For the first time in two years we'll have an orthodox, full-length NBA season to look forward to. No lockout nonsense, and precious little obsession as to whether or not LeBron James will ever win the big one. He's won it, already, and our sanity as NBA followers is probably better off as a result. However big that shred of sanity is remains to be seen, following yet another offseason that once again proved that the NBA is full of Crazy McCrazytons that appear to take great delight in messing with us continually.
As a result of that offseason, and the impending regular season, why not mess with Ball Don't Lie's triptych of Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as they preview the 2012-13 season with alacrity, good cheer, and bad jokes.
We continue with the nattily-attired Washington Wizards.
Kelly Dwyer's Kilt-Straightener
The Wizards experience as discussed a few weeks ago in the wake of John Wall's injury, should bear the same fruit. Washington's season is on hold until Wall returns, most likely in late November, and the team will be treading water as he uneasily works his way back from both a worrisome knee injury, and a frustrating second season that saw the point guard essentially act as if his development as a player was to be handed to him merely as a result of cashing that second season's worth of paychecks.
Outside of those glorious mad dashes to the front of the rim, Wall continually disappointed in 2011-12; although he wasn't alone on a Wizards team that embarrassed itself routinely.
The solution, as owner Ted Leonsis sees it, is to retain the same front office and coaching staff that failed with a series of project players, and to acquire a group of talents that need less work on the fundamental aspect of things. Over last March's trade deadline and last summer's trading season, the Wizards acquired Nene, Trevor Ariza, and Emeka Okafor to shore up its frontline, finally employing a series of bigs whose shortcomings you don't have to couch with "but he has guard skills!" The hope, as Wall, Jan Vesely, and Bradley Beal work their way toward veteran respectability, is that a sense of professionalism could lead to internal development, and that consistent play would lead toward wins and a possible playoff berth.
That was a reach to begin with, and the fact that Wall will miss at least 13 games (with his minutes minded, most likely, for several more) takes away that "if everything goes right …" chance. Nene appears just as hobbled, and it's not as if they traded for the core of a playoff perennial when the team put it all out there for Okafor and Ariza's contracts. The former Hornets were the cornerstones of a lottery-winning team last year, you'll recall.
Which just has to be so frustrating. Ernie Grunfeld. Randy Wittman. Nene, with four years and $52 million left. Emeka Okafor just turned 30.
It's a classic overreaction, an overreaction we understood in both March and during the offseason, but one that didn't return enough to make the pendulum shift away from the knucklehead days worth it. Wittman has certainly been around this game long enough to accrue all manner of knowledge both as a player, assistant and head coach, and it's nice to hand him some vets; but this setup had too little room for mishaps.
And if Wall is away all summer and not exactly taking expert care of those wheels? Ugh, this is distressing.
[Fantasy Basketball '12: Play the official game of NBA.com]
What Grunfeld has done, though, is earn himself another chance. Nene's deal will never die, it can't even be used under the amnesty clause, but Okafor and Ariza's contract expire the same summer Wall will be handed a massive contract extension. This allows Grunfeld to work around the margins, even with Wall's massive salary cap hold, as Washington works with cap space (and not contract extensions) for the first time in a decade.
Until then? Somewhat remarkable players.
Kevin Seraphin truly came on late last season, but the big man still tops out as a reserve. Players like Martell Webster, Cartier Martin, Chris Singleton and Trevor Booker all play extremely hard, but they're significantly below average as a whole. Jordan Crawford shoots hard, and little else. Vesely remains an intriguing athlete, a little thicker but similar to Ariza when that jumping jack debuted with the Knicks back in 2004, but this is still a development deal.
One that focuses squarely on Wall, as he attempts to round out his game in ways that move beyond dribbling as quickly as he can into the lane, or finding the obvious open guy in the corner. We weren't expecting a Derrick Rose or Russell Westbrook-sized jump from Wall in his second year, and his overall stats did improve slightly, but the way Wall produced was worrying. He looked like the same guy that wowed us as a 19-year old in the 2010 preseason; and not like someone who had chosen boring practice drills during the offseason over yet another scrimmage to 21.
It's all very distressing, and we'd like it to end.
Projected record: 29-53
Fear Itself with Dan Devine
It is tonally appropriate that the NBA season tips off just before Halloween -- because on any given night, each and every one of the league's 30 teams can look downright frightening. Sometimes, that means your favorite team will act as their opposition's personal Freddy Krueger; sometimes, you will be the one suffering through the living nightmare. In preparation for Opening Night, BDL's Dan Devine considers what makes your team scary and what should make you scared.
What Makes You Scary: The prospect of a tough front line that's going to beat opponents up, even on defense. As our Fearless Leader covered at last season's trade deadline and during the NBA finals, the deals that brought Nene, Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza to Washington in exchange for JaVale McGee, Nick Young, Ronny Turiaf, Rashard Lewis and a second-round draft pick were aimed at changing a culture that had produced self-centered, often braindead ball in the nation's capital in recent years. Bringing in legitimate grown folks, the theory went, would begin a new chapter in D.C. defined by accountability and professionalism, and maybe kickstart stalled franchise centerpiece John Wall.
But veteran leadership only really matters if it sparks on-court change. The Wizards' best chance for a marked improvement this season is in the defensive frontcourt, where last year's team struggled and this year's team may be strongest.
Washington's D was rough overall last year, ranking bottom-10 in the league in points allowed per 100 possessions -- 21st according to Basketball-Reference.com, 24th according to Hoopdata and NBA.com's stat tool -- but things were especially bad inside. They allowed opponents to make 65 percent of their attempts at the rim, according to Hoopdata's shot location statistics, making them the fifth-most permissive interior defense in the league. They also finished 26th among 30 NBA teams in offensive rebounds allowed and 21st in defensive rebounding, meaning that when they weren't allowing opponents to score virtually at will inside, they were more than happy to offer second and third opportunities. (So kind of them.)
They won't sky for boards like JaVale, but full seasons from Nene (who pulled down a career-best 23.3 percent of available defensive rebounds last year, including 25.3 percent in 11 games in D.C.) and Okafor (defensive rebound rates higher than 24 percent in six of eight NBA seasons, and he was injured in the other two) should help Washington improve its glass security and limit easy putbacks. Similarly, though neither will turn away shots as often as McGee -- you'd have to add up Nene's (2.4 percent) and Okafor's (4.2 percent) career block rates to equal McGee's mark (6.6 percent) -- both profile as sounder, stronger, more positionally secure defenders, more likely to stay true in one-on-one matchups and force contested looks than chase swats.
And while both players struggled with injuries last season (Okafor worse, missing 39 games with a left knee injury), both performed well down low defensively in their last healthy stretches of action. Small-sample-size alerts apply, but Nene allowed 0.70 points per possession (PPP) when defending post-ups with Denver last year, ranking 40th in the league, according to Synergy Sports Technology's play-charting data ... and he was even better in Washington, holding opponents to 0.55 PPP. In 2010-11, Okafor's last full season with the New Orleans Hornets, he allowed a solid-but-not-great 0.79 PPP on post-ups, but was a wall on attempted isolations, allowing just 0.51 PPP (eighth-best in the league) en route to finishing 28th in the NBA in overall defense (0.78 PPP).
If Nene comes back 100 percent from his left foot injury and is able to take the floor alongside Okafor as part of a big-man rotation that includes improving center Kevin Seraphin (whose defensive rebounding and block rates rose and who finished 48th in Synergy's overall PPP allowed metrics last year, and who impressed for France at the 2012 Summer Olympics), sophomore Jan Vesely (who has a long way to go defensively, but has the size, frame and athleticism to make a leap quickly) and third-year man Trevor Booker (whose Synergy peripherals dipped from his rookie season, but who has shown himself to be a versatile, hard-nosed defender), the Wizards' front line should be equipped to handle most bigs without double-teaming. If they can do that, coach Randy Wittman can play straight up more often, making the task of limiting open perimeter looks a bit easier for long, active defenders like Ariza and Chris Singleton, which could make scoring on the Wizards in the half court a pretty daunting task for stretches.
Yes, that's a lot of "ifs." But if it all comes together, Washington will be poised to make a massive leap forward in defensive efficiency, and have a legitimate shot at its first middle-of-the-pack finish in that category since ... 1997-98? Seriously? Wow.
What Should Make You Scared: Um, where will the points come from? As rough as Washington's defense was last year, its offense was even worse, and even when Wall finally resumes full health following his knee injury, I'm not so sure it's going to be much better.
Hoopdata and NBA.com both had the Wiz tied for the second-least-efficient offense in the league last season, while Basketball-Reference has them tied for fourth-worst. Washington played fast, averaging the NBA's sixth-highest number of possessions per game, but they also played loose, turning the ball over at the league's 11th-highest rate. They ranked among the league's five worst teams in free-throw percentage, 3-point percentage, True Shooting percentage and assist rate. They were dreadful from midrange, finishing dead last from between 10 and 15 feet out, and 26th between 16 and 23 feet away, per Hoopdata.
On top of that, they'll begin the season without three of last year's four leading scorers in the lineup, relying on A.J. Price (he of the epic sonning), Shelvin Mack (he of the dance shared with Robert Pack, and not much else) and/or Jannero Pargo (who once inspired Kelly Dwyer to write, "Jannero Pargo doesn't help. Jannero Pargo hurts") to take primary responsibility for generating quality looks, which sounds pretty frightening to me. I'm not sure if it's more or less frightening than the idea of asking shot-happy off-guard Jordan Crawford to assume a bigger role in the team's offense when he already takes 17.9 shots per 36 minutes of floor time (and misses three out of five of them), but it's very scary all the same.
The only potential "plus" outside shooter on the Wizards roster is vaunted rookie Bradley Beal, and it doesn't seem especially realistic to expect any 19-year-old to step into the lineup and immediately be the sole reliable floor-spacer responsible for creating room for the likes of Nene, Okafor, Seraphin and Vesely to operate inside, even if he is the No. 3 overall pick. If Wall misses significant time, it wouldn't be surprising at all to see Washington's offense take an even further step backward; even if he comes back quickly and hits the ground running, Wiz fans could be in for some ugly-lookin' ball. (Especially if he's still missing, literally, 92.9 percent of his 3-point attempts.)
Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis
There is no more important asset for a basketball team than talent, and yet the more loaded squad does not always win. What we've seen in recent seasons isn't only that the best team wins, but that the group with the clearest sense of self, from management down through the players, prevails. A team must not only be talented, but sure of its goals, present and future, and the best methods of obtaining them. Most NBA teams have trouble with their identity. Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis is a window into those struggles, the accomplishment of realizing a coherent identity, and the pitfalls of believing these issues to be solved.
Over roughly two years, the Wizards have made a special effort to rid themselves of their supposed problem children: Gilbert Arenas, JaVale McGee, Nick Young, and Andray Blatche. After this summer, that task is completed, and the franchise has recast itself as a more professional outfit, one where no one brings guns into the locker room or poops in a teammate's shoe (as a goof). Those players have been swapped out for Nene, rookie shooting guard Bradley Beal, and a host of others unlikely to embarrass the organization.
However, bringing in mature veterans only means so much when a team's fortunes largely depend on one supremely talented, quite frustrating former top pick in the draft. When John Wall entered the NBA in 2010, many analysts (including me, near the top) thought that he would be an instant sensation and make significant progress towards becoming the best point guard in the league. Though his jumper clearly needed work, Wall's quickness, vision, and ballhawking defense suggested a player particularly well suited for the more open NBA game. Instead, we've seen a work in progress, someone struggling to improve.
To be sure, Wall still has plenty of time and talent to get to the All-Star level many have predicted for him since he was in high school, and last season's lockout presumably stunted his growth more than second-year players in other seasons. But things aren't getting any easier for Wall — he'll miss the first month with a knee injury — and at some point his lack of development, excuses or not, will begin to define both his career and the progress of the Wizards. In other words, Washington's hopes of becoming a more mature outfit only really matter if Wall becomes a more dependable player both on and off the court.
The Wizards should be hopeful that will happen, if only because their franchise's future depends on it. But if they don't see significant progress from Wall soon, the rumblings will grow louder. They might end up with an outlook just as uncertain as that of the team they tried so hard to leave behind.