack of scoring off the bench has hurt the Wiz in the past, but GM Ernie Grunfield took care of that need in the draft, selecting sweet shooting two-guard Nick Young (USC) and a slasher who can get to the rim in Dominic McGuire (Fresno State). And while the Wizards lost Michael Jordan draft choice Jarvis Hayes to free agency (he’ll be happy in Detroit), they now have a couple of big bodies from the Eastern Bloc who can produce around the rim and on the perimeter. Darius Songaila – whose bad back kept him out for much of his first season in Washington – and second year stud Oleksiy Pecherov give Eddie Jordan depth on the front line with in the form of two guys who like to step out and shoot the jumper. If all four of these guys can be consistent contributors off the bench, it’ll ease the load on the Big Three and enable them to take a few more breathers during the course of the season. Not having to worry about going cold when Gil or Caron go out will give Eddie more combinations to work with on the floor and should help the starters avoid some of the wear and tear they experienced down the stretch.


  • Defense – For all the weapons they have on offense, the Wizards still have yet to show a commitment to playing on the other end of the court. Memories of last possession defensive collapses against a certain King of Cleveland two years ago come to mind. Last season the Wiz ranked 28th in the league defensively which just doesn’t cut it when they’re trying to establish themselves as an Eastern Conference title contender. They were 8th in steals, but don’t let that stat fool you. While quick hands contributed to some pilfers here and there, many of those steals were the result of defensive gambles where the Wiz came up lucky. The improvement needs to come in the form of better communication, better footwork and a real desire to stop another team’s offense instead of simply trying to outscore them.

To help solve the Wizards’ woes on the defensive end, Eddie Jordan brought in former Philadelphia assistant Randy Ayers to teach his team a style of pressure defense that helped Larry Brown’s 76er teams to five consecutive playoff appearances and the 2001 NBA Finals. Ayers’ style emphasizes quickness on the ball, which fits Washington’s personnel, and – if they actually go along with the plan – will produce easy transition buckets at the other end. The blueprint is there, now Gilbert and company have to make it happen. I’m optimistic, but I have to remain skeptical. Can the Wizards play 48 minutes of defense? I’ll believe it when I see it.

  • Production from the Big Boys – When Ernie selected Chuck and Larry in last summer’s draft, he once again neglected to address the Wizards’ main area of need – center. It seems like Brendan Haywood and Etan Thomas have been battling it out for the starting frontline job ever since the days of big George Muresan, but neither has ever put it a full season of consistent play. With Etan likely out for the season after open heart surgery, it’s now or never for the 7-foot Tar Heel. The Wizards don’t need Haywood to create his own offense, but they do need him to pull down rebounds on both ends – something he has struggled to do with any sort of regularity – throw down a few dunks each game and use his long arms to alter shots on the defensive end.

Behind Haywood, the Wizards are short on big bodies. Andray Blatche will see time at center and Songaila and Pech should also be able to spell Brendan when the Wiz elect to go with a smaller lineup. But all three play more of a perimeter game and don’t take up as much space in the paint. And without Mike Ruffin or Calvin Booth to turn to for some defense off the bench, the Wizards might be wishing they hadn’t cut old Tony Massenburg after all. Tiago Splitter or Jason Smith would look really nice on this roster right about now.


  • Andray Blatche – The Wizards have eased the 6-foot-11 22-year-old into the league, playing him sparingly each of his first two seasons. This year they’re hoping to reap the benefits of their investment into this talented (though occasionally not too street savvy) youngster. Blatche looked great in the preseason, averaging 10.5 points, 6.4 boards, 2 assists and one block in eight games. He looked comfortable at the 4 and the 5 – which he will be asked to alternate between depending on who he’s stepping in for. Andray can make it rain for 10 to 15 feet but still needs to improve his back-to-the-basket scoring touch. As long as he’s active around the rim, he’ll contribute some much needed post offense off the bench and a defensive spark with his shot-blocking ability. If Blatche can come into his own this season, he could easily put up double-doubles for the Wiz on a regular basis.
  • Antonio Daniels – This guy is the epitome of savvy vet and playoff performer. AD could easily be starting over Stevenson – he might be by midseason if DeShawn can’t consistently put up points – and he’s by far the most aggressive Wizard on both ends of the floor. The 10-year vet – who has been to the postseason eight times and picked up a ring with the Spurs in 99 – averaged 7 points and just over 2 assists per game last season but really stepped it up in the playoffs with Gilbert and Caron out of the lineup. In four games against the Cavs, AD put up 13 points and 11.8 assists. Word is he’s established a great chemistry with Songaila, and the two should provide a great 1-2 punch off the bench. Whenever Daniels is in the game you know you’re going to get gritty defense and he’s always a threat to drive to the hoop hard with one had and finish the and-1.

Key Questions

  • Can the Big Three stay healthy all season?
  • Will the team buy into Randy Ayers’ defensive philosophy and learn how to stop someone?
  • How many times will AD go to the rack hard and one handed for an and-1?
  • Who will step up off the bench to give the team some firepower when the Hibachi grill is cold?
  • How many times will the Wiz pull out their favorite gold & black attack jerseys?
  • Will Agent Zero ever get to make good on his promise to drop 100 points on Duke after Coach K cut him from Team USA?
  • How many buzzer-beaters will Gilbert hit?
  • Can the Wizards put it all together to challenge for the conference championship?

It seems like a lot of experts are sleeping on the Wizards this year. With all the hype surrounding Boston’s new star-studded veteran corps, Rashard Lewis’ overblown free agent deal with Orlando, the budding Bulls and the ever-present Pistons, where do the Wiz – who essentially stood pat in the off-season – fit in the conference?

Unlike many of these newly made-over squads, the Wizards are a known quantity. That may sound like a bad thing, but I can assure you it’s not. With the Big Three healthy last season, Washington was the class of the division and was in serious contention for a top two spot in the conference playoffs. All three are back and healthy to fill out a starting five that is familiar with one another and knows how to put points on the board. The keys again will be getting offensive production from the bench – which is a much better collection of ballers this season – and playing lockdown defense down the stretch in those close games that the Wiz love to play. You know, the ones that always end with the ball in Gil’s hands as the clock runs down. Then he drains a deep trey as the horn sounds and the Wiz win it. Look for several more of those kind of finishes in 07-08.

While Rashard Lewis gives Orlando a go-to perimeter/post-up scorer to balance the floor with Dwight Howard, I don’t think they have the full arsenal of weapons they need to win the watered down Southeast. Miami is always a challenger but Shaq is breaking down and D-Wade isn’t back to full health. If the Wizards can keep putting up 100+ points per game and compliment that with a little D, I like them to take the division and get home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. This is the year they advance to the second round, shed the infamous Curse O Les Boulez and make a push for the conference finals.

47-35: 1st in the Southeast, 4th in the East (Behind the Pistons, Celts and Bulls)

- The Tar Heel

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