[The Wizards' ballsiest offensive players: Sam Cassell, JaVale McGee and Jordan Crawford]
The young Wizards made a valiant effort last night in Boston, that they did. Losing 104-88, they were within four points at 87-83 with seven minutes before the Celtics pulled away. Individual talents and potential flashed nicely, but familiar inefficiencies combined to lead the team down the path of losing. Possession-killing shots form Jordan Crawford, a crucial missed one-handed, wide-open dunk from JaVale McGee that would’ve kept the Wizards within four points with five minutes left, newcomer Larry Owens letting the 35-year old Ray Allen beat him to a transition basket, the seven turnovers of John Wall (which combined with those of McGee and Andray Blatche totaled 17) — they all were there. But nothing unexpected.
The Celtics valued most of their possessions and functioned like coordinated birds in flight on many. Rajon Rondo took ownership of the night with 14 assists. Neither John Wall nor Jordan Crawford could sufficiently keep up with him without worrying about the coordinated movement from the rest of the Celtics and whether the Wizards could depend on each other for a combined effort on defense. Washington does not yet know how to fly together like Boston. They’ll get there as the core grows with time, but that begs the question, who’s part of the core?
Wall, Crawford and McGee? Clearly. Rashard Lewis? There’s not much choice. Andray Blatche? Signs point to yes. Nick Young? Things are more complicated with the free-agent to be. On Friday Ted Leonsis gave Young some blog love, touting him for Most Improved Player.
“He will be an integral part of our team,” Leonsis wrote, indicating that Nick can play the two or the three. And in that Leonsis is right. The shininess on Crawford’s run only means an added asset, not an internet argument on which one to keep. With Young going into end-of-rookie-contract qualifying offer free agency, Crawford is a safety to not overpay him, which could only happen if another team offers Young a contract that the Wizards will have to match or decline. Over 2,500 miles from home in Southern California, look for Young to remain in Washington for the next season of basketball that is played. Ernie Grunfeld was carefully cost efficient when negotiating contracts with DeShawn Stevenson, and he will likely do the same with Young
Add brute strength developing off the bench in Trevor Booker and Kevin Seraphin, and the core is up to eight players. Add what will likely be one high first-round draft pick and a nice mid-first-rounder into the mix and you have 10 spots filled. As an aside, this would be a year where Grunfeld might take the Euro Stash option with any other pick. The Wizards would have enough young players (two rookies and four second year players, along with a four, five, seven and 13-year NBA veteran), and take into accounting the hidden gem of drafting: letting a talented foreign player develop overseas. Just ask the San Antonio Spurs.
So, considering who’s contributing to the team now, Grunfeld has a developing list of candidates to fill the final five roster spots — if he uses them all. Hopefully yes, with a spot perhaps used for a D-League assignment. That is, if D-League send-downs must occupy one of the 15 official roster spots under the new CBA. The obvious candidates: Yi Jianlian, Mo Evans, Josh Howard, Othyus Jeffers, Cartier Martin and Hamady N’diaye, in the least.
The first issue: considering all of the mentioned, there would be no one in the normal rotation who would be considered a defensive stopper. JaVale is an intimidator, Wall and Crawford can be harassers, but none on stoppers. Either Evans or Howard could be tone-setting defensive scrappers in their 30s who can also rebound and find ways to score. Evans is slightly older but is not coming off knee trouble. Howard is a better scorer but doesn’t always have offense that can be trusted. Neither could be an option.
Yi Jianlian, another qualifying-offer free agent like Young, has built a nice offensive rapport with Wall, is very coachable and brings Chinese dollars to the team’s bottom line, but he’ll have to develop a lot more toughness to fit with Leonsis’ stated plan. Likely with a DraftExpress.com listed birth-year of 1984 instead of the official listed year of 1987, Yi is just young enough to take a cheap gamble on, but old enough, turning 27 in October, that time is short. His situation could be a difficult decision.
Jeffers, Martin and N’diaye are “numbers game” candidates. The first two being promising enough to invite to camp, but not to lock into a roster spot. The Wizards would have liked N’diaye to develop overseas for a couple years after taking him 56th overall in last year’s draft, but he didn’t due to his zeal and passion to make his NBA dream come true. Good for him … because the Wizards would’ve looked bad drafting him and then having to relinquish his rights. In any case, N’diaye is the happy-go-lucky hard-worker with a positive attitude that the team needs. Young to the game and ready to learn, N’diaye also has four years of college experience, and a former Big East defensive player of the year under his belt doesn’t hurt. It would be nice to see what develops out of him, but with numbers game candidates, you never know.
All of these considerations bring back the idea that going forward the team still needs a devastating three-point threat (another pair of hands for John Wall to pass to in the corner), and a influential presence in the paint on both ends of the floor. The shooter can be of just about any aged variety, and should come relatively cheap with good defensive skills. The big man could even be a low-cost veteran, someone with the might and will to bang around with the Wizards’ young bigs in practice, teach them a thing or two. Of course, these prized big men don’t fall of trees and are usually more interested in chasing a ring. And taking Zaza Pachulia off the hands of the Atlanta Hawks if they find themselves having to clear salary under a new CBA isn’t the most thrilling idea in the world, even if he is a tough guy.
The Wiz Kids will certainly fly in a more clean pattern next season with the continuance of young core. But they will still be far from having another championship-winning caliber star to develop with Wall (contingent on draft lottery luck), and will be a long way from being a top NBA defensive unit. Again, because most of the current locked-in personnel leave too much to be desired defensively for their own good.
The plan is on a positive path, but the steps to achieving playoff consistency, and not just getting there, are as uncertain as 1-900 psychic hot-line predicting an inevitably unknown future. The Wizards are only in the early stage of rebuilding and time in the form of a couple of seasons is on their side, but that doesn’t make the pressure to succeed mount any less. Folks talk about the D.C. area being a basketball hotbed waiting to be ignited by the local pro team. For now, they continue to wait.