Continuing the evaluations of the Eastern Conference teams, we come to a threat closer to home in the Washington Wizards. While it is certain they aren't the same old Wizards that we've owned over the last several years (only 1 loss in 4 years and Josh was out that night), it is unclear exactly what the new Wizards are at this point. I'm not even sure they know.
Last Season – 20-46 4th place in the Southeast. It was a season of change for the Wizards. They traded away 2 players, JaVale McGee and Nick Young, mid-season who were as known as much for their knucklehead potential as their on-court contributions for a solid, but likely overpaid big man in Nene Hilario. Nene only played in 11 games during the last month and a half with the Wizards, but showed immediate dividends by teaching Kevin Seraphin a few post moves. The former 1st round pick had some impressive games down the stretch.
Off-season moves – Washington made several off-season moves but none was bigger than using the amnesty clause on Andray Blatche. Last year I dismissed the Wizards with the rhetorical question of "how can you take any team that has Andray Blatche as a captain serious?" It was probably a last ditch effort to see if added responsibility could straighten out the biggest of the Washington Knuckleheads. How well did it work out? Andray only played in 26 games last year and there was a coaching change.
Trades – Similar to trading expiring contracts for Nene at the trade deadline, the Wizards made a draft day move to trade Rashard Lewis's partially guaranteed expiring contract for Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor. I like the idea of turning Lewis's deal into actual players, but I'm not crazy about what they got. Ariza is entering his 9th season with his 6th team. He's a solid player who never quite seems to fit what role he's placed in except for one magical season with the Lakers where he shot 47% from 3 point range during a title run. Okafor is also solid albeit unspectacular. He may have peaked in his 3rd year and has settled into an adequate label. I worry that he'll take minutes away from a developing big, but if nothing else gives the Wizards a deep front line.
Free agency – Nothing too flashing was done in free agency. Of their 5 unrestricted free agents they only resigned Cartier Martin, who played well at SF after being brought up from the D-league. Martell Webster was given a 1 year deal to perhaps provide some bench scoring. AJ Price was also signed to a 1 year minimum deal to backup at PG. AJ Price was solid as a rookie, but between injuries and inconsistent minutes his play dropped off the last 2 years. They've also signed a handful of roster hopefuls like Earl Barron and Shavlik Randolph down low and Steven Gray, an undrafted wing from Gonzaga. In reality they may be competing the last roster spot.
Draft – With the #3 pick, I believe the Wizards really hurt the Cavaliers by drafting Bradley Beal, a SG out of Florida. The hype around Beal was huge with some people saying he was a young Ray Allen. In summer league, I felt he was a draw with our rookie John Jenkins who went in the 20s, but that was summer league. Beal should prove to be an excellent pro if people relax the expectations a bit and let him develop into his own self. He'll have problems if he gets the kind of expectations that John Wall has been playing under.
Their Roster – 8 players on rookie deals indicates how young of a team Washington has. They have a lot of depth but a lot of uncertainty on how it fits together.
Point Guard – You'd think with a #1 overall pick in John Wall at PG that I'd be enamored with their situation here. Not so. Wall is definitely talented, but he's holding on too tight. It reminds me a bit of Joe Johnson here. The expectations wear on him making him want to do everything himself instead of trusting that his teammates have gotten better. In all fairness to John Wall, playing with McGee, Blatche and Nick Young couldn't have been easy. A better way of putting it is that Wall seems to feel he needs to be Derrick Rose. He's not though and needs to abandon that thinking to just be himself. If Wall relaxes a bit and doesn't try to do too much the Wizards will reap the rewards, but it's unclear if he can do it. Once you get proclaimed as "the man" it's hard to step back. Behind Wall, it's a question mark. Shelvin Mack is physically tough, but not a natural PG. AJ Price is a natural PG and would solidify the bench if he can return to his rookie form. I'd say he's proven he's not starter quality though, so an injury to Wall would be a big set-back.
As a whole, I give the edge to the Hawks at the position. Beyond a developing Teague, you have the experience of Devin Harris and scoring of Lou Williams at the PG spot. The difference is huge when the 2nd units are on the floor. Starters do play the lion share of minutes though, so if Wall does relax into the position he has the potential to flip that advantage back to the Wizards. As I already said I have my doubts he can do that.
Wings – Beal will likely start as a rookie moving Jordan Crawford to role of providing offense of the bench. This is good for the Wizards because while Crawford can heat up and provide a bunch of points, he also can shoot you out of a game if he doesn't have it. Ariza will likely be the starter at SF, but I wonder if Chris Singleton shouldn't be the starter at SF as a defensive stopper? There is plenty of offense in the other 4 starters. Martell Webster and Cartier Martin can both provide long range shooting when called upon adding role player depth.
I'm calling the battle of the wings a draw. The teams look a lot alike to me at this point. Beal vs Jenkins lacks separation at this point. Morrow and Korver vs Ariza and Webster or Martin? Harris or Williams (whichever isn't playing backup PG) vs. Crawford? Defensive stopper Singleton vs DeShawn Stevenson? Not enough advantage in any of those match-ups to be a clear win for either team.
Bigs – One thing I'll give the Wizards is they have a lot of bigs. Nene, Okafor, Seraphin, Vesely and Booker provide a lot of beef to trot out on the floor. My only real complaint is that I think Okafor will steal too many minutes from Seraphin and maybe even Vesely setting their development back. I like Nene and when healthy he's an offensive beast, but not the greatest rebounder. Okafor is a better rebounder than offensive player, but he's been declining for several years and it's uncertain whether he can regain his earlier form. Kevin Seraphin seemed to hit his stride once McGee was gone and he credits his development to advice from Nene. He needs steady minutes to continue to develop though and might not with Nene and Okafor both around. Vesely and Booker split the starts at PF last year. Booker is a hard working undersized PF and Vesely should be the future of the team at PF, but is still raw. He could also lose time to Okafor if the coach feels to the pressure to succeed now and plays Okafor with Nene to help on rebounding.
I'm giving this one to the Hawks by a slim margin. That's saying a lot for the Wizards because I think both Al and Josh are All-Star level. Nene has had big games against the Hawks, but I seem to remember Josh and Al not having much trouble with Okafor. Vesely and Seraphin will be good if they continue to develop, but are both a little raw right now. Washington has more bodies and could potentially wear the Hawks down. The Wizards size will cause a lot of teams problems, it just happens to be the Hawks strength as well.
Coaching – Randy Wittman replaced Flip Saunders mid-season and behind a late run (8-2 in their last 10) was retained. His career numbers don't inspire me with confidence in Wittman and I don't expect he'll do well trying to balance between higher expectations for wins now and developing players for the longer perspective. For all his flaws, I've got to give the edge to Larry Drew at this point. He's struggled in playoff series, which is something Wittman's never gotten close to experiencing as a head coach.
Outlook – Washington is a hard team to predict. They already have the roster of a low playoff team if they choose to use it that way. They could also focus on developing younger talent and likely miss the playoffs this year but improve their ceiling for coming years. Sadly for Washington fans I think they'll wind up doing neither. By that I mean I expect the pressure to get to them. I think Wittman tries to make both camps happy and pleases neither. I also see John Wall's pressure as a former #1 pick overriding just doing what's best for the team. I think the Wizards have better talent than the last team I reviewed, the Raptors, but I don't trust them to do as much with it. I have Washington finishing 3rd in the Southeast, but only 12th in the East. If they do that while getting good playing time for Seraphin, Vesely, and Singleton they should have a bright future. If they finish that way with Ariza and Okafor playing the majority of the minutes, the season would be a waste.
As far as the Wizards vs the Hawks are concerned, all 4 games take place by January 12th. The first 2 are in Atlanta and the last 2 are in Washington. I see the Hawks taking 3 of the 4 because I like the Hawks veterans more than the Wizards veterans. The series could easily be split though as Washington has a lot of young talent. I just don't think they figure it out yet and I don't think they have the right coach to make it happen.