The Wizards Rules
Sign Coach. Get healthy. Draft well. Trade big. Win.
“And here are your 2010 NBA World Champions—the Washington Wizards!”
I know what you’re feeling. Typical reactions to the above statement are laughing, crying, eye-rolling, choking, or starting an online blog war against whoever could foretell something so blasphemous. In fact, I initially reacted in two of those ways. But I’m not going to write about the Celtics, the Cavs or the Lakers, because you and I both know that come April/May, it’s a given they will all be in the mix for a championship. I’m here to discuss what nobody is talking about: The underdog to climb the ranks of the NBA and burst onto the 2010 Eastern Conference playoff scene will be the Washington Wizards.
Been there, done that
Welcome, Coach Flip Saunders. For more than a decade, Saunders has repeatedly made his mark on the NBA. Among the all-time greats who have coached the game, his .597 winning percentage is bested only by Phil Jackson, Pat Riley, Don Nelson and Jerry Sloan through their first 13 seasons. He has amassed seven 50-win seasons and 11 postseason appearances, including eight consecutive playoff showings with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
As he moves east for the first time in his coaching career, Flip Saunders faces his most difficult challenge since his initial year with Minnesota. The Wizards matched a franchise record for losses with an abysmal 19-63 record during their ‘08-09 campaign, a shocking total for any team coming off four consecutive playoff births. But the coach has brought a new attitude that may end Washington’s reckless and inconsistent play.
“You have to be able to defend,” Saunders says. “A lot is talked about my huge playbook. About 60 percent of that is defense, 40 percent is offense. Players will know when we walk in that gym, that defense is the priority.”
That strategy is exactly what Washington needs in order to rebound from last season, when opponents scored more than 103 ppg against them (only six teams surrendered more). With new defensive schemes and more physical play required by the Washington bigs, the Wiz should anticipate a major turnaround in defending the half-court set. And the best part—Coach Saunders doesn’t have to teach his team how to score.
So what if Gilbert Arenas played only 15 games in his last two seasons? The 27-year-old guard is now 100 percent healthy and hungrier than ever to lead his team to the promised land. He is the alpha of the triple-headed monster that includes Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison. The former Arizona Wildcat averaged roughly 23 points and 5.5 assists per game throughout his NBA career, and will once again provide the Wizards with a cool and collected veteran presence on the floor. Paired with Jamison and Butler, who have averaged nearly 20 and 17 ppg over their respective careers, Arenas puts the team over the top. How many other NBA squads can guarantee at least 60 cumulative points from just three of their starters? And how many of those have a punishing closer like Arenas?
While Arenas routinely “cooked up” defenders via one-on-one play, his role will expand this year on the court thanks to his supporting grill chefs. As a reserve in 2008, Nick Young made the most of his minutes by scoring nearly 11 ppg. He already made quite an impression in 2009, finishing third in scoring (23.8 ppg) in the NBA Summer League while shooting a dazzling 50 percent from the field.
Fellow Wizards forward, Andre Blatche, averaged 19.7 ppg and finished second in the Summer League in rebounding. Young’s success is a direct result of Flip Saunders’ system. Saunders will deploy him much like he did Detroit’s Richard Hamilton, who became a key to that team’s half-court offense by darting off double screens and consistently hitting mid-range jumpers.
With Arenas at the helm, you better believe Washington’s sharpshooters will be getting plenty of good looks. And if Blatche keeps cleaning glass the way he has in July, missed shots will only become second-chance opportunities for the Wiz’s young guns.
New Number, New Team, New Expectations
Let’s say the undeveloped, albeit talented, Nick Young can’t maintain his summertime offensive prowess during the regular season. No biggie. A short time prior to the NBA Draft, the Wizards pulled off an incredible trade, sending scrubs Oleksiy Pecherov, Etan Thomas, Darius Songaila and the No. 5 pick to Minnesota in exchange for Mike Miller and Randy Foye.
Throughout his 11-year career, Miller proved time and time again to be a reliable player and deadly three-point shooter. He averaged 13.9 ppg and shot 40 percent from behind the arc over his career. He also averaged more than 6.5 rebounds per contest during the past two seasons.
Joining him from the Timberwolves is the ever-promising Foye, who netted more than 16 ppg in 2008. While the slasher has a few kinks to work out on his shooting stroke, Foye is a 6-4 menace when defending smaller point guards. I expect him to learn a great deal this season from another double-digit scoring threat off the Wiz’s bench—veteran Mike James. Foye’s commitment in the weight room and to relentless defense will surely be noticed by Saunders, and should earn him either a sixth-man role or starting position in 2009.
Road from worst to first
Washington’s new acquisitions as well as the return of their captain will make the team a formidable opponent in the East. The Wizards’ record in the upcoming season should not suffer from a difficult schedule either. There are only three other legitimate contenders in the East—the Cavaliers, Celtics and Magic (I’ll put the Hawks and Bulls on the bubble). The Bucks, Nets, Heat, Pistons, Sixers and Pacers have all lost star or solid players to free agency; all should be grateful to hit the .500 mark in 2009.
If the Eastern Conference unfolds as it should, the Wizards will be sitting pretty with a fourth or fifth seed come postseason play. Against the elite, Washington’s size and athleticism match up extremely well with Orlando’s (Butler/Carter, Jamison/Lewis, Arenas/Nelson, Blatche/Howard, Foye or Miller/Pietrus). If anyone can devise a way to dismantle the Celtics’ Rasheed Wallace or Kevin Garnett, it has to be their former coach, Flip Saunders. And against LeBron and company…well let’s just see if Shaq is healthy enough come May.
My prediction is in: Washington will not only make the Playoffs in 2010, but will genuinely contend for the title. Do the Wizards really have what it takes to win the whole shebang? Well, for that to happen, they’ll need their brethren at Hogwarts to conjure up a little magic.