New Wizard in Washington
Writer Mike Jones answers questions about the Wizards.
Mike Jones of the Washington Times spent some time discussing the upcoming season, the return of key players and the arrival of new faces. The Wizards had a nightmare of a season last year in which they lost their best player Gilbert Arenas for a second straight season and suffered significant injuries to key members. The Wizards were sent reeling and cost Eddie Jordan his job. Washington is placing championship expectations on themselves with the arrival of new coach Flip Saunders, the return of Agent Zero and the arrivals of Mike Miller and Randy Foye.
SLAM: The Wizards fired Eddie Jordan early last season. Why did they can Jordan so early?
Mike Jones: At the time, Ernie Grunfeld, who had just given Jordan a one-year extension that would run through 2010, was looking for something to spark the team from the 1-10 start. It was obvious that the Wizards struggles weren’t coaching related, but injury-related with Gilbert out following a third knee surgery and Brendan Haywood also out after having wrist surgery. But the coach is always the first thing to go. Ernie was hoping it would give his players a wakeup call, it didn’t. Then they traded Antonio Daniels in an attempt to get more scoring in the backcourt with the additions of Mike James and Javaris Crittenton, but that didn’t work either. The Wizards simply didn’t have enough proven bodies to go around as DeShawn Stevenson went down with midseason back surgery, and the younger players like Andray Blatche and Nick Young were struggling to consistently produce.
SLAM: Interim coach Ed Tapscott coached the remainder of the year and compiled a record of 18-53 during his tenure as coach. This offseason they hired veteran coach Flip Saunders who had been out of work since being let go by Detroit. Why the move to bring Saunders in as head coach?
MJ: Grunfeld chose Saunders because he was the top coach on the market. He had been let go by Detroit that summer and actually spent a few days in the Wizards’ training camp. But he has the resume that Washington was seeking. He had Minnesota in the Playoffs all but two of his 10 seasons there, and had Detroit in the conference finals all three seasons there. Yeah, he hasn’t gotten a team into the championship, but there wasn’t another coach on the market with his type of pedigree.
SLAM: What kinds of expectations are being placed on Saunders?
MJ: As far as expectations go, Saunders and the Wizards are talking championship already. They expect to be back among the elite in the Eastern Conference and think they can contend with the likes of Boston, Cleveland and Orlando and position themselves for a deep playoff run.
SLAM: Antawn Jamison recently came out and voiced some lofty expectations of the Wizards for this upcoming season. Jamison said he sees no reason why the Wizards can’t compete with the upper echelon teams in the NBA and contend for the championship. With Saunders and Jamison both echoing the same thoughts, is a championship run a legitimate possibility?
MJ: No question the Wizards will be better this season and will compete in the Eastern Conference, but I think those expectations could be a bit high. I still believe the Wizards are behind Boston, Cleveland and Orlando. But, you never know what could happen. Injuries could derail any championship contender and Washington could move up some spots. But, if all three of those elite teams are healthy, it could be a challenge for the Wizards.
SLAM: Scoring points has never been a problem for the Wizards as they’re one of the most explosive teams in the NBA when healthy. The issue has been a lack of detail and commitment on the defensive end. How does Saunders hope to correct the defensive woes of the Wizards?
MJ: Flip has been asked about this a couple of times this summer, and he has pointed out that his teams have consistently ranked among the top three in the League in the defense and he expects the Wizards to make a commitment to defending as well.
SLAM: Recent reports on the health of Gilbert Arenas have been encouraging to say the least. He’s said to be close to being fully healthy and has recaptured the explosion and quickness he’s become known for. How vital is a healthy Gilbert Arenas to the Wizards?
MJ: Even though he’s been injured, Arenas remains one of the most popular athletes in D.C. Now that he’s healthy again, he’s again the focal point of the team, and is being called on by Saunders to lead this team and serve as a mentor to his younger teammates. Flip on Tuesday said that Gil looks like he’s ready to return to the level of play that he produced before he got hurt in 2007. Caron’s one of the stars on this team, but it’s definitely Gilbert’s team.
SLAM: The offseason is crucial to the development of players as it is the time to put in time and energy to get better in every aspect of the game. Both Nick Young and Andray Blatche are going to be looked upon to be key members of the team and contribute on a consistent basis. How have the two of them looked this offseason?
MJ: Aside from Gilbert, I’ve heard that Nick Young and Andray Blatche have both been working very hard to take the next step in their careers. Young has been studying film of Rip Hamilton to gain a better understanding of how Flip wants to use him coming off screens, and he’s also working on improving his defensive focus. Blatche, I’m told, has been more disciplined in taking care of his body and has displayed more consistency rather than just flashes here and there.
SLAM: With the acquisitions of Mike Miller, Randy Foye and the returns of Gilbert Arenas and DeShawn Stevenson minutes are going to be scarce at the guard positions. How does Nick Young play into the equation?
MJ: Nick was admittedly a little stung when he first heard of the trades for Mike Miller and Randy Foye, but after talking to management, he was assured that he remained in the team’s plans and he decided to use the additions of Miller and Foye as motivation to improve. He’s worked extremely hard, Flip says. He’ll be competing for either the starting shooting guard spot or for a key role off the bench.
SLAM: Washington bolstered their bench by acquiring Miller and Foye this offseason. What do each of them bring to the team in their own unique ways?
MJ: Yes, both will fit in and have key roles in support of Arenas, Jamison and Butler. Miller gives the Wizards the perimeter threat they have lacked to spread the floor and knock down big shots, and he also gives them size and versatility with his ability to play both shooting guard or small forward. Foye is a proven starter who gives the Wizards depth and both point and shooting guard. The starting shooting guard spot is up for grabs, so we’ll soon see whether Miller, Foye or holdovers DeShawn Stevenson or Nick Young gets the nod.
SLAM: The Wizards are not known for their depth of big men on the roster. Which is one of the reasons why Blatche is such an important cog in the system. Assuming he comes off the bench as the backup to Antawn Jamison at the power forward position, how important is it for Blatche to start putting together consistent efforts?
MJ: Yes, Blatche will be the backup power forward, and if he can produce consistently, he gives the Wizards a backup big man with a wide range of skills. He can do a bit of everything: play inside, score from the perimeter, even bring the ball up the court. Caron Butler has said Blatche has the skill set of a player like Tracy McGrady, just has to learn how to dedicate himself.
SLAM: Javale McGee is an intriguing young big man on the Wizards who was thrust into action during his rookie season due to Brendan Haywood being injured. McGee participated in Team USA mini camp over the summer which was a great opportunity for the young man. Does McGee have a shot at beating out Haywood for the starting spot at center?
MJ: No chance at all McGee unseats Haywood. But the Wizards like the work he’s put in this summer. Flip said he plans on giving him certain things to work on, seeing how he responds then gradually bring him along. McGee showed some flashes at USA camp, I’m told. But is still a little ways off. He’ll be battling Oberto for the backup center spot, and also could see some time at backup power forward.
SLAM: The Wizards are known to have a easy going and loose locker room filled with unique characters and personalities. As a result, when the team is not performing well, they catch flack for a supposed lack of professionalism and focus. Is this a trend that will continue under Saunders?
MJ: Everyone I talk to says there’s a new sense of professionalism, focus and energy within the organization, but I think the Wizards always will be a pretty loose team. That’s just how they are. It’s fine to be loose if you know when to focus, so I expect them to be a bit more balanced this season, but still be a pretty fun bunch.
SLAM: What are the biggest changes fans and followers of the team should expect to see under the leadership of Saunders?
MJ: Eddie Jordan ran the Princeton offense, which has been scrapped and in is Flip Saunders’ more prototypical NBA system. Arenas said it’s more of a natural offense and expects his younger teammates to excel more because of that. He is looking forward to having the ball in his hands more and the freedom to make decisions on the fly. Jamison said the biggest change early on has been the way Flip has challenged the Wizards, making clear his aspirations to win a championship, which he said in his previous six years in D.C. had never been mentioned. The bar has been raised and the Wizards are eager to get going.
Born and raised in the Bay Area and currently residing on the Peninsula, Rasheed Malek represents the younger demographic of Warrior fans, which, according to Malek, “means I’ve witnessed nothing but bad basketball for most of my life.”