New(er) Beginnings: Wizards Aim To Break The Reset Button
On June 28, NBA Commissioner David Stern strode across the Prudential Center stage to the podium and announced that Florida guard Bradley Beal was coming to play for the Washington Wizards. Prior to the draft, he became the most coveted prospect not named Anthony Davis. ESPN’s Andy Katz reported that the Denver Nuggets, Oklahoma City Thunder and Cleveland Cavaliers all were willing to trade up to get Beal. None did, and the Wizards selected their man with the third pick.
Besides football toughness and high character, Beal brings sorely needed shooting and rebounding to the Wizards backcourt. Former guard Nick Young was a legitimate scorer, but did little else. Incumbent guard Jordan Crawford is also blessed with the scorer’s gene and the knack for an occasional timely pass, but defense, rebounding, and consistency are not parts of his repertoire.
Beal’s arrival, combined with the acquisitions of Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor, gives Wizards fans and coaches every reason to believe that change is coming. Those three combined with the still-maturing John Wall, a couple of promising kids in the fold, and a steady Nene for an entire season represent a new beginning … again.
In case there is any confusion, this 2012 version of “new beginnings” is slightly different than the one we saw in 2009. Then, Ernie Grunfeld and Abe Pollin tried to generate enthusiasm with the arrivals of Flip Saunders, Mike Miller and Randy Foye on top of a retread roster (Foye specifically said it was a “new beginning” for him at media day — it always is). The luster drastically wore off after uneven play, a gun incident, and trades that caused the Wizards to finish 26-56. The very next season, a game-changing new beginning was offered up by new owner Ted Leonsis in the form of number one draft pick John Wall, who received the limousine and red carpet treatment from the Wizards brass. Wall showed flashes of speed and brilliance during his rookie year, but his lack of a strong supporting cast was exposed, and by his second year, it was clear that more change was needed. This planted the seeds for this current version of a new beginning.
Flip Saunders was fired last January, Young and JaVale McGee were traded in March, and Andray Blatche and Rashard Lewis were sidelined due to being out of shape and being injured respectively. Inserted in their place: Randy Wittman, Nene, a more patient Wall, and improved play from the entire roster. The Wizards finished 20-46, but 18-31 under Wittman, winning eight out of their last 10. The strong finish was enough to change Wittman’s title from interim to permanent head coach. Grunfeld’s status was also upgraded from much-maligned to re-signed for two more seasons.
Thirty minutes before Beal was drafted in New Jersey, Leonsis addressed the media in Washington to further explain why the draft, the trades, the personnel moves, and the front office/coach continuity left him feeling encouraged. His first answer was a “new beginnings” mission statement, if you will, for his very own Washington Wizards:
“I want a culture and a locker room and a style of play that is hard-working and effort matters and coach-ability matters.”
Without mentioning names, Leonsis admitted that the old regime was not as successful as he would have liked. Gilbert Arenas, McGee, Young and Saunders — all members of prior “new beginnings” — were no longer good fits. It can be argued that the Wizards franchise came to these realizations a season or so too late. It is also fair to say that since as far back as the Eddie Jordan years (2003-2008), this franchise has lacked a cohesive lineup of players who consistently play the “right way.” Leonsis said he and his staff have addressed this issue:
“We made huge investments in analytics and technology that is very enlightening when you can see the spacing on the floor and how it changed pre-trade and post trade. You can see how players moved off of picks and the seriousness with picks were being set pre- and post-[trade]. You can see where boxing out was happening, and so that came from having a player [Nene] on the floor who was communicating and set pride in the way he set picks. And the other players started to see that lots of little things done with high levels of professionalism led to production.”
The Wizards have mentioned their increased usage of analytics in prior pressers, so that was nothing new. But to hear the owner indicate that advanced statistics are part of the decision-making process is encouraging. It also explains the return of a coach who demands accountability in Wittman. And those words shed more light as to why players like Okafor and Ariza — both known for professionalism on and off the court — were brought to Washington (an issue the advanced statistics blog Wages of Wins skillfully broke down after the trade, much to Leonsis’ delight). Prior Wizards teams had rosters full of talented but immature players, but this new Wizards team is poised to mix talented young players, with mature, moderately-talented, positive influencers. Leonsis indicates Nene was every bit as responsible for the new-look Wizards as Grunfeld and Wittman.
But as ambitious as this new approach sounds, there was still was no mention of accountability. There have been plenty of coaching and roster changes over the past few years, but there have been no playoff appearances; just trips to the lottery and unimpressive win-loss records instead. The summer of 2013 and intrigue about Wall’s future is looming. The Wizards will have the opportunity to extend Wall’s rookie contract for five more seasons (through 2019-20) like the Thunder did with Russell Westbrook last January. Both Wall and the team need to see significant improvement for that to happen. That point was not lost on Leonsis during his pre-draft presser, using his go-to move of bringing up the Washington Capitals:
“We [the Capitals] were bad, and we drafted Alexander Ovechkin, and we were really bad his rookie year. And we drafted high, again, and we got Nick Backstrom, and we were still really really bad. Third year we started out pretty bad, and then we found a way to come together as a team and qualified for the playoffs. And now we’ve made the playoffs every year. And yes, we’ve only gone through to the second round, but we’re in the playoffs every year. That’s how you get started a cultural change. When teams expect that they are a playoff team, and they can be mentioned as a team that can win the [Stanley] Cup. We have to do that with the Wizards … I don’t want to be in the lottery anymore, I find that unacceptable.”
Given the current state of the NBA’s Eastern Conference, Leonsis’ playoffs talk is bold. Ray Allen is on the Heat, Jason Terry and Jeff Green are headed to the Celtics, the Nets re-signed Deron Williams and acquired Joe Johnson (and could be acquiring Dwight Howard soon), the Pacers will be hungrier after pushing the Heat, and Danny Ferry seems poised to lift the Hawks out of mediocrity. And that’s not even including the Bulls (with or without Derrick Rose), the potentially dangerous Knicks, re-tooling Sixers, sinking Magic, or tough-nosed Bucks. To say the Wizards will have to fight for a playoff spot is an understatement.
A pessimistic person can take Leonsis’ words and argue that the playoffs are not as imminent as another trip to the lottery. Nene and Okafor are threats to get injured, Ariza is on his sixth team in nine seasons, Wittman has 118-238 career win-loss record, and Wall has yet to show that he can make a Derrick Rose-type leap and lead the Wizards for an entire year (though he did play all 66 games this past season). The other side of that argument is Nene was able to influence the Wizards with his style of play in a very short period of time (the Wizards went 7-4 in the games he played), and Wall and his teammates are already on record as saying they buy into the concept of making the playoffs next year. Perhaps the culture is changing.
This latest version of new beginnings will ultimately be a referendum on Ted Leonsis. If the Wizards are lucky enough to squeak into the playoffs — or even if they are in contention but fall just short — Leonsis looks like the scientist who finally found the right elixir (and maybe we can stop hearing about the Capitals all the damn time). If this upcoming season is mediocre, but Wall, Beal, Trevor Booker, Kevin Seraphin, Jan Vesely, and other young members of the team continue to show growth, there is still reason to be encouraged that the plan is working. But if the Wizards endure another lottery season where the wins are in the 20s and the losses are hovering around 60, the smothering heat of this summer will find a new home under the chair in Leonsis’ Verizon Center office. His decisions to re-sign Grunfeld and Wittman will undoubtedly be questioned, Wall will be one step closer to considering the grass somewhere else greener, and another trade aimed at building yet another new start will be floated by unnamed sources.
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