Wizards Training Camp FAQ: How will the frontcourt rotation play out?
[Washington Wizards 2013-14 training camp is upon us. I bet you have some questions. Well, the TAI crew has answers. Five of us will cover five different frequently asked questions in a five-part series as the Wizards get ready to host Media Day on Friday, and then get to training camp work on the campus on George Mason on Saturday.]
How will Washington’s frontcourt rotation play out, especially considering the Emeka Okafor injury?
Will Nene begrudgingly play center more than he wants? Who of the Wiz Kids will rise to the top? Will Randy Wittman turn to small lineups late in games even more?
—John Converse Townsend (@JohnCTownsend)
In the first three months of World War I, the entire original British army was nearly wiped out. That meant that in order “to make the world safe for democracy,” the requirements for army volunteers had to be lowered. In August 1914, a volunteer for the British army had to be 5-foot-8 to enlist. By October, the mandated height for machine gun fodder was 5-foot-5. Thirty-thousand deaths and one month later, it was lowered to 5-foot-3.
Next man up. That was the prevailing philosophy which kept battle lines relatively steady, shifting no more than a few yards, sometimes a few miles, at any given time. Next man up is also the familiar philosophy that the Washington Wizards will have to employ as they prepare for their 2013-14 campaign, which I like to call “Playoffs or Bust II: Here We Go Again.”
While they haven’t suffered the type of losses the British army did—no player has died in a trench, nor will they—injuries will keep Emeka Okafor and Chris Singleton out of uniform and off the front line.
The big problem is that the Wizards big men were already the team’s weakest link. Which big will step up?
Nene? Nene, the second highest-paid player on the roster (behind Okafor), is critical to the team’s success. Last year’s on/off court numbers tell much of the story. When Nene was on the court, the Wizards were a plus-2.7 in plus/minus. That was the biggest positive effect (not counting Jason Collins’ plus-13.2 because he only played 54 minutes). When the Brazilian was on the bench, the team suffered most: minus-6.3. Nene also had the best NetRtg at plus-3.
Nene has been a hoss in the plus/minus category over his career. Between 2008-09 and 2010-11, Nene dominated the Nuggets on/off court data. Over those three seasons, Nene’s NetRtg was plus-5.23. (Only J.R. Smith was better, consistently, putting together an average NetRtg of plus-7.73.) That type of team impact may be one reason the Wizards happily traded JaVale McGee for the privilege of paying out the rest of Nene’s five-year, $67-million deal.
He is a good rebounder (13.6 TRB%, behind Okafor and Trevor Booker) and has the size, strength and mobility on the perimeter that no other player on the roster has. A potential positive of playing him at center is that he won’t have the opportunity to take (and miss) as many mid-range jumpers.
One issue with Nene rotating to the 5 spot in place of Okafor is that he’s a better operator in the high post—he can pass teammates open the same way elite NFL quarterbacks put the pigskin where only their receivers can catch it. Webster and Ariza were big-time cutters in Wittman’s offense and Nene was the only big man who could find them for points—his 19.0 AST% was third on the team behind point guards John Wall and A.J. Price. Nene’s career-high 23.4 USG% suggests that, like Wall, Nene was a key cog in the Wizards War Machine.
The Wizards, given their options, will have to play Nene at center more often than they would probably like (he saw 18 percent of the team’s minutes at center last season) and hope for the best. He has plenty of experience there late in games, anyway.
Kevin Seraphin? Randy Wittman has “expectations for Kevin to have a better year than he did last year.” Last year, Seraphin provided the Wizards with less production than any other player in the NBA, so expecting a better season is neither saying much nor expecting a whole lot.
“I’ve been working out,” Seraphin, feeling more prepared, told the Washington Post’s Michael Lee. “I’m looking good right now. Now, I’m more explosive, I’m more quicker and I can play longer at a higher intensity.”
If true, and if he can prove it on the hardwood, we should see a Seraphin who not only rebounds better but also finishes with more tenacity in the paint. He has the body to bang at 6-foot-9 and 277 pounds (now with less fat!), so improving upon his 1.8 FTA per 36 minutes should be easy.
But physicality isn’t everything. Seraphin—who will probably start the season at center for Washington after getting 25 percent of available minutes there last season—needs to play smarter. When he was on the court, the Wizards were 6.1 points worse in plus/minus, and the team was plus-0.2 better with Seraphin on the bench. He finished the season with the second highest USG% on the team behind John Wall (ignoring Jordan Crawford, who finished second), but also with the second worst OffRtg (89), a tough TOV% (14.7), and a below average PER (10.3).
Worth noting that, last year, the two-man duo of Seraphin and Nene had a better NetRtg (minus-3.0) than the duo of Seraphin and Okafor (minus-7.3). It also had a slight edge in REB%, its eFG% was almost six points better (53.2), and it played at a faster pace.
Jan Vesely? At EuroBasket 2013, Vesely demonstrated why he developed a cult following among rabid Partizan fans. This guy was practically a Euro legend when the Wizards plucked him sixth at the draft in 2011. He’s a power forward for the Wiz, but spent most of his time at center for the Czech national team this summer, where Vesely put up 17 points and 11.2 rebounds per game. ESPN3 play-by-play guy (who I believe was Kevin Connors) couldn’t help but gush about Vesely. “There’s not a more athletic player on the floor—trust me,” he said on one occasion. “He runs like a deer and he can fly.” The issue is that while that may have been true in Slovenia, that will never be true in the U.S., unless Vesely were to rush the court and interrupt a Wizards halftime show.
More playing time will likely be in store, but Vesely’s chance of cracking the starting lineup is as likely as the Wizards getting out of the first round of the playoffs … if they even make it to the post-season.
Al Harrington? John Wall is certainly a fan: “We got what we needed with Al Harrington. He looks healthy, and to bring in a true veteran who knows what it takes to win was important for us.”
And there’s big potential in a Harrington-Nene big man duo, which outscored opponents by 11.9 points when both players were in Denver in 2010-11, as noted by Mike Prada of Bullets Forever. But it’s not realistic to pencil in Harrington, 34, as a regular starter, a role he hasn’t owned since 2008-09—back when Shaq was still leading the league in FG% and the same year the SuperSonics moved to Oklahoma City.
Harrington projects as a stretch 4 who will get some run with the second unit and, like Trevor Ariza, in Wittman’s small ball lineup, who’ll help John Wall by spacing the floor and, ideally, knocking down a few jumpers.
Trevor Booker? At this point, we’ve pretty much seen everything that Booker has to offer. Unless he comes back with a shiny new jump shot and better defensive awareness (not likely), Booker will again be a situational frontcourt option off the bench.
This band of brothers’ resolve will be tested. The Wizards expect to make the postseason, but going “over the top” to get the job done isn’t something this shaky squad has been able to do. If they don’t want those playoff aspirations to get shot to ribbons, the young players at every position will have to grow up quick, because with the roster locked at 15, reinforcements aren’t on the way anytime soon.