Wednesday, January 25, 2012

After firing Flip, Wiz still need massive organizational overhaul

The Wizards dismissed head coach Flip Saunders yesterday, making him the first person to lose his job after the team's dreadful 2-15 start to the season. Randy Wittman takes over, which is not an upgrade. Wittman is no coaching medicine man -- far from it. Fans won't be happy with him if he continuously plays Rashard Lewis and Andray Blatche 35 minutes a night and keeps Chris Singleton, Trevor Booker, Jan Vesely, and Shelvin Mack tethered to the bench. Hopefully Blatche and Lewis see reduced minutes, but that won't happen. Look how many games it took for Mack to receive backup point guard minutes. Regardless, there's not much of a chance that Wittman sticks around after the season.

I don't think there's a single person out there who thinks this whole mess is simply Saunders's fault. He's certainly no one's top choice to lead a bunch of young players and is much better coaching a veteran-laden team, but he still deserves some blame. Everyone involved with this debacle does. The Wizards are a team without a direction. They're rudderless. Under general manager Ernie Grunfeld, things could not get much worse than they are now.

The Wizards have lost three times to the aging, 7-9 Celtics, with the most recent loss against Boston coming when the Celtics were without Rajon Rondo for the entire game and Ray Allen (left with an ankle injury) in the second half. Within the last month, the Wizards have lost to the T'Wolves by 21, scored just 64 points and lost by 14 against a Bulls team playing without Derrick Rose, dropped a game by four to a Nuggets team playing without Nene Hilario, and have been dismantled three times by the Sixers by a combined 64 points.

Have you looked at the Wizards roster lately? The Wizards have one really good player: John Wall. His current game is not without flaws, but this post is not about picking apart Wall's game. He has things he needs to work on, no doubt; but if Wall played on a different team and was surrounded by more talent, not only would his numbers be much better, but that team would have several more wins. If Wall were even just playing with mediocre players who worked hard, this team would probably be better. Instead, there's a lot of average-to-good players who think they're better than they are, and that unselfish play has been one of the most disappointing and hard-to-watch characteristics of this team.

The next best player on the roster is probably JaVale McGee. Then there's some combination of Blatche, Nick Young, Jordan Crawford, Lewis, Singleton, and Booker. Mack and Vesely seem like useful young players, and they've been seeing more minutes the last few games. Singleton and Booker may be the two players who demonstrate the most hustle and toughness on the team, and they should unquestionably be receiving consistent minutes. But they are also flawed players and will never be stars. They can be serviceable role players, sure, but that's probably their ceiling.

The Wizards could use a superstar, or even a star, to play alongside Wall. I don't know if Wall can ever be the best player on a great, or even really good, team, but he needs some help. And that group of players after Wall and McGee is really where the problem lies. (Some also think McGee is a problem, and that may be true as well.) And that's mostly Grunfeld's fault. Grunfeld has failed repeatedly in the draft to hit on several players, many of them raw, athletic types.

Grunfeld was hired in June 2003. He's made a few shrewd trades and signings -- piecing Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison, and Caron Butler together, most notably -- but he has not done a good job when it comes to drafting players. Let's take a look.

2003: Jarvis Hayes (10th), Steve Blake (38th). The Blake pick was nice; the Hayes pick was not. Notable players taken in the first round after Hayes: Nick Collison, Luke Ridnour, David West, Boris Diaw, Travis Outlaw, Carlos Delfino, Kendrick Perkins, and Josh Howard.

2004: Devin Harris (5th), Peter John Ramos (33rd). Shipped Harris, Jerry Stackhouse, and Christian Laettner to the Mavericks for Jamison. Defensible move. Notable players taken after "Party John": Chris Duhon and Trevor Ariza.

2005: Andray Blatche (49th). Arguably Grunfeld's best pick. Arguably also Grunfeld's worst pick, because fans have to watch Andray Blatche. The Wizards had no first-round pick after trading that pick and Laron Profit to the Magic for Brendan Haywood. The pick ended up being 20th overall.

2006: Oleksiy Pecherov (18th), Vladimir Veremeenko (48th). Maybe Grunfeld's worst draft. Notable players taken after Pecherov in the first round: Rajon Rondo, Kyle Lowry, Shannon Brown, and Jordan Farmar.

2007: Nick Young (16th), Dominic McGuire (47th). Notable players taken after Young in the first round: Marco Belinelli, Daequan Cook, Jared Dudley, Wilson Chandler, Rudy Fernandez, Aaron Brooks, Arron Afflalo, and Tiago Splitter.

2008: JaVale McGee (18th), Bill Walker (47th). Walker was traded to the Celtics for cash considerations. Notable players taken after McGee in the first round: J.J. Hickson, Ryan Anderson, Serge Ibaka, Nicolas Batum, George Hill, and Darrell Arthur.

2009: Jermaine Taylor (32nd). The Wizards traded the fifth pick (which turned into Ricky Rubio), Etan Thomas, Darius Songaila, and Oleksiy Pecherov for Randy Foye and Mike Miller. At the time, the Wizards were risking everything on the big three working out. It did not, and it looks really, really bad now. Oh, and the Wizards again traded away a player (Taylor) for cash. So in 2009, the Wizards ended up with zero drafted players.

2010: John Wall (1st). After a flurry of moves, the Wizards also ended up with Kevin Seraphin (17th), Trevor Booker (23rd), and Hamady N'Diaye (56th). Wall is obviously the real prize; Booker seems solid, too. But here are other notable players in the first round picked after Seraphin: Eric Bledsoe (would've made little sense with Wall), Jordan Crawford (current Wizard), and Greivis Vásquez. It's still early, but overall 2010 doesn't seem like a very deep draft class.

2011: Jan Vesely (6th), Chris Singleton (18th), Shelvin Mack (34th). Too early to tell, but this class does have some promise.

There are way too many missed opportunities in those drafts. Of course, it's too easy to look back and see how badly Grunfeld messed up on various picks. All general managers have made bad picks, or at least picks they wish they could go back and change. Hindsight is 20/20, and all that.

It's possible that many of the drafted players who didn't pan out just weren't that good to begin with. But it's also worth looking at Mike Wise's JaVale/Pamela McGee article a little closer. Ignoring all of the "mother protecting her son" stuff, Wizards fans should notice an underlying problem: The Wizards are terrible at developing talent. Who is the best player the Wizards have developed in the last decade? Bullets Forever's Jake Whitacre said a few days ago that it might be Blatche, and he's probably right. How sad is that?

Why aren't the Wizards more open to doing all they can to develop their players? Couldn't they have brought in different coaches or more efficient specialists? Players like McGee seem willing to learn and improve. Every Wizards player may not be like that, but the fact remains that players don't come to Washington and get that much better. And that's an organizational failure.

Just like the organization, the players deserve their fair share of the blame as well. How often have fans complained this season (and previous seasons) about Blatche, Young, McGee, and Crawford? Are all of those guys doing everything in their power to improve their games? At times, it seems like those four only care about their numbers and are willing to sacrifice wins in order to get buckets. That just can't happen.

Regarding the future of this team, lots of questions remain, including: Has Grunfeld done enough to stick around? Has he given his coaches enough talent to win basketball games? Has he kept improving the overall depth of Wizards' rosters? No, he hasn't.

Because of how horrible this team is, the Wizards will have an excellent chance at a top three pick in the next draft, but I don't have much confidence that Grunfeld will select the right player. And unless better coaches are in place, I also don't believe that player will develop at the level necessary to help turn this team around. I also have little trust that even if he does make a strong pick that he'll be able to surround that player and Wall with the right types of pieces.

Grunfeld has used up all of his excuses. He has been around for nearly a decade, and look where the Wizards are now. He's more responsible for this debacle than Saunders ever was, and it's time for Ted Leonsis to clean house and start in a different direction.