May 27, 2012

Rebuilding: 2010-2011 Through 2011-2012

The 2009-2010 Wizards season was pretty much an unmitigated disaster: the core of the team which had led the franchise to four straight playoff berths was traded away; our former superstar player, suspended for the majority of the prior season, was a shadow of his former self on the court; and our owner was dead. There was clearly a rebuilding period looming.

Despite all that had gone wrong, however, the team managed to finish with a better record than three other teams in the NBA. We pulled into a tie with the Golden State Warriors for the fourth worst record when Cedric Jackson hit a three point shot at the end of regulation in the final game of the season against the Indiana Pacers. The fourth worst finish meant the likelihood of securing a franchise-altering draft pick in the 2010 NBA Draft was fairly low. That likelihood decreased when we lost a coin flip with the Warriors and learned we would receive one fewer number combination in the upcoming Draft Lottery.

Ownership transition started immediately following the 2009-2010 season. For the first time since 1963, ownership of the team passed out of the hands of the Pollin family. The new ownership group headed by Ted Leonsis, which already owned the NHL's Washington Capitals, intended to rebuild through the NBA Draft, using a similar plan that had turned the Capitals from the worst team in the NHL to one of the top teams in the league. The upcoming 2010 Draft featured a consensus number one overall pick in lightning fast John Wall, the freshman point guard from the University of Kentucky, but not much more if you wanted to start rebuilding a franchise immediately. The Wizards chance of winning the Draft Lottery stood at only 10.3% based on their fourth worst finish and subsequent lost coin toss.

In theory, the Wizards could have chosen free agency to rebuild. The 2010 offseason featured one of the most anticipated free agent classes in NBA history: Chris Bosh, Joe Johnson, Amare Stoudamire, Paul Pierce, Dwyane Wade, Ray Allen, Dirk Nowitski, and the prize most teams coveted, LeBron James. Franchises had been maneuvering for years for this class. But the Wizards would not engage in bidding wars for any of these free agents. Ted made it quite clear that the way he wanted to rebuild was through the draft.

As it turned out, a 10.3% chance was good enough. The Wizards were lucky enough to win the Draft Lottery and on June 24, the Wizards selected John Wall with the number one overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft. Maybe the good luck which the team needed to turn the franchise's fortunes around had just happened. Thank God Cedric Jackson hit that three pointer to beat Indiana. If he hadn't, we might be rebuilding around Ekpe Udoh, whom the Warriors drafted with their first round pick that year.

June 24, 2o1o produced two other building blocks for the Wizards. The team parlayed the number 23 pick, which they had obtained in the deal the prior season for Antawn Jamison, into Trevor Booker, a defensive power forward out of Clemson University who graded out the fastest man in the Draft, faster even than John Wall. They also picked up another pick from the Chicago Bulls, who were desperate to clear salary cap space so they would have enough money to sign either Dwyane Wade or LeBron James to pair with Derrick Rose. In what may be one of the great swindles in team history (although the jury is still out), the Wizards swapped Vladamir Veremeenko, their second round selection in the 2006 Draft, for Kirk Hinrich and the number 17 pick, who turned out to be Kevin Seraphin, a center from French Guiana with tremendous upside but little command of the English language. Three picks in the first round of one NBA Draft, including the number one overall selection; not bad for a first stab at rebuilding.

But there was other work to be done. The team clearly had a culture problem. The leadership and professionalism that Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler had brought to the locker room was gone and nobody seemed ready or willing to fill the leadership void. Arenas, the team's longest tenured player, had tried to decline the captaincy the first and only time the organization had asked. And there was no way the team could turn to Andray Blatche, Nick Young or JaVale McGee. So the team named John Wall and Kirk Hinrich captains and hoped for the best. As it turned out, the best included a franchise record 16 game losing streak and an almost NBA record 25 game road losing streak to start the season. Changes needed to be made to make the team into a credible franchise with aspirations toward consistent winning.

While the team ended up with a less than mediocre 23-59 record, which was three games worse than the prior season, they did manage to trade the seemingly untradeable contract of Gilbert Arenas to the Orlando Magic in exchange for Rashard Lewis, a player perhaps equally overpaid as Arenas but with one fewer year on his contract. They also managed to move Kirk Hinrich during the season to the Atlanta Hawks, in a deal which brought in return Jordan Crawford, the 27th pick in the 2010 Draft, along with Atlanta's first round pick in the 2011 Draft. Maybe four first round picks from the 2010 Draft and jettisoning  Arenas would be a good enough start to the rebuild.

After the 2010-2011 season, the franchise prepared for the 2011 NBA Draft and for the future. The 2011 Draft Lottery yielded the number six pick in the Draft, the worst possible result based on our finish the previous season. The 2011 Draft brought three new players: Jan Vesely, a forward from the Czech Republic whose nickname is the dunking ninja; Chris Singleton, a small forward from Florida State who was possibly the best all-around defender in the Draft (Atlanta's pick); and Shelvin Mack, a guard from Butler University, fresh off two consecutive appearances in the NCAA championship game.

Following the Draft, the franchise took another important step forward by unveiling new uniforms which freshened up the uniforms of the 1977-1978 Washington Bullets NBA championship team. But any enthusiasm gained from the draft or the re-brand was squashed by a labor dispute and ultimately a lockout. The lockout meant the team's players could not access team facilities or training staff, which could be especially tough on a young team. For veteran players, like Nick Young and JaVale McGee, the lockout gave them time to create home videos of cinnamon eating contests (I'm not kidding). I'm not sure which was more discouraging: the lockout or the cinnamon eating. The lockout lasted until Thanksgiving weekend, when the labor dispute was unofficially settled. Training camp would be abbreviated and the season would start on Christmas Day.

When the 2011-2012 season finally started, it was clear the Wizards just weren't going to be very good at all. The core of our team from the previous year (Blatche, McGee and Young) seemed to care more about personal statistics than winning and the effects of having to start the season quickly with a shortened training camp were obvious. The team had lost its first six, including blowing a 20 point lead on opening night against the New Jersey Nets, when the veterans on the team called a players only meeting. The results were not encouraging. Mo Evans publicly questioned the attitude of entitlement that existed on the team; clearly some of the players on a team that had averaged less than 23 wins in the previous three seasons felt playing time was given, not earned. About three weeks later, with the team's record sitting at 2-15, Flip Saunders was fired as head coach. Flip's overall record with the Wizards was 51-130 with zero playoff appearances. Things looked really bleak.

The team replaced Saunders with top assistant Randy Wittman, but only after Randy made sure he would have the last word on who played and who didn't. Randy coached the team as if he had nothing to lose, which was probably absolutely the case. He held players accountable for effort and performance and made changes and handed out discipline when required. He benched starters JaVale McGee and Nick Young for the entire second half in a game at Milwaukee on February 28 after a lackluster first half and then extended the benching for the start of the next game at home against Orlando. He apologized to the fans after an early March home loss to Golden State, vowing to make changes to ensure something like that would never happen again. And on March 21, he held Andray Blatche out of the game against the New Jersey Nets due to conditioning and then worked with the front office to send Andray home for the season to get in shape. I think there were two turning points in the 2011-2012 season that will pay dividends in future years. I believe putting Randy in charge of the team was the first. We'll see if I'm right.

The second turning point happened at the trade deadline on March 15 when the Wizards traded away JaVale McGee and Nick Young and got back Brazilian center Nenê from the Denver Nuggets. The trade was panned by some in the national media, saying the Wizards got fooled into accepting an oft-injured 29 year old center in exchange for a budding superstar in McGee. But to those closest to the team and to the DC media, the trade for Nenê was an obvious and instant upgrade. The trade brought a team player with a high basketball IQ and good leadership skills who understands how to play the game at both ends of the court. Trading away McGee and Young brought credibility to the franchise and signaled that the team was serious about winning. The team went 10-14 after the trade but in games when Nenê played, the team was 7-4 and the team finished the season 8-2 in their last ten games and won their last six. There seems to be a lot of hope heading into the offseason, despite the fact that we finished with the second worst record in the league. Again, we'll see if I'm right.

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