Tonight, the Washington Wizards embark on their 2010 preseason campaign against the Mavericks in Dallas … and it matters. Matters not in how they play, but how they appear.
Preseason 2009 was disregarded before it even happened. There were no forthcoming tea leaves being brought to read for the season before the season by the assembled stew of leftovers and afterthoughts: Arenas, Jamison, Butler, Miller, Foye, Oberto, James, Boykins, Blatche, Stevenson, and the guy who was on Millionaire Matchmaker.
Preseason 2010 is quite different; still assembled stew, but the ingredients are a lot fresher.
Preseason 2009 didn’t matter, and I’m not talking wins and losses. They never matter. I’m talking about appearances. Who cares if the ‘09-10 team didn’t appear well together in the beginning, it was going to take time. Preseason 2009 was all about post-season expectations, not appearances in games that don’t count. But eventually, from style to stats to substance, the players of last season became rancid under Flip Saunders’ system. Things got stale, as Ernie Grunfeld has mentioned over and over, and over, again.
Now the bread is freshly baked with no mold in sight. With low to no expectations, there’s much less risk from your standard threats. Last year, Antawn Jamison got hacked by future a Wizard, Zydrunas Ilaguaskas, in a preseason game in Cleveland. Uh oh, stomachs were in knots. The bum shoulder caused Jamison to miss under-appreciated gelling time, and was likely the first screw that came loose on the ‘09-10 season.
This year, injury is not seen as a threat as much as it is a hindrance. Injuries are never fun, and are said to be inevitable, but Wizards fans can now stop losing sleep over them. The presumed success of this team will not come down to injury because there are no presumptions.
So the Jamison shoulder beget an injury-plagued Mike Miller and combined, they may have been the thinning of the glue when elements of player control starting shredding the tires on the bus. The game of Caron Butler, who also experienced early nagging injury in ‘09, proved to be a below-the-surface pimple that eventually popped. Players of age worried about themselves too much. Misspent youth, never around to really see valid leadership in the NBA, partially due a cycle of coaching turnover, continued to flounder.
Gilbert Arenas was presumed humbled coming back thrice from knee surgery — remember the days when he was wearing hotel ‘Do Not Disturb’ signs, way back in February 2009? Guess we found out that was only physical humility, not psychological — even more of a reason to look at this year’s Quiet Man and say, “What’s new?,” instead of “Gilbert’s ‘new’.”
Reflecting on the past isn’t really helping, many surely believe. But it does give us perspective on how this young 2010-11 team should be approached.
Like always, preseason wins and losses are of no concern. But contrary to the above, appearances will be crucial from the get-go. This young team has displayed nothing but a positive attitude during the time they’ve been together, from pre-Vegas mini-camp through training camp. That must continue and evolve.
Behind John Wall, the point guard who will set the tone, the Wizards are ready to compete and just play. Players 1-18 (soon to be less, unfortunately) get along. This isn’t Gilbert Arenas vs. Caron Butler, or Mike James vs. Flip Saunders, or Andray Blatche vs. Flip Saunders, or Gilbert Arenas vs. Javaris Crittenton, or Brendan Haywood vs. Caron Butler, or DeShawn Stevenson vs. DeShawn Stevenson.
What the Wiz kids must prove is their willingness to take lumps and learn from it. No more bad body language. No more Brendan Haywood eye rolls. No more Rogue Tuff Juice. No more Mike Miller shoulder shrugs. No more grandpa Jamison watching over those damn kids. No more Andray Blatche B.S., because he knows better is expected of him. No more Gilbert Arenas … well, to say he has a short leash is putting it mildly. His quiet shtick is slightly absurd. Sure, hate/ignore the media, but can’t you throw some t-shirts to fans? (Arenas opted to drink water and run to the locker room at Midnight Madness and Fan Fest respectively while his teammates threw t-shirts to the fans attending those events at George Mason’s Patriot Center.) Gil will show true progress when he finds a happy medium. We’ll see.
No more of all that I mentioned (one hopes), because this is a Flip Saunders type of team. No combative veteran egos set in their ways … unlike the end in Minnesota, unlike the end in Detroit, and unlike the end to the previous chapter of the Wizards. Flip has youth, not contracts, competing for court time. This is bunch malleable for coaching instruction … at least they better be.
But just because expectations are low doesn’t mean the pressure is off. This team must appear to show growth, even if they don’t appear to be good. And unlike last preseason, when Wizards fans were mostly worried about postseason positioning, this year starts in the preseason. The difference will be the appearance of consistent, positive energy, not the appearance of unfulfilled expectations.
Time to get grown.