June 5, 2014

2014 Off Season Priorities

The NBA Finals started tonight, a re-match of last year's seven game Miami Heat - San Antonio Spurs series which the Heat stole after the Spurs absolutely blew it in game six on their home floor. Just like last year, I'll be rooting as hard as I possibly can against the Heat, hoping they have just worn their roster just too thin after last off season's roster cuts, particularly (and I hate to say this based on his time in Washington) Mike Miller. Miami may come to regret that move.

The fact that it's NBA Finals time and I haven't written about the Wizards' off season priorities also means that I am behind in my blogging, so far in fact that one of my priorities or the team has already been resolved. What can I say? I have a full time job and I took vacation the last week or so during the Conference Finals. I'd be right on time if I could just write this blog full time. I'd also be a lot poorer.

The state of the Wizards seems to look a lot brighter this off season than it did last year. Instead of heading back to the Draft Lottery for the sixth consecutive year, the team is coming off its second most regular season victories and its most successful playoff run in the last 35 years. The starting five produced pretty well this year and the bench certainly improved in the second half of the season. Last year I thought a couple of tweaks could get us the seventh or eighth seed in the playoffs. Turns out I shot too low. Yet, as with any team that finished in the five spot in the Eastern Conference in recent years, questions remain and there's a long way to go before the Wizards can be considered a legitimate contender.

This year's off season will look a whole lot different than last year for a number of reasons. Unlike last year when the team held the number three pick in the Draft, this year our only selection comes in the second round, meaning the chance of us snagging a contributor on June 26 seems pretty remote, especially considering our recent track record in the Draft. The Wizards also face two of their five starters (Trevor Ariza and Marcin Gortat) being unrestricted free agents, as opposed to last year's one (Martell Webster). Fortunately the team possesses a good amount of salary cap space to sign free agents and last year's off season signing of Al Harrington, who presumably had other options available to him, is likely a good indicator that free agents might actually want to come play in Washington.

So with all that in mind, here's what I'd do if I were running the show at Verizon Center. I'm not, for which most fans should be eternally grateful.

1. Re-Sign Randy Wittman
I realize this has already happened. The Wizards signed Randy to a new three year deal at a rumored $3 million per year this past Tuesday. The third year is a team option, so it's really just a two year deal guaranteed. I've written a couple of times in this blog that I thought Randy was a key in turning the culture of the franchise from a group of irresponsible knuckleheads to (dare I say it) a model of professionalism. While the Wizards had some significant concentration lapses during the regular season which led to some bad losses, overall the team took their performance seriously and the playoffs were a totally different story. Randy clearly had the team's attention.

The knock on Randy seems to be his past coaching record. Local media seems to delight in trotting out Randy's "worst winning percentage in NBA history of all coaches with a minimum 400 games coached." I think it's safe to say this current year's team is likely the only one other coaches would actually envy, so it's no surprise that the results this year were far better than all his other years as a head coach in the NBA when he was working with rebuilding teams with little talent.

I'm not sure what a realistically better option there is for this team at this time. We have a coach who clearly has the commitment of the entire roster who just led the team to it's most successful season since 1979. I'm not sure what more we could want. Certainly bringing in a rookie coach (which happened a lot this past off season) doesn't seem to make sense. The only other option would be to get a proven winning coach who wants to come to D.C. to coach. George Karl seemed to be the popular choice of some local writers. But there are no guarantees in going that route. I think the players' support for Randy and the job that he has done so far makes him the logical and best choice. Way to go, coach. Well deserved!

2. Maintain the Starting Five…Or Close To It
The Wizards face an offseason where two of their most productive starters are unrestricted free agents, meaning the team has absolutely no control over re-signing Marcin Gortat or Trevor Ariza. Both will likely command large salaries on the open market and I'm sure their agents are salivating over the deals other teams will put in front of these two guys.

For me, the biggest challenge for the Wizards this off season is at the starting center spot. Marcin Gortat is a legitimate NBA starting center. Nobody else on the team is, even if Kevin Seraphin stays with the squad. With the Wizards expected to have more than $15 million in salary cap space there's certainly a lot of cash to hand out this off season. Will Gortat be the team's top priority? What about Ariza? Ariza is clearly the team's best defender and had perhaps the most productive offensive year of his career. He was absolutely deadly from three point range.

For me, the priority is Gortat. There are so few true centers in the NBA these days and I think Gortat values playing in Washington with John Wall with Randy Wittman as coach. The sort of chemistry he has and could have with Wall is difficult to find. I'm hoping there's a hometown discount in there somewhere. After all, what's one or two million dollars less per year? One year of his next contract is going to get him more money than I will make in my lifetime. It's for sure enough to keep him comfortable.

I would also love to see Ariza back next year, but at a sensible price, which in my mind may be the same as he made this year. I love Trevor Ariza's play. If it weren't for Martell Webster on the team, I'd be wearing a number 1 jersey to Verizon Center every game. I love Trevor's ability to shut down opponents and I love his ability to score the three. But I also believe John Wall has something to do with his offensive output. I thought it was a mistake to start Ariza over Webster this year since Martell performed so well last year. But Ariza at the starting three spot worked exceptionally well this year, whereas Martell's production fell off significantly. If we can't retain Trevor next year, I believe Martell will fill in adequately until Otto Porter is ready. And I believe Otto is the real deal.

I'd try to get both Ariza and Gortat back in the fold. But if negotiations proved too difficult, I'd wrap up Marcin first. He's just way tougher to replace.

3. Shop Frugally
The Wizards end of season salary cap number was $70,204,382. Of that about $70 million, $9,140,915 (or so) was spent on four guys in the last year of their rookie deals, specifically Kevin Seraphin, Trevor Booker, Jan Vesely (I prorated his salary at 54 of 82 games) and Chris Singleton. Rookie contracts are typically the best bargain going in the NBA, a chance to get relatively high production out of guys whose costs are kept low by the rookie salary scale. John Wall, for example, played a little more than 15% of the team's total minutes and made slightly more than 10% of the team's payroll. Next year John's salary will almost double. His minutes won't.

Seraphin, Booker, Vesely and Singleton occupied about 13% of the team's payroll (again, prorating Vesely's number) but only played 14.5% of the team's minutes. Booker was by far the best bargain here, costing about 3.3% of the salary number and playing about 7.9% of the minutes. The other three actually cost more than they produced, even at the relative bargain that is a rookie contract. Next year we are not going to be able to afford that kind of waste if we want to challenge teams like Miami and Indiana, especially with John Wall's salary increase and potential sizeable contracts for Gortat and Ariza, if the team opts to go that route.

I think it's safe to say Chris Singleton will not be back in Washington next year and I suspect neither will Kevin Seraphin, unless we really can't find anyone else to back up the center spot. I think Booker stands a pretty good shot at getting a multi-year deal at or about his current salary (just less than $2.5 million) and I think if the Wizards can wrap him up at that number, they should. The real trick will be to maximize the value with the money that last year went to Seraphin, Vesely and Booker. Drew Gooden and Al Harrington proved to be great value for veteran minimum deals. I'd love to see Gooden back with the team at a similar price point in addition to some other free agent vets that can still contribute. A couple of former Wizards in Emeka Okafor (assuming his back isn't forcing him into retirement) and Caron Butler seem like guys we should at least take a look at.

4. Improve Free Throw Shooting
I can't tell you how many games the Wizards blew this year because of their free throw shooting but there were a number, enough that some serious thought needs to be given to how the team as a whole improves their performance from the charity stripe. The Wizards shot just 13 of 26 from the free throw line in an overtime loss at Oklahoma City in November and faced similar difficulties (11 for 18) in a home loss to Atlanta the next month. One more free throw in regulation in either of those games would have wiped out the extra session and given the Wizards a regulation victory.

Overall, the Wizards finished 25th out of 30 teams in free throw percentage during the regular season. Jan Vesely was the worst of all the Wizards shooting a pitiful 33.9% from the line, good for 450th in the league (there were 463 players who shot a free throw in the regular season this year). And just in case you believe shipping Ves to Denver cured the team of its free throw woes, the team actually shot worse in the post season. Collectively, the Wizards managed to hit only 69.6% of their free throws in the playoffs, good for dead last among the 16 teams who played beyond the regular season this year.

During the 2007-2008 season, the Wizards hired Dave Hopla to help with free throw troubles they were experiencing during the previous season. Dave managed to get the team's free throw percentage up from 76.5% to 78.2%. That may not seem like a lot of improvement; it represented only about 34 points over the course of the 2007-2008 season. But trust me when I say I'd love to have had a few extra points in some of our games this year.

Over and above the 34 extra points, the biggest difference Hopla made that year was with center Brendan Haywood, whose free throw percentage jumped from 54.8% during the 2006-2007 season to 73.5% one season later. Instead of being a free throw liability at the end of games, Brendan became an asset, allowing him more time on the floor to coordinate the Wizards' defense (the Wiz were pretty much hopeless on D without B Wood those years). That change doesn't show up on the free throw statistics but it made a difference. Unfortunately, the next year Dave was gone and so was Brendan's free throw prowess. He shot 47.6% the following year.

If there's a guy out there who can help Nenê raise his 58.3% free throw shooting mark, I'd sign him up. The difference in that one player alone would be worth a lot of money. Remember, there's no salary cap on the coaching staff.

5. Develop a Developmental League Strategy
The National Basketball Development League started the 2013-2014 season with 17 teams. Of those 17 teams, 14 were in an exclusive relationship with a single NBA franchise. For NBA teams affiliated with a single D-League franchise, this allowed the NBA team to have their personnel run basketball operations, appoint the coaching staff and run the exact same offensive and defensive schemes in the NBDL. This arrangement provides a huge benefit for players that are assigned to the D-League by the NBA team. The value in this type of relationship has been cited as critical to player development by a number of NBA teams.

The other 16 teams without a single D-League affiliation do not have the same benefit. Instead, those 16 teams share the remaining three NBDL franchises but have no control over playing time or playbooks, meaning the development component of D-League assignments is basically a crap shoot. The Wizards, not surprisingly to this fan, are one of the 16 teams without an exclusive relationship.

The 2014-2015 NBDL schedule will feature 18 teams, the highest total in league history, after the New York Knicks established a new franchise in White Plains. The Knicks were single affiliated with the Erie Bayhawks last year; the Orlando Magic have managed to snag the Bayhawks as their D-League team next year. Of the 18 teams which will participate next year, all but one have an exclusive relationship with an NBA team. Over the past year, the Memphis Grizzlies have secured the Iowa Energy as their exclusive partner and the Phoenix Suns did likewise with the Bakersfield Jam. For the other 13 NBA teams, that means all 13 share a single NBDL franchise, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants. Fort Wayne is about 550 miles from Washington.

So what exactly is the Wizards' plan in relation to the D-League. If there's one area this franchise has struggled with, it's player development. Are the Wizards actively resisting, slow to react, or just executing some other strategy that is just not apparent? It is not unreasonable to envision a D-League with 30 franchises, one per NBA franchise, in the near future. But what happens until that day for the Wizards? Is sharing a Development League franchise with 12 other teams really useful? I'd love to know.

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