The Wizards Are WEAK! (Here’s Why, Where and How…)
The Wizards are so weak. Well, they have one glaring weakness that out-stink-faces all of the others… because every team has a weakness, and the Wizards, now a popular pick for the playoffs (in the East), are no exception. In discussing this collaborative piece with TAI’s Adam Rubin and John Converse Townsend, we all concluded that there was one main area of concern. So below, each of us address that one area in our own way.
The problem is simple. The Wizards have no frontcourt depth. The cause is clear. Ernie Grunfeld wasted four straight first-round picks on unproductive power forwards. Wasting first-round picks is a double whammy because not only are the players unproductive, but they tend to stay on the roster for several years due to their cheap rookie contracts. Think Oleksiy Pecherov.
Washington is currently enduring a quadruple-Pecherov in the frontcourt. Four players—Jan Vesely, Chris Singleton, Trevor Booker, and Kevin Seraphin—holding roster spots even though none of them addresses any of the team’s biggest frontcourt needs (in no particular order): rebounding, interior defense, and outside (stretch) shooting. In fact, none of them are even “above average” in any of those areas. Nevertheless, in a mere nine months, all four players will have been on the team for at least three years.
That’s not good roster construction. There are only 15 spots on the team. That leaves five bench spots for the frontcourt. If four of those bench players do not even address one of the team’s biggest needs, management only has one slot to fill a huge void. This season Grunfeld chose Al Harrington, opting for a stretch 4 over interior defense and rebounding. But that was a false choice. There are enough roster spots on an NBA team to have both a stretch 4 AND a backup center. It should not be an either/or proposition.
So how do we fix this mess? Luckily, the solution is simple. In the immortal words of Gilbert Arenas, “Pick 1” (and get rid of the rest). All four players are under contract for this year, but none are guaranteed beyond that. According to Shamsports.com, here’s what it would cost to keep these players in 2014-15: Vesely has an option for $4.2 million, Seraphin has a qualifying offer of $3.9 million, Booker has a qualifying offer of $3.4 million, and Singleton has a team option for $2.4 million.
All of that money could be better spent elsewhere. By comparison, this offseason Tyler Hansbrough left Indiana and signed a two-year, $6.5 million deal with Toronto, Chris Copeland left New York and signed for two years, $6 million in Indiana, and Ivan Johnson, with Atlanta last season, remains unsigned.
This is not news to Washington’s front office. They have the same access to player salaries on Shamsports.com as I do. My guess is they have already decided to heed Gilbert’s advice, and their pick will almost certainly be Seraphin. He is the only one who has shown the ability to develop a skill (low post scoring) that costs a premium on the free agent market. Everyone else can be replaced with a better player at a lower cost.
But you won’t have to wait until next year to learn if I am right. The team has until October 31 of this year to pick up Vesely’s $4.2 million and/or Singleton’s $2.4 million options for 2014-15. So, if the front office plans to clear roster and cap space next year, the first step is not too far away.
John Converse Townsend
The Wizards might finally be a playoff team for the first time since 2007-08. The team’s backcourt is what has everybody talking. Last season, John Wall proved his top-pick pedigree and Bradley Beal flashed big-time potential. Wall and Beal recently joined 25 of the NBA’s best young talents at the Team USA minicamp in Las Vegas, which means they have a shot at making rosters for both the 2014 FIBA World Cup (Madrid, Spain) and the 2016 Olympics (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil). However, if the Wizards end up falling short of expectations, blame will likely fall on the shoulders of the team’s frontcourt.
There is a big problem with the big men on the roster. They have a tendency not to show up for a variety of reasons: injury, waning confidence, or worse, an inability to get off the bench because they lack the skills to be reliable players in the rotation.
Hall of Famer Larry Bird once said that “if you want to win and win big, the game is won down in the paint until somebody proves me different.” The 2012-13 NBA playoffs were a quick case study in Bird’s philosophy. The fiery Warriors smoked out the Nuggets in six games, but were smothered by a Gregg Popovich-coached team still led by the Big Fundamental, Tim Duncan. The Spurs went on to sweep the heavyweight Grizzlies in the Western Conference Finals and had an 82.1 percent chance of beating the Heat in Game 6 to win their fourth NBA title … moments before Ray Allen hit that corner 3. The Heat, of course, were given a serious scare by a Pacers team which featured Paul George, yes, but also Roy Hibbert and David West.
So, how ’bout those Wizards?
Veteran Emeka Okafor, the starting center, has appeared in 82 games just three times in his nine-year career and never quite lived up to his billing as the second overall pick in 2004. And while he led the Wizards with a Total Rebounding Rate of 19.5 (which means he pulled down about one fifth of the available rebounds when he was on the floor), and in blocks per 36 minutes, Okafor rarely played late in the fourth quarter—and would most likely be a bench player on a top-seeded playoff team. Okafor’s role on the Wizards, in his own words, is “just to give guidance where guidance is needed. Rein in when [young players] need to be reined in and put things in perspective.”
Nene, one of the team’s three stars, according to John Wall, has only once played a full season over his 11-year career. The team can’t count on having the Brazilian international for a full suite of games. That’s too bad, not only because Nene has serious game (although turnovers are sometimes an issue), but also because he keeps the rest of the Wizards’ big men right where they belong: on the bench. Or perhaps more accurately, off the floor.
The best basketball teams in the NBA have legitimate frontcourt weapons. They’re what separates serious playoff teams from pretenders that limp into the playoffs, especially in the Eastern Conference. Sure, everyone watches the Heat for LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, but Chris Bosh’s midrange jumper is deadly (53%) and he’s rebuilt his game to complement the skill sets of his more marketable teammates. Forget his many halfway humiliations, Bosh helps the Heat win. So does Birdman (Birdman!).
The same cannot be said for Kevin Seraphin, Trevor Booker, Jan Vesely, or Chris Singleton. And Larry Legend wouldn’t wait on this bunch much longer to prove otherwise.
A measurable portion of last season’s improved defense rested on the back of Emeka Okafor. Good thing the aging Wizard has been relatively durable, overcoming back issues during his time in college*, an array of ankle injuries earlier in his career, and knee problems that limited him to 27 games in 2011-12. Why? Because the 31-year-old to-be (at the end of September) takes care of his body better than any other member of the Wizards. And although grossly overpaid (only 20 NBA players, not including amnesty players like Gilbert Arenas and Rashard Lewis, made more in salary than Okafor last season), he went a long way toward proving his worth beyond the court when he put the immature attitude of one John Wall in its place during the season. Set to once again be the highest-paid Wizard in 2013-14 (around $14.5 million), Okafor brings a lot of value to the table, even if at its face it comes nowhere near the price tag. There’s the aforementioned defense and leadership, but there’s also the fact that Okafor’s contract is expiring, which brings us to the elephant which has caused this post.
Not only is Washington’s depth inside teetering on uncertainty for the immediate future, but also for the foreseeable future. Some assume that Okafor’s expiring contract could easily net the Wizards a high-quality talent from a team desperate to cut costs. And while team brass would not immediately spurn potential offers for ‘Meka Money-Maker, the reality is that, unless 2013-14 quickly becomes another disaster, Ernie Grunfeld (and more so Randy Wittman) would loathe to pull the trigger on a trade that would likely force Washington’s defensive culture to take a significant step back as they fight for playoff position in the East. Internally, the Wizards hope Okafor puts up solid numbers this season and then re-signs with the club for a much more reasonable rate next season, the salary one would expect a backup center to make (three years and $9 million would be nice). Of course, also internally, both Grunfeld and Wittman, in the last season of their current contacts, hope that simply making the playoffs (even with a sub-.500 record) in a pass/fail season will at least net them two more seasons of contract extension lifeline from Ted Leonsis. If the team falls flat, three curators of the current franchise culture—Grunfeld, Wittman, and most recently, Okafor—could be one-and-done in 2013-14.
And then there’s Nene Hilario. He won’t be one-and-done, that’s for sure. From next season through 2015-16, he’s on the books for $39 million total, which when combined with Nene’s mention of retirement toward the end of last season, gets the mind wandering into the what-ifs. The line doesn’t start with John Wall. No, Washington’s ability to make the playoffs simply depends on Nene playing at least 65 regular season games. Actually, that’s not simple. That’s scary. So excuse Grunfeld if he wakes up in cold sweats because he has dreams (nightmares) of talking plantar fascia and muscle tissue having a street brawl. No one else on the Wizards can potentially influence a game like Nene. Wittman won’t be able to run post offense out of another single soul on his team. It’s Nene or nothing.
Well, not nothing. The next ‘nothing’—a contingency plan, if you will—is Kevin Seraphin, whom the Wizards have seemingly dedicated more resources this summer to developing than any of the other aforementioned Wiz Kids—Booker, Vesely and Singleton. Seraphin isn’t playing with Les Bleus (Team France) at the European championships this summer. For the most part, he’s stayed his butt in the District, working out under team instruction. Have the warm months in the northern hemisphere been enough time to cure the ills of #KevinSeraphinLife? (Poor rebounding, the inability to get to the free throw line, getting lost on defense, and the highest susceptibility to post double-teams in the NBA… because he panics and teams smell blood.) With Seraphin serving as the backup power forward/center (Al Harrington is a stretch 4, not a power forward), maybe the Wizards only go as far as Seraphin goes. After all, Nene’s minutes will be limited to preserve him for the playoffs.
If any one of Singleton, Vesely, Booker, or Seraphin had stepped up with legitimate promise to-date, the Wizards wouldn’t be in this situation… under a cloud of paper-thin ruggedness when trying to further establish a culture of defensive toughness. None of these players are lost causes, yet, but if any of them had shown anything to Grunfeld, Harrington would not have been signed. But here the Wizards are, maxed-out in roster spots and presumably hoping for a stroke of healthy luck (whether they maneuver a pre-season trade to clear the glut at the 4-spot or not). Otherwise, overcoming longstanding weaknesses in player development and health perseverance by leaps and bounds has never mattered more.
Have you hugged your local Washington Wizard today?
[* NOTE: an original version of this post inaccurately portrayed the context of Okafor’s past back issues, which were limited to his time at the University of Connecticut and have not, to-date, caused him to miss time in the NBA.]
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