Saturday, July 28, 2007

Wizards have potential for great season

I understand that it's currently baseball season. I also know that football season is right around the corner. And while I have high hopes for the ongoing progression of the Orioles and the Redskins 2007-2008 season, I have constantly been thinking about the upcoming Wizards season. I fully believe that Wizards GM Ernie Grunfeld and the rest of the Wiz front office have done a spectacular job over the last couple years and have completely turned the whole franchise around. The team is filled with promise for both the short and long term.

The most important part of the construction of the present Wizards roster happened about four years ago with the signing of Gilbert Arenas in 2003. Once Arenas was signed, the Wizards traded with the Mavericks in 2004 for Antawn Jamison and took on his large salary. And in 2005, the Wizards traded the extremely overmatched Kwame Brown to the Lakers and received Caron Butler in return. With these three moves, the Wizards formed a three-headed scoring machine that dramatically improved the team.

The Wizards returned to the playoffs in 2004-2005, and they even managed to get to the second round, but they were soundly defeated by the Miami Heat. The Wizards lost in the first round to the Cleveland Cavs the next two seasons. While the big three of Arenas, Jamison, and Butler is, at this very moment, as strong and as formidable as ever, the team has lacked consistent play outside of those three. It's starting to look like that time may be over.

In 2005 the Wizards lacked a first round pick, but that didn't stop them from selecting Andray Blatche out of high school in the second round. And in 2006 the Wizards drafted Oleksiy Pecherov with the 18th pick in the first round, who was unable to join the Wiz until this summer. In free agency in 2006, the Wizards signed DeShawn Stevenson and Darius Songaila, who both performed relatively well as sidekicks to the big three. Stevenson recently signed a 4 year, $15 million dollar contract to remain with the team. And in the 2007 NBA Draft, the Wizards chose Nick Young in the first round and Dominic McGuire in the second round. Both of these rookies should make the team with ease.

With players like Jarvis Hayes and Michael Ruffin probably on the way out, more playing time will be devoted to this younger group of role players for the Wizards. Blatche, who will probably be re-signed within the next couple weeks, is only 21 years old. Pecherov and McGuire are also 21, Young is 22, and Stevenson is 26. Arenas himself is only 25, surprisingly. The point is this -- the Wizards have a lot of young and promising talent that should be able to shoulder much of the load for whatever Arenas, Butler, and Jamison cannot handle.

The Wizards starting five will probably look the same as last year's:

1 Arenas
2 Stevenson
3 Butler
4 Jamison
5 Haywood

I still don't expect that much out of Brendan Haywood. He's probably just as effective as Etan Thomas, but I'm just not sure what to think of him. Sometimes he'll look great on the floor by being active on the glass and blocking shots. And at other times, he'll look like he's standing in quicksand and won't do much of anything inside the paint. And, although taking charges is a part of today's NBA, I don't know if there's a bigger player in the league who flops around the court more than Haywood does.

The big difference for this team, though, comes with the dramatic improvement to the bench. The seven guys sitting on the bench will probably be Antonio Daniels, Etan Thomas, Songaila, Blatche, Young, McGuire, and Pecherov, in no particular order. Not only does this group bring a lot of upside to usually underwhelming assortment of players on the bench, but each player seems to bring a different skill set to the table. Daniels is the backup point guard who has shown that he can lead the team and run the show without Arenas on the floor. Thomas occasionally starts at center, and even though he's undersized at the position, he seems to play harder than Haywood does and manages to split time with him during the season. Songaila brought some stability to the forward position for the Wizards by playing defense and hitting jump shots to spread out opposing defenses. Blatche has shown flashes of brilliance by snatching rebounds above the rim and blocking shots with ease. In college and during a few games of the NBA's Summer League, Young showed that he can slash and score. McGuire demonstrated that he's a versatile talent who can bring some defensive ability as well. And Pecherov could one day team with Blatche to form a very interesting combination.

I know that last paragraph was pretty long, but you need to understand one thing -- the Wizards aren't a joke anymore. They might not be the best team in the Eastern Conference, but they're a force to be reckoned with. As long as the big three stays healthy and the bench keeps developing in order to contribute rebounding, defense, and the occasional scoring punch, the Wizards could be one of the surprise teams next year.

But it's still a little too early for all this talk. So for now, maybe I'll just keep reading Arenas's blog to occupy some time -- that's always good for a few laughs.

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