June 3, 2015

Now What?

So the Washington Wizards 2014-2015 campaign is done. Has been now for about three weeks. I'm now reduced to rooting as hard as possible for any scenario that will have the Cleveland Cavaliers end their season without an NBA championship. It's sad, I know. The Golden State Warriors can't possibly lose to LeBron James, a hobbled Kyrie Irving and a bench full of also rans and LeBron hangers on, can they? I'm hoping not. Go Dubs!

The Wizards season this year, one could argue, is the most successful they have had it three and a half decades. Actually there's not much doubt about that just viewing that statement factually. The Wizards won more regular season games than they have since 1979, made the second round of the playoffs for only the third time since that same year and managed a better playoff record at 6-4 than at any time since 1979. Yet other folks seem to be lamenting that this season was unsuccessful because the team didn't achieve everything they could have. Well, maybe so. Or maybe not.

For the last two years, I've published a post listing what I think the Wizards should do in the offseason. I'm not going to do that this year, although I've been surprisingly prescient with my posts in 2013 and 2014. I'm not sure if that means the Wizards are listening; or what I'm proposing is common sense; or that I just read a lot of what other people write about the Wizards; or I've just gotten lucky. Regardless, I'm not going to do that this year. Instead I'm going to ask a series of questions. A six pack if you will. That's it. Nothing more.

One could argue that this offseason is different than it has been in years and years for the Wizards. For the first time since 2008, the Wizards face the prospect of having a first round draft pick that is outside the top five. Astonishing as it sounds, it's true. In the last six years we've had four first round draft picks at 1, 5, 3 and 3. The other two years we had none. You know who our three first round picks were the summer before we picked John Wall? JaVale McGee (18), Nick Young (16) and Oleksiy Pecherov (18). Suffice it say we are not that good at drafting in the late teens. This year we pick 19th.

And for the first time in years, it actually seems like with the right moves in June, July and August, the Wizards could be bound for the NBA Finals. Seriously, who besides the Cavaliers is going to stand in our way? How long is the Hawks success sustainable? Those two questions don't count as two of this post's questions. Let's get to those other six right now.

Question 1: Is it time for Ernie and Randy to go?
I know what most people are hoping that I'll say here. I can almost hear the dozen or so people reading this chanting "Yes!" I'm going to disappoint you. I'm not saying yes. Not yet.

I think if you have read every word I've ever written about the Wizards in this blog (I know, who on Earth has done that?), I've been very kind to both Ernie Grunfeld and Randy Wittman. I remember what life as a Wizards fan was like before either of those two got here. In the front office it was terrible personnel decision after terrible contract after terrible trade with a sprinkling of luck thrown in now and then. In the coaching ranks, it was a revolving door of guys who were largely ineffective at winning (Eddie Jordan's the exception here), building a professional locker room culture (Eddie's not an exception here) or getting the guys on the wood to play defense (or here). So rather bemoaning what we've got, I'd rather stand pat. For now. Sort of.

So I get that Ernie Grunfeld's draft record is spotty at best. Not just with the Wizards but going all the way back to his time with the New York Knicks in the 1990s and with the Milwaukee Bucks in the early '00s. But he's pulled off some pretty good trades (Caron Butler for Kwame Brown, anyone? Antawn Jamison for Devin Harris?) and signed some pretty good guys that have panned out really well from Gilbert Arenas (the first time, not the second time) to Paul Pierce (if only we had the team option…). Maybe we need to relieve Ernie of his duties come Draft night and get someone else to make the pick.

I also get that Randy Wittman is not the most glamorous of coaches, that his teams in Washington the last two years have maybe underperformed in the regular season and that there are some fairly vocal critics with national platforms (Bill Simmons) calling Randy a "terrible coach" among other things.

But here's the thing. Tom Thibodeau had tremendous success in the regular season with the Chicago Bulls in the last five seasons but he maybe wore his players out on meaningless games in late October through mid-April. He's no longer employed as a head coach in the NBA. A lot of people seem to think Mark Jackson is an awesome coach and deserves a lot of credit for the Golden State Warriors being in this year's NBA Finals. But his players and coaches were in almost open rebellion against him. Randy's players have nothing but praise for him and John Wall credits Randy with making him play defense. Mark Jackson is also no longer employed as a head coach in the NBA. And if Bill Simmons is so great, has anyone ever offered him a spot as an NBA head man or even as an assistant? I'm guessing no.

Randy wins in the playoffs and his teams play defense. That's enough for now. Let's see what he can do with a stretch four, if Ernie can find one. Coach stays!

Question 2: Are Bradley Beal and Otto Porter really as good as they were in the postseason?
Regular season and postseason stats for the 2014-2105 NBA season for Bradley Beal and Otto Porter are below.

Bradley Beal
  • Regular Season: 33.4 MPG, 15.3 PPG, 3.1 APG.
  • Playoffs: 41.8 MPG, 23.4 PPG, 4.6 APG.
Otto Porter
  • Regular Season: 19.4 MPG, 6.0 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 0.9 APG.
  • Playoffs: 33.1 MPG, 10.0 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 1.8 APG.
These two guys were number three overall picks in consecutive NBA drafts and they are both 21 years old. Bradley was able to be far more aggressive in the playoffs and looked like he deserved to be a player licking his chops for a max contract extension next summer. And Porter…wow! I mean this kid grew up in the postseason. I think he's ready to start next season, even if Paul Pierce finds it in his heart to exercise his player option and come back to D.C.

Beal and Porter now seem to be the key to the Wizards making the leap from a second round hoping for more playoff team to a Finals contender. Based on this postseason, there is every indication they are both ready. I'm hoping the answer to this question is yes.

Question 3: Will we ever see another legit halftime show at Verizon Center?
A little over a month into the 2013-2014 season, I wrote a blog post about the lack of halftime shows at Wizards games season to date. It was honestly a bit of a filler post, something to write about between gushing about the Martell Webster bobblehead I picked up earlier that month and the Nenê bobblehead I was looking forward to later the same month. I figured eventually we'd end up with a serious halftime show and that it was just sort of a scheduling issue that had forced us to watch kids playing basketball and local folks singing in the inaugural Monumental Talent Showcase that year. I wasn't really intending it to be an honest criticism of the Wizards organization. Besides, I don't really care that much.

But now a season and three quarters later, we still haven't had a professional halftime show. I saw one in Milwaukee in the one game I saw up there in the very cold winter of 2014 and I was only there for one game. But in the 79 regular season games and ten playoff games I've sat through in the last two NBA seasons at Verizon Center, I've seen none. Not a one. Zip. Zilch. No Beale Street Flippers, no Drums of Thunder, no University of Maryland Gymkhana, no Quick Change, no nothing.

Now if this is all a cost saving measure to keep season ticket prices low low low, I'm good with all that. But there's been no sort of statement to that effect or any other rationale offered. In the meantime, I'm starting to suffer from an inferiority complex. If other teams have halftime shows, why can't we? And keep in mind I don't really care. It just feels like we are being cheap and that bothers me. I'm hoping it's not a sign of other cost cutting measures to come.

Question 4: Can the Wizards draft someone who can shoot free throws?
The Wizards free throw shooting during the past couple of seasons has driven me CRAZY! They are FREE! For nothing. Nobody's going to block or challenge the shot. Get good at making these things and maybe just maybe we win some more close games.

The Wizards ranked 21st in the NBA this past season in free throw percentage at a paltry 74.2 percent. 21st is not a good spot to be in. Looking at the team numbers, it doesn't really seem like the Wizards free throw shooting was a deterrent to winning more games. I mean if they jumped into the top 10 in the league and shot 76.2 percent like the 10th place Sacramento Kings, they would only add 0.4 points per game to their point total (based on 21.4 attempts per game). Let's face it, the Wizards didn't lose any games by 0.4 points this year.

But here's my rub with the Wizards and free throw shooting. While their free throw percentage wasn't that much of a difference maker based on the season stats, the NBA doesn't award the Larry O'Brien Trophy on that basis. The Wizards had some good free throw shooting nights and some horrible free throw shooting nights. It's the number of horrible nights I'd like to see reduced. Just look at game five of the Atlanta series, where the Wizards shot just 68.8 percent from the charity stripe. Add a couple more makes and that game is ours in regulation or at worst we take it to overtime.

So who's going to be that dependable clutch free throw shooter for Washington's professional basketball team? Well, I don't know. Nobody shot better than Rasual Butler this year at the line and he shot 79.1 percent. That's lower than the combined average of everyone on the Memphis Grizzlies squad  who led the league in free throw percentage. We really don't have a stone cold ice in his veins knockdown end of game guy.

What does my question have to do with all this? Well, I guess it's a plea not to draft someone who can't shoot free throws. Look at the Wizards' last eight first round picks and how they fared before the NBA from the free throw line.
  • Otto Porter, Jr.: 75.1 percent. Good.
  • Bradley Beal: 76.9 percent. Really good.
  • Chris Singleton: 59.2 percent. Really, Chris?
  • Jan Vesely: 61.6 percent. Stunned this is higher than Singleton's.
  • Trevor Booker: 62.1 percent. Not good.
  • Kevin Seraphin: 60.0 percent. Small sample size but not good.
  • John Wall: 75.4 percent. Good.
  • JaVale McGee: 51.4 percent. Do I need to use this to prove that this pick was a stretch?
I know we shouldn't use any sort of litmus test when it comes to drafting players, but could we at least find someone who can shoot 70 percent from the line? Maybe that would help us next year.

Question 5: Can the Wizards please get rid of Wale?
I hope the answer is yes. What does this guy do to add value? And will he just bail if the Wizards ever get less than good again? Where was he during the lean times? Apparently rooting for the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Denver Nuggets while uttering the words "I gotta be honest, I'm not the biggest Wizards fan." Well guess what, dude? I AM one of the biggest Wizards fan and to see you installed as the Wizards' Creative Liaison doesn't thrill me that much.

OK, so maybe I'm just ranting here and I'm being really unfair to Wale. I get that most people don't find his opening-credits-to-a-Wizards-home-game music as discordant and awkward as me. And I'm probably really sore about someone who professed some love for the Cavs and Nuggets and none for the Wiz a couple of years ago now draped all over my favorite team as if he'd been there applauding night in and night out while JaVale McGee and Andray Blatche called Verizon Center home. At least he shows up and give the team some love now right?

Wrong. And this is what really gets me. I admit I missed two games during the regular season and maybe Wale made an appearance at both. But honestly, I only remember him showing up to two regular season games this year: opening night against Milwaukee (when he was performing live) and the April 3 game against the New York Knicks. Two games?!?!? (or four if he attended the two I missed) Are you kidding me? The Wizards' press release about Wale's appointment as Creative Liaison said he is a "die-hard Wizards fan." I don't think so.

Question 6: Are we really pinning all our hopes on luring Kevin Durant back home?
First of all, if we are and that's our strategy for winning an NBA title and securing a future perennial contender for long suffering Wizards fans, you could make me the General Manager and I could make that pitch. I might need some help with some of the finer points like filling out the roster with bargain contracts but I could handle the heavy lifting.

The two questions I have about this strategy (no these don't count as two additional questions) are can we afford him and do we need him? Barring any unexpected changes in the NBA Players' Union's strategy, the salary cap is set to explode during the 2016 offseason and the maximum salary superstar players can receive will skyrocket along with the cap. John Wall's current just less than $16 million salary during the 2016-2017 season is going to seem like a bargain and Marcin Gortat's $12 pricetag is going be dirt cheap. But the new way higher limits on contracts are going to fill in the gap. Bradley Beal AND Kevin Durant? You know KD already expects the max. He already said so! Get ready to open your checkbook, Ted Leonsis, and Ernie Grunfeld better be trolling the D-League for bargains. I don't see it.

Assuming both Bradley Beal and Otto Porter next year play anything like they did in the postseason this year (see question 2 above), do we even need Durant? I know this is tempting fate here but think about it. How good is a starting lineup of 27 year old John Wall, 24 year olds Bradley Beal and Otto Porter, 33 year old Marcin Gortat (with very low mileage) and anyone else to kick off the 2017-2018 season? Split Durant's salary between a serviceable starting four and a couple of production bench players and who's going to challenge that team?

That's it. I've just told every Washington hoops fan dying for KD in a Wizards uniform that we don't need him. What else can I offer? Probably should shut up now.

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