May 28, 2013

Off Season Priorities

It's conference finals time. My rooting against the teams and players I dislike the most has helped bump the Brookyn Nets, Denver Nuggets and New York Knicks from the postseason so far. I'm still delusionally hopeful that the NBA Finals this year will feature the Indiana Pacers and the San Antonio Spurs despite the current deficit the Pacers face in their Eastern Conference Finals. I like the way Indiana's team is built around a defense first, no star system. In my wildest imaginings, I could see the Wizards resembling that team in the next few years. 

In the meantime, there's been some good news for the Wizards in the form of a top three Lottery pick when the team could have stood still at the eight spot or, God forbid, moved down as far as 11th. That win gives the team a whole lot more options when approaching the off season. It's a lot easier to make deals with a number three overall draft pick than it is with the eighth pick.

When I look over the Wizards roster at the moment, I see some glaring holes that need to be addressed. However, for the first time in years, I feel pretty good about our top five guys under contract, which coincidentally can be fashioned into a credible NBA starting lineup of John Wall and Bradley Beal in the backcourt, Trevor Ariza and Nenê at the forward spots and Emeka Okafor in the middle. I think management has done a good job cobbling together a unit that can score and defend at a playoff caliber level in the NBA.

Beyond the "starting five" listed above, the team is thin. We have some free agents whom we may or may not try to re-sign and a bench of four guys on their rookie contract deals. It's definitely easy to understand how this team finished tied for seventh worst in the NBA last season. Despite that assessment though, we may actually not need to tweak our roster that much to slide into the seventh or eighth spot in the Eastern Conference. Sounds crazy but it might be true. Here's how I view our offseason priorities.

1. Draft The Best Available Player
For the first time in several NBA Drafts, the Wizards are in a position where they don't need to draft someone who has to start next season or even contribute in a major way right away. I am sure between now and draft night both the front office of the Wizards and most folks in the press who cover the team will debate whether the team should draft for need or take the best player available. Here's my message to everyone: the Wizards have needs at every position; select the best available player, even if that player is a guard and has to come off the bench behind John Wall or Bradley Beal for the next four years.

Fortunately, the Wizards this year moved up in draft order by winning the Draft Lottery and hold the third overall selection, rather than the eighth spot based on order of finish. The third overall pick allows the Wizards far more flexibility in making a draft choice and should allow them to not only get a quality player whether or not that player can contribute right away. If I were drafting for need for the Wizards, I'd select a center. The Wizards have young potential at every position except center (I'm putting Seraphin at the four for the purpose of this discussion). But if the right player isn't there, I'm picking the best available. Based on early projections, it appears Nerlens Noel (center), Ben McLemore (guard) and Otto Porter, Jr. (forward) are the top three talents in this year's draft. If that proves to be true, I'd take whichever one of those three wasn't selected in the top two and hope I made the right choice. To me, the draft is a total crap shoot anyway.

2. Re-Sign Martell Webster
The Wizards signed Martell Webster right before the start of the 2012-2013 season as a presumed sixth man at a pretty much bargain price of $1,600,000. Martell turned that opportunity into a season with career highs in points, rebounds, assists and three point field goal percentage while managing to shoot almost 85% from the free throw line. He replaced Trevor Ariza in the starting lineup when Ariza went down with an injury in December and never gave it back. He embraces coach Wittman's game philosophy and also seems to play off other players on the team, and particularly John Wall, very well.

So it looks like Martell has set himself up in a "contract year" to be paid really well or even overpaid. It seems like the Wizards are in a position where they have to pony up some dough to keep him or risk losing him to free agency like we have lost other players in the recent past. If I had a vote, I'd pay Martell. In fact, I'd probably pay him (assuming he would accept it) the full mid-level exception for a period of three years. That would allow us to bring back our starting five from last year plus sixth man Ariza and then start to incorporate other players into the mix, including our first round draft pick and whatever other free agents we retain or sign. And with a three year deal, Martell would be coming off the books in time for the team to throw a boatload of cash at Bradley Beal after his rookie contract expires.

I wonder what the offseason holds for Chris Singleton and his over life size billboard at VC.
3. Figure Out The Seraphin / Booker / Vesely / Singleton Thing
Over the past three seasons, the Wizards have drafted four small or power forwards in Kevin Seraphin, Trevor Booker, Jan Vesely and Chris Singleton. Other than the "starting five" mentioned earlier in this post, these four are the only players currently under contract for the 2013-2014 season. I believe the Wizards drafted so many players to fill potentially one position because they hoped one of the four would naturally rise to the top of the pile and become a regular rotation player (or even a starter) on their rookie deal. That hasn't exactly happened. If you could take Seraphin's offense with Booker's rebounding and defense and Vesely's passing, I think we'd get what I think we intended to get.

So it's probably time to part ways with one or more of this group but which and how? Over the past season and a half, Seraphin has clearly established himself as the most reliable of these four. Towards the end of last season, once he shook off injuries from the first half of the season, Booker emerged as the better of the other three primarily due to his ability to rebound consistently. Trading Vesely and Singleton for someone or some thing of value would be the best thing for the Wizards but to make a trade they need to find a partner willing to take a gamble on one of those two. It may be that we have to trade Booker to get a team to accept one of the other two and hope that whatever we get back is of greater value and that whomever we don't trade can contribute something of real value going forward.

4. Find Some Backcourt Help
During the 2012-2013 season, A.J. Price started 22 games for the Wizards and Garrett Temple started 36. Both guys were thrust into a starting role by injuries to either John Wall or Bradley Beal. I like both A.J. and Garrett as pieces on this team and as players. I love A.J.'s high assist-to-turnover ratio and his ability to play defense. I love Garrett's size and ability to defend both guard spots and toward the end of last season, I actually liked his ability to score in bursts. But if this team is going to succeed beyond maybe squeaking in to the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference, I'm confident when I say that these two guys cannot be our third and fourth guards next year.

If I were running the Wizards, I'd try to re-sign both A.J. and Garrett at the right (i.e minimum) price. I think they both did enough to earn a spot on the team next year. But I'd also go out and find some help to be a first backup at both guard spots. At the point guard, I'd love to find a former starter that had a good contract who is now willing to accept a role for less money backing up John Wall. A guy like Devin Harris would seem to be a good fit. He's coming off a 5 year, $43 million deal and last year was supplanted in the Atlanta Hawks' starting lineup by Jeff Teague. He's still a good point guard and he can defend. If we could wrap up someone like that for a couple of years, I think that would help tremendously.

At the shooting guard first and foremost, we need someone who can score in bunches and I'd even overpay a little or find someone traditionally not thought of as a defender to get that instant offense off the bench. I'm thinking someone like Nate Robinson here. Nate made the veteran minimum with the Chicago Bulls last season but clearly saved some games singlehandedly for that team in the Bulls' playoff run this past spring. If we could wrap up a guy like that for a year or two at a reasonable (less than $2 million per) price, I'd do it. 

5. Fill The Roster With Professional Veterans
During the 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 seasons, after it was clear the team wasn't competing for a playoff spot, the Wizards starting auditioning players from the D-League for a spot on the team. Larry Owens, Shaun Livingston, Cartier Martin, Othyus Jeffers, Mike Harris, Cedric Jackson, Mustafa Shakur and Alonzo Gee all made stops in D.C. during those two seasons. I believe the organization's hope was that one of these players would prove to be a diamond in the rough, and we'd be able to pick up a quality rotation player for very little investment. It didn't work. The Wizards couldn't or wouldn't afford to sign Shaun Livingston, who proved to be the most effective in his time in Washington, and they missed out on Alonzo Gee, who last season started all 82 games for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

During the off season last year, the Wizards traded Rashard Lewis and his $22 million plus salary to the New Orleans Hornets for Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza. While it first looked like the trade may have been a mistake because we took back another season's worth of salary when Lewis' expiring deal would have given us cap flexibility this summer, the veteran presence of Okafor and Ariza helped the team immeasurably. Both Emeka and Trevor are smart professionals and both understood and supported the plan to make this team into a playoff contender. Sure they cost more than someone on a rookie contract or a D-League call up, but their maturity and  experience was essential in allowing other players on the team to weather tougher times last season. When it comes to filling the rest of our 2013-2014 roster, I'd love to see the Wizards invest in high character, veteran players who provide leadership on the practice court, from the bench and in game situations in spot duty.

So that's how I see the Wizards' priorities for the 2013 off season. I'm looking forward to the NBA Draft on June 27 and the start of free agency three days later. Hopefully we can pull together something between now and the start of next season that will allow a playoff appearance in 2014.

Will the future ever get here for Dippin' Dots??

May 21, 2013

"Winning" The NBA Draft Lottery

I'll keep this post short and sweet. Short because it doesn't take much to say what I have to say tonight. Sweet because about an hour ago, that's what this Tuesday night became.

Tonight the NBA held its 29th Draft Lottery. The Washington Wizards have participated in an astonishingly low 17 of those 29 lotteries. I say astonishing because that previous sentence might imply the Wizards franchise has actually been good the other 12 of those years. In fact, the Wizards have been absent from the Draft Lottery process in that stretch more times due to poor trades than they have due to playoff appearances in the prior season. But make no mistake about it: the Wizards are the big winner in this year's NBA Draft Lottery!

I know...they didn't win the number one pick. That distinction went to the hated Cleveland Cavaliers for the second time in three years. The Cavs, assuming they use the pick, may start the 2013-2014 season with four top five picks in the last three years in their starting lineup. But it doesn't matter. Only the Cavs and Wizards moved up in the Draft order this year. And whereas the Cavs jumped from third to first, the Wizards jumped from eighth to third, a tremendous stroke of good luck for a team that has only moved up two times in its previous 16 Lottery chances.

The 2013 Draft is allegedly a draft class with few superstars, a lot of balance and some highly rated NBA ready guys. If there's one thing the Wizards DON'T need, it's another project from the Draft, meaning they need someone who is NBA ready now. Odds are they can get someone at the three spot who fits that bill (i.e. contributes off the bench immediately) at whatever position they choose. I believe the Wizards need to draft the best player available with the third pick; we lack depth across the whole roster and need backups at the one through five.

The third pick worked out pretty well for us last year. I think Bradley Beal, who represented the team at tonight's Lottery, has the talent and drive to be a significant player in the NBA for years to come. In a draft where the talent drop between the first and third picks may not be significant at all, I'll take the third pick. The difference in salary between the first pick (Anthony Davis) and third pick (Real Deal Beal) in last year's draft was a little more than $1,000,000. Now I'm not looking to penny pinch here but the salary cap is real and owners, including Ted Leonsis, are going to try to avoid exceeding the NBA's luxury tax. That million bucks may come in handy.

Early indications are that the Wiz will select Otto Porter, Jr. out of Georgetown University. I have no idea if that's the right pick to make but I know one thing: I'm excited for Summer League and I'm excited for the start of the 2013-2014 season already. The Cavs may have four top five picks in their starting lineup but I'm optimistic about adding this year's third pick to a lineup featuring John Wall and  Bradley Beal. I don't want to get ahead of myself but maybe our luck is turning.

This may be the most truthful statement written about the Wizards in the last 13 years!

May 14, 2013

My Wizards Wish List

We are now about four weeks beyond the end of the Wizards 2012-2013 campaign and the offseason is starting to hit me a little harder. The first round of the Wizards-less 2013 NBA Playoffs is over and I'm now well into watching second round action at nights and on weekends when I can stomach it. Former Wizards knuckleheads JaVale McGee and Andray Blatche and the rest of their Denver Nuggets and Brooklyn Nets teammates are at home watching hoops just like me so I feel pretty good about that. Hating, I know...whatever!

In between rooting against the Miami Heat and New York Knicks in the second round, I'm starting to imagine a 2013-2014 season for the Wizards that ends in a playoff appearance (not ready to ask for a run yet; just an appearance would be a start). If I had the power or ability to change some things about our team, I'd start with three things: improve our field goal percentage, drop our turnovers and have us rebound at the offensive end of the court a little better. Unfortunately, I have neither the power nor the ability and each of these improvements is going to take time and effort across the entire team. No one player is going to be able to affect these changes on the team by himself.

But I do have a small wish list of individual changes I'd like to see our guys make over the summer. Again, I have neither the power or the ability to make these adjustments to our players' games but I believe they are changes that each can make on his own without affecting team play or the performance of the individual in other areas. If nothing else, it makes me feel better to put this stuff down.

Did Vesely leave his free throw shot in Europe?
1. Jan Vesely: Improved Free Throw Shooting
There are so many things about the game of basketball that Jan Vesely does well that go completely unappreciated. He passes well (especially to start the fast break); runs the floor well; finishes in transition better than most everyone; can play defense well on his man or off the ball; and studies the game and shows coachability. But there are undoubtedly two areas of his game that are at best poor and which have become lightning rods for criticism of his game: shooting from the field and free throw shooting.

During the 2012-2013 season, Vesely's field goal percentage was 50.0%. He was the only Wizard to hit half of his shots from the field. But his percentage was only so high because most of his opportunities were dunks and, if he can do nothing else, Vesely can finish at the rim strong. It was his shots away from the basket that had fans cringing each time he hoisted one up.

But I'd take gradual improvement in his away-from-the-basket field goal percentage if he could fix his free throw shooting. His free throw percentage last season was a miserable 30.8%. That represents an incredible drop of 22.4 percentage points from his rookie year. It's a nightmare each time he gets fouled in a shooting situation. The best you can realistically hope for is that he hits 1 of 2 when he steps to the line and that is just not good enough. It's killing our chances to score easy points and he absolutely can't play in crunch time at all.

During his rookie year, there were stories about Vesely having to wear a special template during free throw shooting practice to get him to space his fingers properly. But then at the end of this past season, A.J. Price suggested that Vesely's struggles from the charity stripe might be more mental than anything else and that the pressure of all those people watching and knowing he's going to fail are affecting him more than anything else. 

So here's my offer to Ves. Come back from Europe early this summer; I'll take a couple of weeks off work and get some people assembled every day to watch you free throw shooting on the practice court; and we'll heckle the crap out of you while you practice. We'll tell you how bad you are; insult your manhood and your family; and whatever else you need us to do to get you concentrating on putting the ball through the hoop and not on the pressure of the situation. I want Vesely to succeed and I appreciate the little things he does on the court. But if he can't raise his free throw percentage, he's going to be done in the NBA when his rookie contract expires.

2. Kevin Seraphin: More Physical Play
I love Kevin Seraphin. I love his approach to the game and improving his play. I love that he wants to be coached by Randy Wittman. And I love his use of social media to let fans into his life and that he clearly loves being a celebrity and loves interfacing with his fans. At the beginning of last season he was hands down my favorite Wizard (pre-Martell Webster, that is). And because I love Kevin Seraphin, I can say this: Kevin is a finesse player. And he shouldn't be.

The Wizards' media guide lists Kevin at 6'-9" and 275 pounds. He is a little bit of a throwback big man, preferring to play with his back to the basket rather than shooting from the perimeter. He's a big guy with a wide butt and he should be tough to move. Former teammate Kirk Hinrich named Kevin as the person who set the toughest screens when the two played together during the 2010-2011 season.

But despite improvements in his post game, Kevin still plays with too much finesse. He should be throwing his weight around and getting to the hoop a lot more than he does. This lack of aggression is reflected in last season's 46.1% field goal percentage and 9.6 rebounds per 48 minutes. For perspective, DaAndre Jordan led the league in field goal percentage at 64.3% and Reggie Evans led in rebounding per 48 minutes at 21.7. Kevin's a decent free throw shooter at a tad below 70%. If he can take it inside more without turning it over, I have to believe his field goal percentage, rebounding rate and number of trips to the foul line will improve. Get more aggressive, Kevin!!

I'm not looking for Superman, just a little more physicality.
3. John Wall: Stop Jumping and Passing
The 2012-2013 season was a validation season of sorts for John Wall. He spent the first 33 games of the season in street clothes due to a knee injury during which time he was written off by most of the league as either a forgotten man or a first overall pick draft bust. But when he started playing, the Wizards started winning regularly (albeit mostly at home). He proved himself a difference maker in the team game and, once he got his legs under him, he showed the improvement in his own jump shot, scoring an astounding 47 points against the Memphis Grizzlies on March 25.

John still has a long way to go in a number of phases of the game. He's started slowing down at the rim enabling him to score more regularly but he could improve his fast break conversion percentages; he still turns the ball over far too regularly for an elite point guard; and he is still an emotional, moody guy in games which sometimes leads to too much one on one play and, in its worst manifestation, game ejections like the one he had at Golden State the game before he lit up the Grizzlies for 47. I believe John will work these kinks out and become an elite point guard in the NBA. Remember, he's only 22 years old despite his three years of experience.

But the one small adjustment I'd love to see John make right away is not leaving his feet before passing. If there were a short list of basketball no-no's, jumping in the air before passing would have to be pretty high up that list. Leaving your feet compromises your ability to make sound decisions. Once you jump in the air there are three possible outcomes: shoot, pass or turn the ball over. I understand John may know exactly where he wants to throw the ball before he jumps but defensive adjustments may change his mind and once in the air, he has little choice but to let the ball go. To me this is important because I really think one of the big problems with the Wizards' offense is turnovers and this behavior has to lead to more turnovers. Keep your feet, John and make sound decisions from the ground.

4. Trevor Booker: Rebound With Two Hands
During the 2012-2013 season, coach Randy Wittman settled into a rotation where Jan Vesely, Chris Singleton and Trevor Booker took turns being the team's reserve power forward. It appeared to me as a fan that coach played Singleton as the guy for a while until his performance suffered, then he would switch to Vesely and then to Booker before just starting over with Singleton again. Towards the end of the season, though, Book got more than his fair share of playing time based on his production on the court.

Booker has one more year of NBA experience than Vesely and Singleton and is clearly the superior rebounder of that trio. He posted an average of 5.0 rebounds per game in about 18.5 minutes average game time. That rate puts him with more than 30% higher than either Ves or Singleton if those two had spent as much time on the court in an average game as Book.

But there is one thing I'd like to see improved in his rebounding. Book has a tendency to rebound the ball with one hand or sometimes even one arm. He rebounds this way despite there being no opponent holding his other arm or even any where in the vicinity. Every so often, a rebound gets away from him, which results in a turnover. This is not a big issue game after game, but every turnover adds up, especially for a team that has to work on getting their turnover number down. God gave you two hands for a reason, Trevor. In your case, it might just be to grab the ball with two hands and secure it. Use them! Please.

5. Nenê: More Passion
At the 2011-2012 trade deadline, the Wizards sent away perennial knucklehead JaVale McGee and his immense potentially never fulfilled potential in exchange for Nenê. The trade instantly reset the franchise's moral compass and signaled that management was serious about building a winning team around a team first concept. JaVale McGee is serious about his eating cinnamon and creating cartoon alter egos; Nenê is serious about making his team better and winning basketball games.

Nenê is so good at all phases of the game. He can score, rebound, defend and is possibly the best passer on our team. He makes everyone on the court better and makes the team way better. And so it's difficult for me to criticize any aspect of Nenê's game. But I do have one wish: I wish he would be more passionate about playing. And that wish may be totally unfair.

During the 2012-2013 season, Nenê sat out games for a variety of reasons, mostly due to plantar fasciatis, and at the end of the season there were reports of him considering retirement instead of playing in pain. I have no real idea how much pain Nenê plays through and I probably shouldn't question his toughness in any way but it seems to me that there are a lot of guys playing in the NBA in way more pain than Nenê does. I just have to look at Joakim Noah playing for the Bulls in the first round of this year's playoffs. Noah could barely drag his body up and down the court some possessions but he was out there battling.

The Washington press criticizes the McGee-Nenê trade every so often because the skinny on Nenê is that he gets hurt regularly, which isn't really true all the time. But he does sit a lot and the first report of him sitting the last few games on last season came from Nenê himself and not from the team which leads me to wonder is Nenê hurt regularly (even though he's not) because he's actually hurt or because he has a low threshold for pain. I guess I'll never know but I'd love him to suck it up more and play more. No doubt we are way better with him on the court.

I know none of these guys will ever read this and I really honestly don't want them making adjustments to their games based on fan input. But that's my Wizards wish list for this summer. Maybe I'll go bug them about it during Summer League.

Up Next: Off Season Priorities

May 1, 2013

Encouraging Signs / Discouraging Signs

Pulling the schedule magnet off the refrigerator: unfortunately an April ritual.
It has been two weeks now since the final game of the Wizards 2012-2013 season and there's no doubt I've been in a bit of a post season funk, not willing to think about another lost season in too much detail. But while I am extremely displeased by my team's 0-6 finish, I realize it's just time to get over it and get on with the off season. And yes, I know the Wizards-less NBA playoffs are in full swing but it's the off season for fans like me who live, breathe and eat Wizards basketball from at least October through June (OK...mid-April lately) and beyond.

The 2012-2013 season was a feast or famine kind of season in so many ways for me as a Wizards fan. The highs were pretty high and the lows were pretty low and it seemed like the reasons for the highs were the exact opposite of the reasons for the lows. As a result, I'm left with a list of encouraging signs and discouraging signs to ponder in the off season. Here's how I would summarize the hope (encouraging signs) and doubt (discouraging signs) coming out of last season as I watch the first round of this year's NBA playoffs.

Beating Good Teams (Encouraging) vs. Losing To Bad Teams (Discouraging)
The Wizards had memorable wins during the 2012-2013 season. They beat each Division champion except the San Antonio Spurs at least once. They also beat each playoff team except the Boston Celtics, the Spurs and the Golden State Warriors at least once. They beat the Denver Nuggets, the team with the best home record in the NBA at 38-3, in Denver to complete the season sweep against that franchise. And they beat the Los Angeles Lakers in the Staples Center for the first time since December 17, 2006 when Gilbert Arenas scored a franchise record 60 points in a double overtime thriller.

All those victories are quality wins against good opponents. Considering the fact that in most all of those games the Wizards were missing either John Wall, Nenê or Bradley Beal, the results are downright stunning. I just wonder how many more games against quality opponents we could have won with those three on the court together more regularly.

Those quality wins, plus some other assorted victories, were good for a tie with the Detroit Pistons for 11th place finish in the Eastern Conference with 29 wins; the Cleveland Cavaliers, Charlotte Bobcats and Orlando Magic all finished with fewer wins than the Wizards. Yet despite all the success against the elite teams in the league, the Wizards managed only a 3-12 record against the Piston, Cavs, 'Cats and Magic, including going 0-for against the Pistons and Cavs. So while the wins against playoff teams are fun, there's no way this team will be close to the playoffs without at least holding serve at home against the worst teams in our conference. At home, the Wizards were an unimpressive 2-5 against this bunch.

Overall: Encouraging. The team culture seems serious enough that given a healthy set of players from the start of the season, we ought to be able to get up for the bad teams.

Home Record (Encouraging) vs. Road Record (Discouraging)
This past season, the Wizards posted a 22-19 home record, their best home mark since the 2007-2008 season, the last year the franchise made a playoff appearance. That home record was better than the playoff bound Milwaukee Bucks and all the non-playoff teams in the Eastern Conference except the Philadelphia 76ers. The second half of the season featured a week with consecutive Monday-Wednesday-Friday victories over the Los Angeles Clippers, New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets and a nine game home winning streak that lasted more than a month. Overall, the Wizards outscored their opponents by 121 points at Verizon Center this season, a 3.0 point average margin of victory. That's good. With a little better home record and a decent road record, we would likely be a playoff team.

On the flip side, the Wizards managed only seven victories on the road, good for second worst in the NBA, ahead of only the Charlotte Bobcats. And therein lies the problem. In our 41 games away from home, the Wizards managed to defeat only the New Orleans Hornets, Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers, Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors, Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Lakers. I'd take our 4-11 road record against the Western Conference some years but posting a miserable 3-26 on the road against Eastern Conference opponents won't get it done. This year is the third time in the last five years the Wizards have failed to win at least 10 games on the road, including a season two years ago with only three road wins. Just not good enough. We don't have to be a spectacular road team to make the playoffs. The Boston Celtics made the postseason this year as the seventh seed in the East with only 14 road wins. But any fewer than that likely won't cut it.

Overall: Discouraging. The Wizards' ability to win away from home is critical to short term and long term success. This is not an isolated incident in the past three years. There's work to be done here. A lot of work.

Wall/Beal (Encouraging) vs. Vesely/Singleton (Discouraging)
Of the 11 players who spent their entire NBA season on the Wizards' roster this year, six were on rookie contracts. All six (John Wall, Kevin Seraphin, Trevor Booker, Jan Vesely, Chris Singleton and Bradley Beal) were effectively drafted by the Wizards either through one of our own draft choices or by acquiring another team's choice on draft day and, barring a trade between now and opening day, all six will be on the roster when the 2013-2014 season commences.

The Wizards' recent track record in drafting quality players and/or developing young players into stars or even serviceable ones is not good. The Wizards' first round draft picks since I became a season ticket holder reads like a casualty list: Kwame Brown, Juan Dixon, Jared Jeffries, Jarvis Hayes, Oleksiy Pecherov, Nick Young, JaVale McGee. None of these players is either currently with the Wizards or starting for another NBA franchise. No doubt the selections were poor but the Wizards' staff also seemed incapable of molding them into NBA players. Is it the players or the system? Did the Wizards just get unlucky or is there something wrong here?

Of the six rookie contract players on our roster this year drafted by the team, it looks like we have finally struck a small measure of gold in our first picks of the 2010 and 2012 NBA Drafts, John Wall and Bradley Beal. Those two seem to honestly have star potential and could solidify the team's starting backcourt for years to come. They seem not only to possess the skill to play at a high level, but also the drive and determination to win games.

Sandwiched between those two years in 2011 were first round picks Jan Vesely and Chris Singleton. Both had fairly productive rookie years, admittedly due to a slew of injuries to other players that thrust this pair into heavy action. But this past season, each took major steps backwards. Both played in fewer games this year than last despite the season being 16 games longer and both saw diminished numbers, mostly due to reduced minutes. But Vesely's field goal percentage dropped from 53.7% to 50.0% and his free throw percentage dropped from an awful 53.2% to an abhorrent 30.8%. Singleton's numbers were eerily similar: his three point field goal percentage dropped from a respectable 34.6% to a please don't shoot 19.4% and his free throw shooting dropped a little more than 10 points. 

So is it the players or the system? Did the Wizards get lucky with Wall and Beal and unlucky with Vesely and Singleton or is there something wrong here?

Overall: Discouraging. I believe there are significant issues with the Wizards ability to select quality NBA players and develop them into stars. I believe Wall and Beal are succeeding despite the Wizards' system.

Hanging up the Chris Singleton jersey for the season.
Defense (Encouraging) vs. Offense (Discouraging)
In what has to be the happiest news of the season, the Wizards are actually a good defensive team. Their defensive efficiency (which measures the number of points an opponent scores per 100 possessions) ranked 8th this season at 100.6 points per 100 possessions. This is without question a big improvement. In the 10 seasons prior to last season, the Wizards ranked anywhere from 14th to 29th (out of 30) in defensive efficiency and I have to believe the change is a result of Randy Wittman's coaching style and his insistence on management finding players who can play solid defense.

Of the top 19 teams in defensive efficiency in the NBA this season, only three failed to qualify for the postseason  so defensive efficiency is a pretty good indicator of team success. None of the three who didn't qualify were in the top 10 other than the Wizards. And for the Wizards this year, this was truly a team effort: Trevor Ariza was the only Wizard to receive a vote for Defensive Player of the Year award and he only received one. My speculation in my mid-season post that the Okafor/Ariza for Lewis trade may have been a mistake appears to be the very reason our defensive efficiency jumped 15 spots and 3.2 points in a single year.

So why did the defensively efficient 8th ranked Wizards not make the playoffs along with the 7th ranked Miami Heat and 9th ranked Los Angeles Clippers? In a word: offense. The Wizards finished dead last in offensive efficiency in the NBA this year, a far cry from the 1st ranked Heat and 4th ranked Clippers. In 100 possessions, the Wizards managed only 97.8 points, a full 12.5 points per 100 possessions behind the Heat.

When I think about the offensive struggles of the Wizards this year, my thoughts go immediately to shooting and turnovers. The Wizards were 27th in the league in field goal percentage this year and 23rd in turnovers. The shooting percentage in the backcourt is understandable considering our backup or starting shooting guard for much of the second half of the season was Garrett Temple. Nothing against Garrett here (I think he contributed mightily in the second half of the season) but he's a guy that should be the third option at point or shooting guard, not the guy at the starting two.

But the turnover number is perhaps a little more counterintuitive. After all, our starting point guard is supposed to be one of the best point guards in the game, right? I could argue John Wall is one of the best point guards in the game in a number of areas, but I can't argue that in the turnover department. John didn't play enough this year to be ranked in the turnover per game statistic but if he had, his 3.2 turnovers per game average this year would leave him tied for 6th worst in the league (tied with Kyrie Irving, interestingly enough). His 2.4 assist to turnover ratio would have placed him 30th best. Not exactly bad, but not elite point guard numbers. Chris Paul led this statistical category with a 4.26 mark. A.J. Price, John's backup, was 4th in the league this year. No doubt John's not the only culprit in our 23rd ranking in the league but I'd start here for improvement.

Digging a little deeper, it looks like the Wizards could stand some improvement in two other offensive areas: free throw shooting and offensive rebounding. We have some very good free throw shooters on our team; we also have some very poor free throw shooters who need some work. But we are very deficient in offensive rebounding. Our offensive rebounding rate was 25th and only one of our players (Emeka Okafor) ranked in the top 38 players in offensive rebounds per game this year.

Overall: Encouraging. The Wizards' ability to suddenly play quality defense means something. Good defensive teams succeed in the NBA. The offense needs work no doubt but the defensive side of the ball is more important.

At the end of all this, I'm not sure I'm any more out of my post season funk than I was at the beginning of this post, but there's enough encouragement here that if we hang on to all the good things, which seems possible considering the personnel under contract next year, and correct some of the discouraging things, we might squeak into the playoffs next year. I'm always hopeful.

Next Up: My Wizards Wish List