Usually NBA season previews are best read in October, back when football games hardly mattered, Midnight Madness was a few weeks away, and baseball was winding down. Perhaps with the last of the offseason's iced tea in hand, as you whiled away on an too-warm-for-the-season afternoon.
Well, pour yourself a glass of bull shot and tighten those mittens, because it's mid-December and the NBA decided to have a season this year. As such, the exegetes at Ball Don't Lie are previewing the 2011-12 campaign in a mad rush, as if you or us would have it any other way. So put down the shovel long enough to listen to Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine, and Eric Freeman as they break down each of the NBA's 29 teams, plus Toronto.
This time? It's the Washington Wizards
Kelly Dwyer's Reasons to be Cheerful
I don't mean to be flip, and I was halfway through writing that sentence when I realized that I was creating an unfortunate pun, but something had to shift in Washington and the old Wizards uniforms had to go. You can't change the name, the switch from the "Bullets" to "Wizards" was initiated by a man who deserves to have his legacy preserved, but you can change the look. And after 14 years of mess, the team in the District of Columbia looks like an American flag again.
That's symbolic, regardless of jingoism or chest-beating. The old Bullets made the playoffs in their final year flush with a young frontline and hot shot point man, ready to do damage once Michael Jordan retired. Instead, GM Wes Unseld retired his brain as he traded Chris Webber to Sacramento following a near-return trip to the playoffs in the team's first year as the Wizards. And, sure, this franchise made the playoffs a few times in the middle part of the last decade, but that team was never going anywhere. Maybe that's just my years-old prejudices against Gilbert Arenas' game allowing me some revisionist history, but they didn't scare anyone. Not in those jerseys, at least.
At the risk of losing cheer, this group isn't going anywhere any time soon. The odd rumors of veteran free agent signings (sparked to allow the team to meet its minimum salary cap requirements) tends to belie the team's rebuilding ways, so strange for a crew that drafted a 19-year old and a just-turned 21-year old with raw skills in consecutive drafts. There will be reasons to watch this team, though, which is good for a team that usually leads off the League Pass slate of games at 7 p.m., Eastern.
John Wall is the obvious go-to move, here, but more often this season he'll have the ball on the break and the ability to slither. Because Javale McGee, best-worst defender ever, is back to give up a million lay-ups but also toss back a billion blocks. Ronny Turiaf, acquired for absolutely nothing, blocks nearly as much while actually playing sound team defense. Andray Blatche will be around to miss yet another double-clutcher in the paint, and Jordan Crawford's hubris will be a good test for Wall's burgeoning leadership skills this season. JC was allowed to shoot at will late last year, but the Wizards cannot afford the same even as they work to pile up another lottery pick in 2011-12.
Above it all, there's Wall. We'll enjoy Jan Veesly and work to post his dunk videos up on BDL as soon as they become available to us, but Wall's coast-to-coast antics are worth waiting this rebuilding process out for.
You are going to have to wait, mind you, but we warned you about that Gilbert Arenas contract extension ages ago and the stank from that won't wash away until next July. Of course by then the Wizards will have barely a third of the salary cap filled up, and another lottery pick on board.
That's seven months away, though. Until summer hits? Sweet uniforms, DC.
Dan Devine Has Feelings about Your Team: Washington Wizards
I'm so excited for you!
I'm really, really excited by the prospect of the Washington Wizards running this year, especially because at first I was worried they wouldn't get to.
See, my mind's eye pictures a Flip Saunders Team as a very deliberate group, a mental image almost certainly stamped into place by his glacial (and very successful) Detroit Pistons squads. But after going back through his career coaching record on Basketball-Reference, I saw that my perception didn't really mesh with reality.
Yes, the Chauncey Billups-triggered, veteran-laden, grit-grind Pistons teams that Saunders coached all played at either the slowest or second-slowest pace in the NBA from 2005 through 2008. Several of his Minnesota Timberwolves teams -- most notably the 2003-04 and 2004-05 versions, which were likewise veteran teams piloted by an efficient, slow-down point guard in Sam Cassell -- ranked in the bottom-third of the league's pace rankings, too.
But when Flip's had horses, he's let them run. His 1997-98 and '98-'99 Wolves, featuring bookend burners in Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury, averaged 92.6 and 91 possessions per game, good for fourth- and fifth-fastest in the league, respectively. The '02-'03 Minnesota team, which saw a 26-year-old Troy Hudson distributing to a 26-year-old KG and a 25-year-old Wally Szczerbiak, also pushed a top-10 pace at 91.9 possessions per game. And helmed by John Wall -- who, with all due respect to Steph, is the most jet-fueled guard Flip's ever had -- last year's Wizards averaged 93.8 possessions per game, the ninth-fastest pace in the league and the fastest of Saunders' career.
Some of that is probably unintentional -- Washington was young, not particularly savvy and woefully inefficient last year, and the combination of inexperience and scrambling to undo mistakes makes all that rushing a bit more understandable. Also, as Zach Lowe noted at SI.com's The Point Forward blog a few weeks back, the last time we had a labor-crisis-shortened season, teams tended to take their time bringing the ball up the court, so pell-mell plans may be slow in developing this year.
But Saunders' record over the years suggests that he'll let his teams play at high speeds if the style suits the roster. With Wall running the show, eternal dunk-seeker JaVale McGee manning the middle, athletic rookies Jan Vesely and Chris Singleton running the wings, and no must-feed post presence requiring slow-down sets every trip down the floor, the talent certainly seems to call for an up-tempo approach. With any luck, that could mean some very exciting (and at times messy) ball to watch.
I'm so worried for you!
Few NBA players are as alternately exhilarating and maddening as McGee, Washington's specimen of a center. He's one of the most entertaining players in the league ... just not always for the right reasons.
His size, quickness, evident physical tools and that 7-foot-6 "Condorman" wingspan -- a unique combination that can lead to jaw-dropping feats like this awe-inspiring erasure of a Wesley Matthews dunk -- frequently make him the most compelling player on the floor. But if you watch him long enough, you'll invariably see him do stuff like give up body contact with his man and rebounding position to chase a block on the wing or try to kill James Jones by dunking through him or something, and you feel like you have to look away because he's trying too hard to impress you while you're watching. (On some level, we are all eager parents at JaVale's Little League game.)
And then you remember that he's about to turn 24, that he was incredibly raw coming out of Nevada, that a lot of crazy stuff has happened in the Wizards franchise over the past three years, and that he's only now starting to get some sense of stability. Remembering those mitigating factors makes you resume hoping that he's moments away from everything clicking. It's a very possible outcome, and one for which I'm hoping, to be honest.
What worries me is that JaVale is making $2.46 million to start for the Wizards this season, that he's eligible for a contract extension; that if one doesn't come by Jan. 25, 2012, he's set for restricted free agency with a $3.49 million qualifying offer next summer, as Michael Lee reported in Tuesday's Washington Post; and that he just saw two teams show they were willing to pay DeAndre Jordan -- a player to whom JaVale compares pretty well -- $42.7 million over four years. What worries me is that, like a lot of young guys eager for their first big score, the contract stuff could get in JaVale's way this year.
To his credit, according to Lee's great WaPo piece, McGee's saying the right things -- talking about being patient, being a leader and being a catalyst in the return of winning basketball to Washington. Saunders says the center's doing some of them, too, praising McGee for "trying to be very disciplined in his play [and] not trying to do too many things that he can't do." But Lee also has McGee saying that the prospect of the new contract "definitely influences how well I perform this year." I worry that influence could be negative.
I have no idea what to make of you!
I will admit my biases: When it comes to Andray Blatche, I am Fox Mulder hanging posters in my basement office. I want to believe.
I want to believe that a 6-foot-11-inch power forward who has, at varying times, shown scoring acumen, face-up quickness, touch and at least some capacity to pass isn't a lost cause at age 25. I want to believe that Blatche really wants to get moving in the right direction and that he really is taking the opportunity to be a leader seriously.
I want to believe that veteran guard Roger Mason Jr. is telling the truth when he tells Truth About It's Kyle Weidie that "the Andray Blatche I see right now is more mature, he understands his responsibility." I want to believe that all those offseason proclamations turn into something more than empty talk to mockingly link back to later in the season; failing that, I will at least accept those proclamations resulting in a few more concerted efforts to execute his defensive assignment. I think he could actually be good, and I'd like to see it.
Given the preponderance of evidence to the contrary that Blatche has provided throughout his six-year career, I'm ready to once again play Scully. But for right now, with everyone at 0-0 and the Wizards tied for first in the Southeast, I'll hang onto the hope that for the truth of what Andray Blatche can be remains out there.
Eric Freeman's Culture Club
The worlds of the NBA and popular culture intersect often. Actors and musicians show up at games, players cameo in their shows and movies and make appearances at their concerts. Yet the connections go deeper than these simple relationships — a work of art can often explain the situation of an NBA team. Eric Freeman's Culture Club makes these comparisons explicit. In each installment, we'll assign one movie, TV show, album, song, novel, short story, or filmstrip to the previewed team.
Washington Wizards, "Less Than Zero"
In "Less Than Zero," the 1987 film adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis's debut novel, Andrew McCarthy returns to his hometown of Los Angeles after his first semester of college. To his surprise, he finds that his best friends, Jami Gertz and Robert Downey Jr., have gotten into drugs (particularly the latter) and generally started to live very different lifestyles. The friendship is still there, but they're effectively different people. The conflict for McCarthy, apart from making sure his friends don't die (the movie is much more overtly anti-drug than the novel), is figuring out how to stay close to people he loves even as they become part of a crowd he'd like to avoid.
John Wall is on the precipice of stardom, both in terms of his on-court and potential and his possibilities off the court. Unfortunately for him, he plays on a team that can be described charitably as "eccentric," full of guys like Nick Young and JaVale McGee with bizarre alter egos and silly haircuts. They're likely not on drugs, but there's a sense that their career goals aren't quite the same as those of Wall. He seems altogether more serious.
However, Wall still depends on them for his own success and has some deeper relationship as part of their young core. He can't feasibly leave them behind, because the NBA doesn't work that way until a guy becomes an unrestricted free agent. For now, he has to hold fast to them even as it becomes increasingly clear they might not be the best people for him to be around. Hopefully the Wizards' situation won't end like things did in "Less Than Zero," and not just because I don't want to imagine Jan Vesely as James Spader.