January 26, 2013

Glass Half Empty Or Half Full?

The Washington Wizards played their 41st game of the season last night, a 114-101 thrashing of the Minnesota Timberwolves. With the end of the last night's game, the 2012-2013 season is officially halfway over for the Wizards. Based on my expectations at the beginning of the season, I'd have to say that I'm not thrilled with our 10-31 record which is good for second to last place in the Southeast Division, Eastern Conference and, well, the entire  NBA. The 0-12 start to the season in all likelihood killed our season. Based on the winning percentage of the Boston Celtics, who currently sit in the eighth and final playoff spot in the East, we would need to go 29-12 in the second half of the season to qualify for the postseason. But there is hope: our record in the last nine games is 6-3, including two wins on the road and victories over three teams with winning records. It would still take a near miracle to make the playoffs though.

There have been positives in addition to the negatives. Here are ten things I get from the season so far.

1. Our Early Season Offense Was Offensive
The Wizards rank 29th (of 30) in the NBA in points scored per game at 91.5 per contest, down 2.1 points from our 93.6 point average last season. Our leading scorer is averaging only 14.9 points per game and we have had no player score 30 points in a single game. We also rank last in field goal percentage, 24th in three point percentage and 24th in free throw percentage. None of that is good. However, in the silver lining category, all those numbers are trending up and our defense is much improved. The Wizards currently rank 12th in points allowed per game at 96.8 points per game and while we may not be putting up 30 point individual games, neither are our opponents. Only three players (David West, James Harden and Kobe Bryant) have scored 30 in a single game on our team this year.

2. Thank God for Jordan Crawford
Seriously. And I never thought I'd ever write that. I always thought of JC as an undisciplined chucker who could pass but just chose not to. There's a guy behind us at VC who yells "Jack it up, Jordan!" every time he checks in. Don't get me wrong, I'm not talking Nick Young territory here but Jordan has definitely never met a shot he didn't like. But this season, Jordan really carried the team in the first third of the year. When our offense was struggling (and in the first third of the year, when was our offense NOT struggling?), Jordan was the spark to at least keep us close. He's been our leading scorer most of the year, has the team high in points in a single game (27) two times, has the team's only triple double and have you seen some of the insane stuff he gets to go down? Check out the January 4 Nets game or the buzzer beater against the Trail Blazers this past Monday if you need proof. I'd put Jordan in my top three Wizards list this year so far.

3. The Okafor/Ariza for Lewis Trade May Be a Mistake
Empahsis on "may be." I realize we are only a half season with tons and tons of injuries into this trade but when it was made, it was made to go for it, to get us over the playoff hump NOW. Clearly, 41 games in, it doesn't look like we are making the playoffs this year. That means in the offseason instead of having $23 million or so come off the books for Rashard Lewis' contract, we have $22 million or so of salary cap space tied up in Emeka Okafor (the highest paid player on the team by the way) and Trevor Ariza. That's more than a third of the total cap spaced tied up in two guys who are not huge contributors (yet?). This trade still frees up money when we need it to re-sign some of our 2010 draft picks so ultimately it may make little difference in the long run and I actually think Ariza at $7.2 million is a decent contributor; he's without doubt our best one on one defender. Unfortunately, Okafor is stuck in my least favorite player status, which probably doesn't really make any difference to Emeka. I actually really like him as a person, just not as the highest paid player on the team.

4. We Can Beat Good Teams
True, we have lost to the Charlotte Bobcats twice. Considering the Bobcats' 7-5 start, that didn't look so bad. Considering the Bobcats' 3-27 record since then, it doesn't look so good. But we have wins over the top team in each conference (Miami and Oklahoma City) and we managed to beat the Denver Nuggets on the road, a place we haven't won a game in almost a decade. And the wins against those teams were not flukes, or the result of a letdown by the other team as LeBron James and Kevin Durant might have implied. They were good, team basketball wins which show we can play with anyone in the league. There were no end of game questionable calls or anything like that. There's something immensely satisfying about beating an elite team when your record suggests your team is not an elite team.

5. Rotating Point Guards Didn't Work
Training camp this year featured a point guard battle that to me originally looked like a fait accompli. Just before the start of training camp, it was announced that John Wall would miss about two months of action (it actually ended up being three months) due to a knee injury. So the team brought Jannero Pargo into training camp when we already had Wall, A.J. Price and Shelvin Mack at the point guard position. I figured we'd keep both Jannero and Shelvin (both on non-guaranteed or partially guaranteed deals) and then throw whichever one wasn't working out to the curb when Wall returned. Instead, we decided to keep Pargo and big man Earl Barron instead of Shelvin and then re-considered the Pargo choice after a particularly bad three point shot decision against the Dallas Mavericks in favor of Shaun Livingston, who had resurrected his career in DC but was released by the Houston Rockets just before opening day. But Shaun didn't work out this time and with the Wizards down to zero point guards after releasing Livingston and with A.J. Price injured, Mack was brought back (along with fellow D-League call up Garrett Temple) but was released shortly thereafter for a second time. Got all that? Temple stuck but while all this was going on, we clearly struggled at the one, and our record reflected that struggle.

6. Martell Webster is a Find
Martell joined the Wizards pretty much as late as you could a team before training camp at a time when the Wizards appeared to be taking applications for good players at the veteran minimum only. Somehow, Martell managed to wrangle a one year deal at more than the veteran minimum and he's proved he's worth it. Martell came with perceived baggage: back injuries and surgeries over the past few years had limited his effectiveness. Not so this year as he's settled in at the starting three spot after Trevor Ariza missed time with injuries. He's averaging 10.1 points per game, shooting 42% from three point land and 86.2% from the charity stripe. His three point and free throw shooting percentages are both career highs and he's the best on our team from the line. Martell, like Jordan Crawford, is a top three Wizard for me this year. We should have wrapped him up for a couple of seasons.

7. The 2011 Draft May Not Be So Good
Our 2011 Draft class featured two first round picks in Jan Vesely (6th overall) and Chris Singleton (18th overall) and one high second rounder in Shelvin Mack (34th overall). Due to a slew of injuries to just about everyone except those three last season, all three received heavy minutes as rookies, even without the luxury of a true training camp due to the lockout and delayed season start. Mack is no longer with the team after two stints this season. Vesely and Singleton are but they are not high production guys.

Last year, Vesely averaged 18.9 minutes per game with 4.7 points and 4.4 rebounds per game. He also shot 53.7% (good) from the field and 53% (bad) from the free throw line. This year he is averaging 13.1 minutes per game with 2.7 points and 2.5 rebounds per game, so his numbers have dropped more than proportionally to his minutes. His shooting has declined too: this year he's shooting 49.4% (not good for his position) from the field and 22.2% (not good under any measurement system) from the line. Now that most all our guys are healthy, I wonder how much time Ves is going to see on the floor.

Chris Singleton, on the other hand, has gone from a guy who started 77% of our contests last year to a forgotten man, logging only 6.7 seconds of meaningful game time over the last nine games. His point production per minute and rebound production per minute are actually up over last season but the play of Martell Webster and Trevor Ariza are keeping Chris on the bench for now. Maybe a D-League assignment would do some good for Chris at this point?

8. Wall and Nenê are Difference Makers
When healthy. John Wall has played in only eight of our first 41 games and Nenê has played in just 28. The two are clearly the best two players on our team yet have only 18 starts between them (all but one are Nenê's). They are both averaging around 25 minutes per contest in the games they have played. During the eight games John has played, our scoring has jumped to 100.8 points per game; before John re-joined the team, we were averaging about 92 points per game. That's a huge jump. He's clearly speeding up the pace, making our team more effective (witness the 5-3 record when he plays) and is far better at breaking down opposing defenses than anyone else on our team. Nenê just makes the whole game easier. He can score, rebound, pass, run the offense and defend. He's the complete package. He's one of only three Wizards with a positive plus/minus this season and he's more than tripling John Wall's numbers who is in second place. During our December 26 game against Cleveland, we outscored the Cavs by 25 with Nenê on the court but managed to lose the game by three. Read this article if you want to understand more about just how good he is.

9. Bradley Beal is the Real Deal
After looking a little overwhelmed in his first month or so, Bradley is really coming on strong. What a difference a couple of months in the NBA makes when you are 19! In October/November, Bradley averaged 10.9 points per game. In December and January, he has averaged 13.4 and 16.6 points per game respectively. He's also shooting an astonishing 53.4% from beyond the three point arc in January which has raised his season average in that category to 36.1%. The Wall/Beal backcourt looks great and despite a couple of trade rumors regarding Bradley, it appears the team loves him and he's here to stay. And his game is not all about scoring. He appears to be the complete package. Any doubt? Just watch this block on Luke Ridnour from last night's game.

10. Losing the MLK Day Matinee Sucks!
On this point, I don't mean losing to another team, I mean losing the game to an entire other city due to the presidential inauguration. I know the point of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday is not to hold matinee basketball games. Still, the MLK Day game is one of the highlights of the season for me. It's about friendship and basketball in addition to never forgetting that at one time not so long ago this country was inexplicably a segregated society and I miss all three of those things on that day every four years when the presidential inauguration takes place. Already looking forward to 2014.

During the 2008-2009 season, the Oklahoma City Thunder started the season 5-32 before going on a season ending 18-27 tear to finish at 23-59. The following year they went 50-32. That's my hope. On to the second half. Chicago up tonight at home.

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