Funny thing about my vacation from Wizards coverage is that it really wasn’t much of a vacation at all. This is new ground for me. Generally the summer is time to catch up on some reading, decompress, and focus on things other than basketball. Not this summer. The Wizards wasn’t in front of my face, but I still couldn’t manage to get it off of my mind.
I tried, trust me. With the Olympics going on, so much movement around the NBA, football gearing up, and those fabulous Washington Nationals all providing opportunities for distraction. None of it worked. For the first time in a long (long, long) time your Washington Wizards stand on the precipice of respectability and the promised land of playoff basketball.
Truth is, I’m more than a little curious about this team; I’m downright intrigued by them, and I’m not alone there. The national media has been dropping subtle hints that Washington is a team that’s turned the corner this offseason (they’re doing it quietly as to not be called out on their prediction should things go horribly wrong and the Wizards hold true to past form instead of breaking the mold of seemingly perpetual irrelevance). There’s clearly more talent in the Wizards’ locker room than there has been in years. Enough to propel the Wizards from a 20-win team to a legitimate playoff contender? Dunno. Do the pieces even fit together? Dunno. Is the rebuild complete? Dunno.
There are some things I do know about this team without so much as a thimbleful of doubt, though. So here are my five incontestable facts about the 2012-13 Washington Wizards.
1. This is a much better, much deeper Wizards squad than we’ve seen in years. The team is build to complement John Wall on both sides of the ball and Washington should see significant return on investment from the draftees from the past three years. The Wizards added key veteran depth during the offseason as well. Behind presumptive starters Wall, Jordan Crawford, Trevor Ariza, Nene Hilario, and Emeka Okafor is a solid second unit featuring Ronnie Price, Bradley Beal, Chris Singleton, Trevor Booker, and Kevin Seraphin.
At some point this season you’d have to expect that Crawford and Beal swap spots and when that happens both the first and second units get better by virtue of both being better fits in their new roles than in their old ones. Laugh if you like, but name three other teams in the east that can bring waves of veterans and rookies who are proven fits in their roles? Crawford, Singleton, Booker and Seraphin all started games last season when Washington was playing its best ball. Price has been a solid backup point guard throughout his young career. This is a very nicely balanced roster and Grunfeld and Wittman deserve credit for putting it together. We still don’t know if they’ll actually be any good, but the pieces all fit.
2. The coaching staff has the trust and respect of the players. I can’t rightfully say that Flip Saunders didn’t deserve the player’s respect during his run in Washington, but it’s clear he didn’t have it. Saunders hands-off approach to discipline and player management berthed an era of unaccountability, entitlement and eventually disgrace in Washington. The players ran amuck and unchecked and ultimately brought the entire franchise crashing down and ultimately cost Saunders his job. Even after the Almost Big Three was disbanded and the Arenas show was canceled completely, the ugly air remained. Nick Young and JaVale McGee were clearly out for self. Andray Blatche was clearly out for no one – not even himself.
The addition of center Nene was a positive impact for the Washington Wizards as they ready for the new NBA season. Alan P. Santos/DC Sports Box
This was a different team from the moment Wittman took the reigns. A tone was set with Wittman signing off on the trades that sent McGee and Young out of Washington. He also made the bold decision to send Blatche, who refused to play the role of a professional athlete even after being handed the title of Captain in the season opener, home with pay for the rest of the season. That Wittman chose to formally acknowledge the string of DNPs by Blatche’s name on the box score with a designation of “Conditioning” was the exclamation point on Wittman’s statement that the climate had changed. The remaining players, those too young to be afflicted by the virus of the Arenas/Saunders era, responded to the new standard. Check that, they excelled under the new standard. They bought in so much that the players spoke out on the interim coach’s behalf and helped the organization end its search for a permanent head coach before it’d even begun. Look to New Orleans if you need an example of how high the ceiling can be when you have talented young players who buy into the coach and the system.
3. John Wall will play at an All Star level. We didn’t see the progression we expected from Wall last season. Blaming the shortened NBA calendar accounts for half of the problem at best. Wall’s decision to spend the summer preparing for the season by doing a cross country tour of streetball tournaments and summer pro league events had more to do with it. Instead of improving the aspects of his game that most required some work, he showcased his blinding quickness and athleticism against less-than-equal opponents. He stayed in pretty good physical condition but didn’t put himself in a position to grow. This summer has been much different. Wall has been working relentlessly, by all accounts, on his shooting. Instead of sharing the court in the occasional star in organized pickup games, he shared the court with the Olympic gold medal squad helping to prep them for the Olympic games as part of the USA Select Team. Wall has said repeatedly this season how that experience has helped to change his perspective on the amount of work and preparation it takes to help build a winning organization. Being around (and humbled on the court by) true professionals like Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and LeBron James helped Wall realize how much work he has left to do.
Wall’s got a much better supporting cast with which to do it this year too. Wall averaged 8 assists per game – a number that should have been higher had his teammates actually connected on a few more attempts per game (Nene will help here; he’s a career 56 percent shooter). If Wall can play a more efficient offensive game, he’ll put up better numbers than Rajon Rondo’s 2012 averages of 11.9 ppg/11.7 apg. Rondo was an All Star with those numbers last season. Wall’s capable of 17/10 easy, but his team’s got to be winning even with those numbers for him to get the coaches’ nod.
4. This team is going to be a top 10 defensive team in the league. If anything I say here can really be considered a bold prediction, this is it. Washington has been one of the worst defensive teams in the league forever. Even when they were a winning team, they weren’t a good defensive team. Playing lazy, matador defense has been a part of the culture around here for years. But the culture around here has clearly changed, so the results have to change as well, right?
From an organizational standpoint, the approach has changed. The acquisitions of Nene, Ariza and Okafor, doesn’t work if Washington doesn’t plan on using them to their strengths; all three players are good NBA defenders. There’s not an elite defender on the Wizards roster, true, but every player on that roster is both capable and willing. Defense is about desire as much as it is about ability so Washington is in a good spot to carve out an identity defensively. Wall and Singleton are both capable of becoming elite defenders, and Trevor Booker might be just a notch below those guys. The Wizards were smart to hire defensive-minded coaches with a track record of success bringing in Jerry Sichting and Don Newman this summer. Washington seems to be making a concerted effort to scheme to the player’s strengths and help the players understand what’s expected from them in the scheme. Wittman’s going to make sure the motivation’s there. Talent+Motivation+Desire+Preparation = top 10 defense. Book it.
5. This is going to be a fun season to watch. The team is built to compete right now, even as they continue to grow; two subplots for the price of one. The Heat, Lakers, and Thunder may have the inside track on the road to the championship, but let’s be honest here – as a fan of any of those teams, what motivation to you have to really get into your team before mid-season? With the exception of L.A., the casts have largely remained the same. And even in L.A., where the expectation is to always compete for a title, some of the faces have changed, but the goal hasn’t. The season doesn’t start for any of those NBA cities, and a handful of others, until the All Star Break at least.
Not so in the DMV. We’ll be watching early and often. For starters, the expectations around here have clearly changed. There are a bunch of fresh faces, a growing sentiment around the league that this team might finally be ready to take the next step and make the playoffs this year, and an order from the guy who signs all the checks (Leonsis) that they’d better. Watching to see if they can complete the mandated turnaround in just one season’s time is going to be a treat. It’s not often that an NBA team grows up right before your eyes, but that’s just what will have to happen this season to stave off a rebuild of the rebuild.
The on-floor product should be much improved, and easier to watch as well. I’ll admit my eyes actually bled a couple of times over the past two years. I’m not quite ready to pack away my Kleenex and bandages just yet, but the prospect of professional basketball returning to the District has me school-girl-giddy.