June 27, 2014

I Stayed Up For THAT?!?!

Last night the Barclays Center in Brooklyn hosted the 2014 NBA Draft, the annual event that gives hope to fans of underperforming franchises everywhere that their team might just get lucky and snag a future superstar who will take them to the promised land of the NBA playoffs or, maybe just maybe, a NBA title. The Washington Wizards at the beginning of the night held just one pick, the 16th selection in the second round or 46th overall, whichever way you prefer to look at it. Their first round pick this year was in possession of the Phoenix Suns who received it from Washington just before the start of last season in exchange for Marcin Gortat. If we can manage to keep Marcin with the team this year and beyond, that trade was probably totally worth it. But the second round has yielded some gems for other teams. Why not us?

Last night was the third time in my 14 years of being a Wizards season ticket holder that the Wizards were without a first round draft pick. In 2005, the Orlando Magic had our selection as a result of a 2001 trade featuring a protected draft pick in exchange for Brendan Haywood. In 2009, we traded the number five overall pick to Minnesota for one year of Mike Miller and Randy Foye, one of the worst mistakes this franchise has made in the last decade and a half.

Unless I'm on a plane flying to Germany like last year, I watch the draft religiously until the Wizards' picks are complete and then hit the sack. Since we were sitting at 46, I knew last night would be a long one. Despite the maximum five minutes per selection allotted in the first round, the draft never manages to pack 12 picks in an hour. Even though each team pretty much knows exactly who they are going to take, the possibility of some other team calling and making an offer too good to be true forces each pick to last the maximum amount of time. Then there's a minute or two extra while the Commissioner announces the pick and the clock re-sets.

I know next to absolutely nothing about college and international basketball so I generally have no educated opinion about who the franchise should draft. For me, the draft is all about rumored blockbuster trades that rarely happen and learning a little something about the player or players my team manages to trade for or draft. In terms of excitement, 2010 was perhaps the best Wizards draft ever, with the team holding the number one overall pick (John Wall) at the beginning of the night and pulling off two draft day trades to acquire the 17th (Kevin Seraphin) and 23rd (Trevor Booker) picks. The worst year for me was 2005, when I waited all the way to the 49th pick to hear Andray Blatche's name called and the announcers proceeded to say absolutely nothing about Andray, presumably because they had no idea who he was.

So last night I set my expectations bar at the 2005 draft level, knowing I'd have to stay up late but hoping that the folks at ESPN knew something more than nothing about whoever the Wizards would end up drafting at number 46. That moment came at about 11:35, way past my bedtime, when the Wizards selected Jordan Clarkson out of the University of Missouri. OK, so he's a point guard. That's cool, we drafted one two years ago who we can't get to come over from Europe and play for us and we have Andre Miller who's almost 40 as our backup. Makes sense. What did ESPN tell me about him? His father battled cancer. That's it.

Then about two minutes later came word on Twitter that we sold the pick to the Los Angeles Lakers for some cash (about $2 million). Draft over. I stayed up until 11:40ish for that? Very disappointed. I was tired this morning and the team has no more players than it did last night before the draft started.

I'm not really that upset, but I should be. The reason I'm not that upset is that the team's track record of drafting and developing talent quite honestly is not that good so I had really very little confidence that we would have made anything out of the pick unless we just got super super lucky. I should be upset not about trading the pick necessarily but that I have no confidence we could have done anything with the player in that slot once he arrived in Washington. I'm jaded I guess.

In the 14 years I've been a season ticket holder, I've never seen a second round pick pan out. Well, not with our franchise anyway; Shelvin Mack played pretty well with Atlanta this year. I've seen a number of other teams make something of a second rounder or draft an international player and bring him over a couple of years later with some success. The Wizards have drafted three international players in the second round (Juan Carlos Navarro, Vladamir Veremeenko and Tomas Satoransky) since I've been with the team and I've yet to see any of them take the court in a Wizards uniform. I'm adding this to my concerns list about this team, right behind the fact that we do not have a single affiliation with a D-League franchise.

Best draft in 9 years and the Wizards emerge with a couple of bucks. On to Summer League. Two weeks! Can't wait!

June 16, 2014

Not One, Not Two, Not Three, Not Four...

I know this is hating. I don't care.

The 2013-2014 NBA season is over. Last night the San Antonio Spurs clinched their fifth title in franchise history by defeating the Miami Heat at home in game five for a 4-1 series win. The Spurs are still the only former ABA franchise to win an NBA title and their victory ends the two year title run of the Heat in spectacularly dominant fashion. The Spurs victory not only returns the Larry O'Brien Trophy to San Antonio for the first time in nine years, it also marks the first time since 2010 that no former Washington Wizard won an NBA Championship. The past three years have seen former Wizards Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood, Juwan Howard, Rashard Lewis, Mike Miller and DeShawn Stevenson capture titles post-Wizards.

Within 30 minutes of arriving at work this morning, I was congratulated by two people on the Spurs' victory. These were not passing comments. The first thing said to me by these two people was something along the lines of "Congratulations on the win last night." Now I have never been, am not now and likely will never be a San Antonio Spurs fan. But as a die-hard Wizards fan who suffered through back to back to back playoff exits at the hands of LeBron James when he played for the Cleveland Cavaliers, I guess I am known around my workplace as a guy with an axe to grind about King James. What can I say, I guess I wear my heart on my sleeve when it comes to my team (as if writing my own blog wasn't proof enough).

I've written this before but it's not losing to the Cavs all those years ago that gets me riled up; it's the way they did it with LeBron. Instead of a humble, we haven't accomplished anything approach that the Spurs take year after year, there was whining, crying and complaining by LeBron in each of those three series. From engineering the ejections of Brendan Haywood and Darius Songaila by crying to the officials or the commissioner to non-called but later assessed flagrant 2 fouls on Andray Blatche to whispering in Gilbert Arenas' ear when he was about to shoot all important end of game free throws (now an automatic technical), LeBron never beat us with class. And I guess that's why I got some dap this morning when I started my workday.

I don't know what it is about LeBron that gets to me. Despite all the PR errors he's made over the years, there's always something with this guy and this year's finals were no exception. It's like he's always looking for some sort of excuse and it started in game one with the leg cramps. The AT&T Center that night had inoperable air conditioning and temperatures on the court were 90 degrees or above. There's no doubt that the players were feeling it more and more as the game went on. Tiago Splitter looked like he was about having a heart attack his face was so red. The Spurs won game one handily but LeBron wasn't on the court to see it. Of all the players in the building, only he cramped up to a degree that forced him to sit out the end of the game. There's no shame in sitting out the end of a game one blowout. Sit down, regroup and come back stronger in game two, which the Heat did. But don't make up some excuse for not re-entering the game. Please!

Game two in San Antonio was taken by the Heat and the series went to Miami tied up at one game each. But home court advantage was not kind to the Heat. Two games, two blowouts. Their D looked awful and Dwayne Wade in particular, all of 32 years old, looked way past his prime. There was no competition offered by the Heat in these two games and so no excuse was really offered for the losses. They were so completely destroyed by the Spurs that LeBron and Wade didn't even make fun of any of the Spurs' players like they did in 2011 with Dirk Nowitzski.

But before game five, it seemed like the swagger was back. LeBron talked about the fact that his team had "championship DNA" and that they play best when their backs are against the wall. I have news for you, LeBron: players that have lost three of five NBA Finals cannot use "championship DNA" as an inspiration. You may have two more championships than a lot of other players, but you don't have an exclusive license on them. If anyone has that sort of DNA, I think it should be the Spurs. You really only won two titles because you colluded with two fellow All-Stars to buck the system and tip the competitive balance in your favor. Ever since that night in Miami almost four years ago when the Heat held a party to introduce the signings of you, Chris Bosh and Wade, your backs have never been against the wall. You stacked the deck in your favor. You should really have won all four years. But you didn't.

By the middle of the fourth quarter of game five, it appeared the Heat had been beaten back almost completely. The Spurs held an almost 20 point lead and it seemed that it wouldn't be too much longer before the Heat would cry uncle and fold. But the game wasn't over. It is technically possible to come back from that lead. I've seen plenty of leads blown by the home team at Verizon Center over the last 14 years in the fourth quarter. But it seemed like LeBron wasn't interested; he sat out the last six minutes. I don't get it. There's no regrouping and fighting in game six. The season's over if you don't play. I guess he wasn't all that interested. Winners like LeBron I guess don't like losing. If he's not on the court, I guess he can claim he could have prevented the loss if only...

LeBron was the first Miami Heat player to reach the locker room last night. I'm not surprised. At least he learned to shake hands after the game since he refused to do so against the Orlando Magic in 2009. Now the question is, what do the Heat do next? There is speculation that LeBron, Wade and Bosh will all opt out of their contracts and restructure their deals to try to conspire again to tip the competitive balance in their favor even more next year by recruiting Carmelo Anthony. There is also speculation that LeBron will move on to another team with a better chance of winning. For my part, I don't much care what he does. I believe there is value in staying someplace and making it better. I've been at my job almost 15 years now through thick and some pretty thin years. It would have been much easier to bail and start over somewhere easier. But I'm proud of what I've accomplished by staying. I don't imagine LeBron will ever feel that way.

No matter where he lands next year, I'll be rooting against LeBron (please, Wizards, don't let LeBron decide to sign with us). If he leaves Miami, he leaves with unfulfilled promises. While I can't imagine the Heat fans that actually stick with the team care much since he already delivered two titles, LeBron actually promised them at least eight. Doesn't look like that's coming true any time soon. If he leaves, it never will. He even said it would be easy. Guess not. 

It's 32-0 now!

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.