Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Latest trade is more of the same from Grunfeld

Oh, hey, the Wizards made a trade today, shipping Rashard Lewis and his huge, expiring contract, along with the 46th overall pick, to the Hornets in exchange for Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza. Okafor and Ariza both have two years remaining on their contracts, meaning the Wizards think enough of both guys to want them around and play significant minutes. Okafor is scheduled to make $13.5 million next season and $14.5 million the season after, while Ariza will make $7.3 million and $7.7 million in the same time frame.

I'm not going to go through all of the other salary information and potential roster ramifications -- Mike Prada of Bullets Forever already did a fantastic job of that here -- but the trade boils down to Ernie Grunfeld choosing Okafor and Ariza over other free agents the team could have rolled with instead, either this upcoming year or next. And, even though my initial reaction to the trade was an indifferent one, I now believe that it's a puzzling decision, at best.

If you look at the trade simply, then the deal doesn't look so bad for Washington. Lewis was going to be paid his money and sent packing regardless of where he was traded, so getting two players for nothing is always nice. Also, instead of paying Lewis to walk away next season and getting nothing in return, that money is being used to pay part of Ariza's and Okafor's salaries. Unfortunately, the Wizards sacrificed a lot of cap flexibility, particularly in 2013.

And there's another small problem: Neither player is a major upgrade or adds much to the team. First, let's look at Ariza. Athletic and 6'8, he's a versatile defensive player, which the Wizards don't have a whole lot of on the perimeter. Chris Singleton was supposed to be a lockdown perimeter defender, and he still may develop into one, but he struggled mightily to stick with quicker, more accomplished scorers last season. That's not unusual -- he was a rookie, after all -- but he has a lot of work to do. Ariza is an upgrade in that department. But the skill the Wizards arguably need the most is shooting, which is not one of Ariza's strong suits. He hasn't made more than 46 percent of his shots since 2008-2009, and he's just a 31.7 percent three-point shooter for his career. He's a better scorer than Singleton, but not overly so. Here's Ariza's career shooting stats compared to Singleton's last season (keep in mind, there's a much larger sample for Ariza, who's been in the league since 2004):

Ariza: 43.1 FG% / 31.7 3P% / 67.4 FT%
Singleton: 37.2 FG% / 34.7 3P% / 68.2 FT%

Again, Ariza is easily the better all-around player than Singleton, and he could end up putting up improved numbers with John Wall running the show and creating some easy buckets for him. But Singleton still has time to get better and is still much cheaper since he's on his rookie deal. Singleton will still get minutes, but not as much with the veteran blocking him from starting at small forward. Hopefully Singleton is still able to get the necessary minutes to improve his game.

On to the addition of Okafor, which seems superfluous for a Wizards frontcourt that already includes Nene, Kevin Seraphin, Trevor Booker, and Jan Vesely. At 6'10, 252 pounds, Okafor is similar in size to the 6'11, 250 pound Nene, and he'll help with the team's rebounding and ability to protect the rim. But can they both share the court at the same time? And how are the Wizards going to get playing time for all of Seraphin, Booker, and Vesely? Those three, especially Seraphin, at times showed flashes of improved play, so it seems a bit odd to bring in another guy who's going to play a bunch of minutes. It's possible that this trade is just the first of one or two more that round out the roster a bit, but right now there are huge question marks. Then again, Nene and Okafor have both dealt with nagging injuries in their careers, so it wouldn't be a bad thing to have guys ready behind them if/when they go down. But it was also much easier to defend the Nene trade last season since he's the better player and also still allowed the Wizards to play the youngsters beside him. With Okafor in Washington, there aren't as many minutes to go around.

So the Wizards took cap space they were going to have after next season and filled it with two players who don't make the team that much better but who are names that fans have probably heard of. And the two players aren't even great fits for the team. Yes, that seems like a Grunfeld move: wasting cap space for no apparent reason while fitting square pegs into round holes.

Many have speculated that with Ariza now in Washington, the Wizards, with the third pick, will target a shooting guard. Picking Brad Beal or Harrison Barnes, who are both better shooters than nearly every current Wizard, would make a lot of sense even if the Wizards didn't already have Ariza. But shouldn't the Wizards take whichever player they wanted most in the draft anyway? The belief that because Ariza is here that Grunfeld won't take the top player available -- probably a guard (Beal, Barnes) or even another small forward (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) -- is questionable. And if that is indeed true, Grunfeld should be fired on the spot. Don't be fooled: Hitting on the No. 3 pick is way more important than just about any trade Grunfeld can make this offseason, and adding another talented player to this team is vital.

But Grunfeld really shouldn't still be running the show in Washington, but you knew that already. Fans who were against Ted Leonsis and the Wizards bringing back Grunfeld as the team's general manager were afraid of moves like this. It's looking like they were right.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Ernie Grunfeld and underachieving first-round picks

Unhappy with the Wizards' decision to bring back Ernie Grunfeld? Worried about what they're going to do with the third pick in the upcoming NBA draft? Don't worry, you're not alone.

Looking back at the Wizards' previous eight drafts under Grunfeld's watchful eye (note: the 2003 draft, when the Wizards took Jarvis Hayes with the 10th pick, was handled by Wes Unseld), it's pretty easy to get frustrated. And since I'm a Wizards fan (among other routinely bad teams), I'm already frustrated, so I decided to take a look at the first round of those drafts. You likely remember most of them, but let me refresh your memory:

2004: Traded No. 5 pick (Devin Harris), Christian Laettner, and Jerry Stackhouse to Mavericks for Antawn Jamison.

Verdict: Good move, because of Jamison.

2005: In 2001 the Wizards traded a future first-round pick (ended up being No. 20 in this draft) and Laron Profit for the draft rights to Brendan Haywood.

Verdict: Nice move.

2006: Selected Oleksiy Pecherov (No. 18). Next five players taken: Quincy Douby, Renaldo Balkman, Rajon Rondo, Marcus Williams, Josh Boone.

Verdict: Awful pick. Pecherov was out of the league in three years.

2007: Took Nick Young (No. 16). Next five: Sean Williams, Marco Belinelli, Javaris Crittenton, Jason Smith, Daequan Cook.

Verdict: Decent pick.

2008: Drafted JaVale McGee (No. 18). Next five: J.J. Hickson, Alexis Ajinca, Ryan Anderson, Courtney Lee, Kosta Koufos.

Verdict: Also decent.

2009: Traded No. 5 pick (Ricky Rubio), Etan Thomas, Pecherov, and Darius Songaila for Randy Foye and Mike Miller.

Verdict: Terrible trade.

2010: Picked John Wall (No. 1). Also picked Kevin Seraphin (No. 17) (picked up in the Kirk Hinrich trade) and acquired Trevor Booker (No. 23) (swapping picks with Minnesota). Next five picks taken after Seraphin: Eric Bledsoe, Avery Bradley, James Anderson, Craig Brackins, Eliot Williams.

Verdict: Too early to tell, but looking up.

2011: Selected Jan Vesely (No. 6) and Chris Singleton (No. 18). Five taken after Vesely and Singleton (respectively): Bismack Biyombo, Brandon Knight, Kemba Walker, Jimmer Fredette, Klay Thompson; Tobias Harris, Donatas Motiejunas, Nolan Smith, Kenneth Faried, Nikola Mirotic.

Verdict: Too early to tell.


Yikes. Trading the fifth pick twice? Not really picking and developing anything close to a star player? And Oleksiy Pecherov? Yup, these all happened. Granted, I didn't go back and comment on the makeup of each one of those teams in various years (much of the strategy had to do with finding players to fit alongside Gilbert Arenas, Jamison, and Caron Butler); so yes, the Wizards obviously passed on certain players and positions in various drafts because of needs they had. But that doesn't make passing up good players look any better.

I put a similar list together back in January when the Wizards fired Flip Saunders. I noted that there was (and is) a lot of blame to go around, but basically that new people needed to be put in charge. I don't like quoting myself, but here's what I said at the time:
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.
I still strongly believe that. And yes, the Wizards did secure a top three pick. Unfortunately, Saunders is still the only guy to go. Grunfeld received a two-year extension, as did Saunders's successor, Randy Wittman. The rest of the coaching staff will remain the same.

But back to Grunfeld's first-rounders: There aren't a whole lot of really high picks in there (he traded two of those potential selections away). And there were some mistakes, but Grunfeld also made a couple of interesting finds -- mainly, Nick Young and JaVale McGee. Unfortunately, neither player really grew up in Washington or improved their games THAT much, and the Wizards parted with both last season.

And, essentially, that's the biggest issue. Grunfeld isn't the best at finding talent, but he's not the worst either. But under his watch, those selections don't get better! (Oddly enough, Grunfeld's best find was probably Andray Blatche in the second round, and he even showed some promise by improving for a handful of seasons in a row. But Grunfeld bought into the hype and gave Blatche an extension through the 2014-2015 season. If your best example of someone improving is Blatche, then you're not doing so well.)

So not only do the Wizards not do a great job of identifying talent, but when they actually do bring talent in, they don't do even a competent job of cultivating it. Did Young and McGee improve? Sure, a little bit. But Young is now just a role player, and McGee may never be anything more if he continues his inconsistent, out-of-control game.

But even John Wall, the consensus top player in the 2010 draft, hasn't taken the step forward that many hoped he would. He'd undoubtedly be more impressive with a better supporting cast and a collection of shooters and hard workers (which Grunfeld and co. seem to finally understand), but his jump shot is still not very good, which limits his explosiveness when defenders consistently play off of him, daring him to chuck up shots. Just take a look at Wall's averages from his first two seasons:

2010-2011: 16.4 points, 4.6 rebounds, 8.3 assists, 41.0% shooting, 3.8 turnovers
2011-2012: 16.3 points, 4.6 rebounds, 8.0 assists, 42.3% shooting, 3.9 turnovers

Those seasons are very similar, and there's nothing wrong with averaging 16/8 with four-plus rebounds. But there is still room for improvement for someone with Wall's tantalizing skills, and he didn't necessarily get better. But he's just 21, so it's silly to worry too much just yet.

Trevor Booker and primarily Kevin Seraphin, who both made noticeable strides from their rookie seasons, may be the best two examples that something in the Wizards' organization may be changing. Or maybe both of them are completely devoted to working hard and getting better, which hasn't been a calling card for many Wizards players the last several years. When Booker is healthy, he's an effective role player, and Seraphin showed down the stretch last year that he can be more than a competent big man -- and also that he can score a bit from the block. The Wizards will be much better for it if that trend continues.

But can Jan Vesely and Chris Singleton take a step forward? And what about whomever Grunfeld chooses with the third pick this year? That player, whether it's Bradley Beal, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Thomas Robinson, or someone else, will need to be a solid player and building block alongside Wall. It's obvious that the Wizards need more talent. But more than that, they need gifted players who are able to keep getting better each season. It's one thing to identify special and unique talent. It's another to properly teach that talent and make sure it develops into something better. No one is saying that's an easy thing to do. But to finally be good again, that's something that must happen.

How does that happen? I don't know. Maybe some combination of hiring better scouts and evaluators, better coaches, better trainers, and better nutritionists, or building better facilities. Something. Almost anything would be better than what the Wizards have been doing. And say what you will about Ted Leonsis and his decision-making, but he seems pretty open to trying different things in order to win:
[...] we will invest in additional coaches and development staff because we believe in taking a strong view of building infrastructure to support our players and our franchise. We have been investing in statistical analytics as well as in-house technology and have made additional investments in scouting.

In the long term I want to build a new practice facility for the Wizards, much like that fabulous facility the Capitals have with Kettler Capitals Iceplex, which is one-of-a-kind and first class for our players, fans and the community. The Wizards deserve that as do the Wizards fans. We are changing and adding and investing every season.
All of those presumed changes sound great. But Leonsis does talk (and blog) a lot, and some of that just seems like lip service. Regardless, the Wizards need to try something new, and it's important for Leonsis and the front office to be open-minded about fresh ideas.

Unfortunately, one of those things wasn't hiring someone new and presumably superior to oversee the whole operation. Grunfeld's had his chance. Players are chiefly responsible for their own development, but their organizations also play a huge role in that. And obviously, the only thing the Wizards have developed is a pattern of not having their first-round picks demonstrate much growth at all. So if the No. 3 pick in the draft is disappointing in a couple years, don't be surprised.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

O's select LSU pitcher Kevin Gausman, who's 'a little different'

The Orioles' scouting team, barring a top position player or two unexpectedly dropping, had focused on taking a pitcher with the fourth overall pick in the MLB Draft (or the Rule 4 Draft, which no one calls it). When Mark Appel, the Stanford ace who some rated as the top pitcher in the entire draft, dropped out of the top three, the O's had a decision to make: stick with whichever pitcher they had rated the highest, or take Appel (if he wasn't already that guy). He wasn't their guy, and the O's instead selected Kevin Gausman out of LSU.

If you want to read a scouting report on Gausman, here are a few. He's a tall right-handed pitcher with a power fastball and a solid changeup, though he's going to have to improve his other offspeed pitches, whether he ends up sticking with his slider (most likely) or his curveball.

Obviously, as a top pick in the draft, you'd expect him to be talented and have promise. But he also seems to be a funny/interesting guy. Here's one of his quotes while he was talking about himself and being drafted by the O's:
"My quirkiness, well, I've always been a little weird, really," the 20-year-old right-hander said. "You know I like sci-fi movies. I eat four donuts in between every inning. So you know, that's a little weird. It is something I started back in middle school, so I've been doing that for a while now. The way I live my life, I like to be a little different than other people."
Nothing wrong with any of that. OK, well, maybe the donut thing is a little out there. It's way too early to scold the O's for not taking Appel; many scouts still had Gausman rated as one of the top few pitchers. Hopefully in a few years they don't end up regretting taking the sci-fi-watching, donut-eating power righty from LSU.

On another note, didn't Sidney Ponson also consume donuts in between innings? Or maybe that was David Wells.