December 17, 2018

Wizards blow 16 point third quarter lead, fall at home to Hawks 95-92

Since the trade deadline acquisition of Nene, the Washington Wizards have looked like a different team. Unfortunately one serious problem remains—consistency—and it reared its ugly head again Saturday night as the Wizards blew their second consecutive double digit lead at home in losing to the Atlanta Hawks.

A night after losing a 22 point lead and falling to the Indiana Pacers in the final seconds, the Wizards were at it again. Despite having control of the game for the better part of three quarters, the Hawks were able to hit some clutch shots down the stretch—none more clutch than Joe Johnson’s three pointer with under a minute ago that gave the Hawks their first lead since the opening minutes of the second quarter, 93-92.

The Wizards failed to capitalize on solid efforts from Nene (22 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks) and Jordan Crawford (20 points on 9-for-19 shooting) in the loss. Trevor Booker also hauled in 14 boards to go with his 8 points, but John Wall struggled, shooting 1-for-10 and tallying only 8 points, three assists, two rebounds and two steals.

Josh Smith paced the Hawks with 20 points and nine rebounds, while Joe Johnson came through for them in the fourth to finish with 16 points and five rebounds.

While only one Washington starter (Crawford) had a negative plus/minus on the night, the majority of Atlanta’s starting unit was outscored when on the floor. The bench units, however, were the opposite—with only one of the Wizards sub registering a positive (Roger Mason), and only one of the Hawks reserves in the negative (Jason Collins).

A Crawford three pointer with under four minutes left in the third quarter made the score 71-55, giving the Wizards their largest lead of the night. But after the teams traded baskets the Hawks went on a 17-5 run over the next four minutes. Josh Smith’s jumper with just over three minutes remaining knotted the score at 90, and scoring was at a premium for the rest of the game.

Johnson’s jumper with 46 seconds left in the contest may have been the key shot in the game, giving the team their first lead in almost 35 game minutes, but there were several other important plays down the stretch. Immediately before, Trevor Booker was whistled for a loose ball foul that set up Johnson’s look off the inbound play.

“There’s a 50-50 ball between Booker and Josh Smith that we get called for a foul. Just blows my mind.” Wizards coach Randy Wittman said. “That foul’s not called in the first 30 seconds of the game, let alone the last minute. That’s what’s tough for those guys. I mean, it’s a 50-50 ball they’re both jumping for. Booker is called for a foul and Joe Johnson hits a three on the side out of bounds after that.”

Immediately after, the Wizards went 22 seconds into the shot clock before Crawford’s errant jumper, allowing the Hawks to run out the clock. The Wizards allowed them to waste nine seconds…before the Hawks called timeout. The Wizards wised up during the break and fouled Johnson on the inbound, his two free throws becoming the final margin.

The Wizards missed 2-for-1 opportunity was just another contributing factor in their collapse down the stretch.

Wall missed a three pointer as the cock wound down, capping a difficult night for the Wizards star guard. “Some of my shots were good, some were bad, but they just didn’t go in,” Wall said. “That’s kind of frustrating.”

It was the worst shooting night of his young NBA career, absent a 1-for-12 debacle against the Magic earlier this year.

The Hawks, coming off a late win Friday night in New Jersey, had a reason to run out of gas. But it was the Wizards who were unable to convert down the stretch, leaving them with another “what if?” in a season chock full of them.

While the Wizards are far from playoff contention, and every loss means additional ping pong balls in the NBA draft lottery, wins against a competitive team (Atlanta is currently holding the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs) can give a young squad confidence to build on.

The Wizards try to end their demoralizing two game losing streak in Boston tonight as they take on the Celtics.

Washington Wizards shake things up, swap McGee and Young for Nuggets Nene

In a major shakeup unique to most NBA teams the Washington Wizards have traded two starters, Nick Young and JaVale McGee, receiving Denver Nuggets’ Nene Hilario in the exchange: he of the five year, $67 million contract. The Wizards sent Young to the Clippers, while McGee and injured center Ronny Turiaf are on their way to Denver. The Wiz also bring in the Los Angeles Clippers’ Brian Cook and the Hornets 2015 second round pick.

In giving away Young the Wizards lose a potential 20 point per game scorer…for the next 25 games. In sending McGee to Denver they’ve lost a highlight real defender and spectacular dunker…for the next 25 games.

While you certainly could fault the Wizards for not already signing Young and McGee to long term deals, it is fairly clear this was the best move for the team as constructed. Neither player was certain to be a Wizard next season and, for all intents and purposes, both could still return to the Wizards next fall.

With the second worst record in the NBA the Wizards season was going to be, at best, a moral victory. By jettisoning two expiring contracts they acquired a skilled and experienced veteran who they own the rights to for four more seasons.

Just months ago Nene was letting the ink dry on a five year, $67 million deal. Suddenly there is no fear in Oz of being unable to sign any accomplished contributor in free agency and spending another season as a league laughingstock. They get a savvy big man who should flourish against diminished Eastern Conference competition and only lose the right to match an $11 million per season offer for McGee this summer.

And unfortunately that was the reality for the Wizards: both players might leave for nothing in the offseason, and other free agents around the league had little interest in coming to a bottom feeder with little established talent.

And while I’ve been harsh on Ernie Grunfeld in the past, I had to laugh as I watched the midnight SportsCenter. This is exactly what I would have wanted him to do.

Nene has some injury concerns, to be fair. But the past several seasons he’s been as healthy as can be expected of most centers, and brings a welcome attitude to a locker room yearning for more credible veteran leadership.

Brian Cook? Gone after the season with an expiring contract, but in the meantime gives the Wizards a stretch four that can open up the lane for Wall to drive to the hole and Nene and Trevor Booker to operate out of the post. The Clippers second round pick in an upcoming draft? An opportunity to turn a standard second round pick into a first rounder when packaged with one of their four second rounders in the upcoming two drafts.

And while it pains me to see Ronny Turiaf leave without more Wizards game tape (though if he is waived by the Nuggets as expected he could conceivably return as well), he was ultimately another expiring contract for the offseason. Depending on whether the Wizards decide to use their Amnesty waiver on one of the Wizards current employees (“Blatche or Lewis?” is the amnesty version of “Oden or Durant?”), the Wizards could still afford to sign a top tier free agent in the offseason after collecting a top six pick in the draft.

If Wall makes The Leap next season, Nene returns to the production levels of his last three years and the Wizards can hit a home run on this year’s top selection, they are a signing or two away from contending for the playoffs. It may seem like a lot of “ifs”, but it is what we all knew to expect—a project that will take another few years to develop.

And, in some sign of divine providence, Wall showed how close he is to making that jump. He ended his night against the New Orleans Hornets with 26 points and 12 assists and three steals on 11-for-16 shooting, leading his team to an impressive 99-89 road win with a depleted lineup.

With another building block locked up for several more seasons, the Wizards get a competent two way center who still figures to be in the thick of his productive seasons—ones that happen to coincide with the Wizards rights to Wall. Depending on his motivation and injury status going forward, they also have “Nene Hilario’s Expiring Contract” to wield in 2015.

For Wizards fans, the purging of two frustrating talents will bring some measure of peace to the roster. And, if the team decides to go in a different direction when the draft approaches this June, they still have the cap space to bring them back to the Verizon Center next fall.

Wizards Mid-Season Manifesto, Part Two: Into the Offseason

This is the second installment of a two-part column chronicling staff writer Nathan Hamme’s obsession with building a better Washington Wizards team.

Draft post players and shooters.

You can’t stress enough how important this draft is to the Wizards future. They’ve been in the top half of the lottery three consecutive seasons, and returning there for a fourth seems likely. Fans won’t accept if it happens a fifth time, and I’d feel more comfortable with an evaluator like Pritchard at the helm this year.

At the top of the draft there are several players who could help the team to varying degrees next season. The Wizards will certainly hope lightning strikes twice and they end up with the number one pick and Anthony Davis.  A freshman power forward with incredible shot blocking ability (NCAA best 4.8 per game) as well as a great motor and basketball IQ, who’s been called the most polished defensive big man to come out of college since Tim Duncan. He’s the kind of low risk, low-post, high upside, high character guys that would be a perfect addition to the Wizards.

PF/C Andre Drummond may ultimately have the highest upside, but at only 18 and not yet dominating on a struggling UConn team he comes with some risk. His size (6’10”, 270) and post presence are something the Wizards could really use, and he would be an outstanding consolation prize if he decides to declare—and his interestingly timed leap to college this summer suggests he will. Unfortunately this is not the no-brainer pick it seemed before the season, as Drummond has some developing to do.

The next tier consists of more known commodities: Harrison Barnes, Jared Sullinger, Thomas Robinson and Jeremy Lamb. Robinson is a DC native whose maturity, rebounding and post play make him a personal favorite. Sullinger has drawn comparisons as varied as Kevin Love and Michael Sweetney, but he’d be another quality rebounder and big body for a rather milquetoast Wizards front court. Barnes and Lamb are both very talented scorers whose viability depends largely on what the team decides to do with Nick Young. They would both be quality outside shooters that could help take some pressure off of John Wall, with Barnes probably the pick should they decide to go for perimeter scoring.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist had been rising up boards but is apparently not going to declare for this year’s draft. Bradley Beal is another name to watch for the Wizards depending on how many of these underclassmen decide to stay in school.

I expect the Wizards will try to acquire another pick before this year’s deep draft, but moving up might be just as prudent. In addition to their own second rounder they have Dallas’ (projected in the low 50’s) from the Ronny Turiaf salary dump. They also have two in next year’s draft, and given the number of projects and reserves on the roster it’s probably time to turn quantity into quality. Trading two or three of those second round picks might move them into the first round.

Players like Arnett Moultrie, John Henson, Fab Melo, Terrance Jones, Perry Jones and Doron Lamb may be available in the mid-late first round and have significant upside. If the Wizards choose to stay put, the early second round features players like Kevin Jones, Jeffery Taylor, Augusto Lima and Virginia’s Mike Scott. Jae Crowder is a sleeper pick who may not even be taken on draft day, but his basketball IQ, toughness, defensive motor and three point shooting are things the Wizards covet—could he be Marquette’s next Wes Matthews.

Use the Qualifying Offer but make an overture.

Questions still surround what to do with JaVale McGee after the season when he likely becomes a Restricted Free Agent. Centers are at a premium in today’s NBA—even mercurial and inconsistent ones.

Which is why nobody should be surprised if McGee ends up with a $10 million a year deal at the end of the summer. But heck, nobody would have been surprised if Nick Young was offered a $7 million a year last fall. Is it also possible that this season will end and teams will be wary of McGee’s unpredictable play, just as they were with Young in the shadow of the CBA negotiations?

McGee has not shown that he’s worthy of the deal DeAndre Jordan signed in December (4 years, $43 million), or Brendan Haywood was granted from the Wizards before him (6 years, $55 milllion). Yet it’s the kind of money he’s likely to expect, and if you look at stats alone he’s not the least bit crazy.

McGee averages more points, assists and blocks than Jordan in fewer minutes. He has an almost identical rebound rate, and astonishingly is a better free throw shooter (48.5% vs. 48.1%). McGee’s PER is significantly higher despite Jordan having one of the highest FG percentages in the league. But the main difference offensively is what’s expected of the two centers. Jordan takes five shots a game, McGee almost 10. McGee does not have the benefit of an offensively oriented power forward to take the burden of scoring down low, and gets the ball in the post multiple times a game—as opposed to solely on alley-oops.

Unfortunately his bone headed play count (turnovers + goaltending violations + missed box outs) largely invalidate McGee’s efforts as a shot blocker, and his advanced statistics show opposing centers score and rebound well against him. Jordan is a far more polished defender and rebounds well even with another elite rebounder in his front court. Since Jordan can concentrate on what he’s good at he is regarded as a solid contributor for a contending team.

Hopefully McGee’s reel of lowlights will be enough to dissuade teams from making an offer calibrated on statistics alone. The Wizards should give him his Qualifying Offer, let him spend a couple weeks on the open market, then make him make a decision on a 4 year, $36 million contract. After all, he’s 24 year old true center with very little history of injury—he might just need some seasoning and the right coaching staff to blossom. If he’s given a near-max offer by someone else, the Wizards can move on to Omer Asik and Roy Hibbert, both of whom will be on the radar for teams looking for a center and may demand a similar bounty. Regardless, the team has one true center and is a must have position for any team who wants to succeed.

Wait until the summer to shop Andray Blatche.

Bottom line: ‘Dray is a sunk cost this season. He’s not lived up to his deal, even if he’s put up some impressive stats over the years, and isn’t scheduled to come off the payroll until 2015. The Wizards will be lucky to get another equally unpalatable contract in exchange for him this season—with the team’s interest in Tyrus Thomas being a prime example.

But, as Wizards fans have learned over numerous false prognostications about Blatche’s corner-turning, he’s always seems most appealing in the spring and summer—either putting up empty stats or not around to put his foot in his mouth. If Charlotte agrees to sending Thomas or teammate Boris Diaw it will happen immediately. Unfortunately Blatche’s stock hasn’t been lower in years.

In the broader perspective, however, his deal is not really so unpalatable. He’s made only $2-3 million over the mid-level exception for the duration of the contract, and has a unique skill set that could be more impactful in a reserve role on a contender. A more veteran team may convince themselves to gamble on the big man’s potential, so waiting until the cream of the crop is off the market might be the best marketing they can hope for.

Because Blatche is seen as so toxic in the locker room the Wizards have openly shopped him and destroyed any semblance of leverage in the situation. If a deal can’t be struck that gives some type of return on investment the team would be wise to take a wait-and-see approach instead of pushing the panic button. With Trevor Booker playing increasingly well lately at both power forward and center, and numerous other talented youngsters waiting in the wings, it is still something that should be addressed before next season.

Be a player in free agency—even if you can’t sign your targets.

The players mentioned in the trade deadline section may also rightfully apply here. But with Eric Gordon and others likely entering the market in some capacity over the summer the Wizards will need to act the part of a desirable team.

This means opening the pocket book, even doing it a bit more than others, while being as risk averse as possible. Don’t give a lot of years to a guy with an extensive injury history, and don’t be afraid to give a guy the contract he wants with incentives that make it worth his while.

Gordon may fit into both categories. He’s missed almost a season and a half in his short career due to injury, but also stands to be the prize of the free agent market after the Dwight Howard/Deron Williams situation shakes out. While I love his grit and ability, he’s likely in line for a four year deal in the $50 million range—while entirely shifting the evaluation of the Chris Paul trade. But his injury history makes him a risky proposition, and one I don’t expect, or recommend, that the Wizards pursue.

With no other candidates for maximum contracts the Wizards should start looking at second-tier free agents from the outset. While Orlando is not likely to give him up without a fight, Ryan Anderson has proven himself a unique commodity worthy of a four year, $32 million deal. With all the Dwight Howard drama going on how much can they afford to dedicate to Anderson?

The Grizzlies may give O.J. Mayo his $7.3 million qualifying offer, but would they match if the Wizards went four years $34 million for the talented guard? Ultimately the Wizards positional targets will depend on who is selected in the draft, but the need to add known and talented commodities is paramount.

Then there are mid-level exception targets. Robin Lopez has a $4.0 qualifying offer, but might be attainable at the MLE. Brandon Rush is turning into a knock down three point shooter and has a mere $4.3 million QO. Ersan Ilyasova has been a revelation for Milwaukee, both on the boards and as a long range shooter, and will get a raise in free agency—although if he continues his stellar play it may be a big raise.

As near-minimum salary options, Ian Mahimi, Reggie Evans, Hamed Haddadi and Jamaal Magloire could all help the Wizards in different capacities. Let’s face it—not everyone on the team can be on a rookie salary scale, getting useful pieces with minimum-level contracts can be great value. And since upper-echelon veterans are unlikely to covet a stint in DC, the team must see what still productive veterans are still available.

Use Amnesty on Rashard Lewis and save $10+ million.

If Lewis is waived this off-season he is now officially due only $13.7 million of his $22.7 million deal. Using Amnesty should allow the Wizards to take advantage of that opt out while giving themselves about over $30 million in cap space—a pertinent move dependent on whether they’re able to use much of it. And while Rashard’s contract expires after next season and could be seen as a valuable trade asset it requires that the Wizards not cut the veteran and reap those $10 million in savings–something that only makes sense if they’re unable to lure any free agents in the off-season, though that is entirely possible.

The alternative path would involve using Amnesty on Blatche, who has a combined $23 million due over the next three seasons. If they also choose to waive Lewis this option still leaves the Wiz nearly $30 million in  cap room. That’s plenty of money to build around John Wall, Trevor Booker, and whoever remains after an active trade deadline and off-season.

While I don’t advocate locking up three high priced free agents at once, there is no question the Wizards need to spend some of their money to start fielding a merely competitive team. With a little draft lottery luck they can start seeing drastic improvement by the end of next season.

Wizards Mid-Season Manifesto, Part One: The Trade Deadline

This two-part column chronicles staff writer Nathan Hamme’s obsession with building a better Washington Wizards team. It started as a mid-season recap, then became a second half preview. Then it morphed into trade deadline cheat sheet/NBA draft projection hybrid, and ultimately settled as a 4,000 word State of the Franchise diatribe. The second installation will follow Thursday.

At times this season the Washington Wizards have looked the part of the NBA’s “Most Dysfunctional Team”. Whether they are actually the league’s worst or merely one in the league’s bottom tenth is hardly of consequence and certainly not a comfort to fans.

The Wizards rebuilding project is now into its third season and so far the returns don’t look encouraging. Stacked up against some other currently rebuilding squads the Wizards appears to far lag behind—with Cleveland and Utah both playing playoff caliber basketball despite having undergone recent overhauls.

Unfortunately those two franchises are also particularly rosy comparisons for the moribund Wiz. Both had star players that contributed heavily to their rebuild when they left town. LeBron and Mo Williams left Cleveland with a score of valuable picks, while Utah also got great value for Deron Williams (a guy who Washington wanted in last year’ draft, Enes Kanter, and the number three pick from the ‘10 draft, Derrick Favors).

Meanwhile, Washington turned their competitive 2009 top seven of Haywood, Butler, Arenas, Jamison, Foye, Miller and Stevenson into Rashard Lewis, Trevor Booker, Hamady Ndiye and cap space. That’s it. Unless, of course, you consider the subsequent dismantling of the team (at the time 17-33) the cause of their ability to draft John Wall (9-23 to finish, winning fifth best odds in the draft lottery).

In this sense their situation has much more in common with the Rockets, who were forced to deal with Yao Ming’s abrupt retirement and a gaping hole in their roster, but even Houston was able to get Kevin Martin and Jordan Hill out of Tracy McGrady’s twilight. Regardless, the Rockets’ success provides an equally depressing comparison for Wizards fans.

So how does the organization look to dig itself out of this massive hole? From a team that was a playoff regular to a laughing stock and back? Here is a somewhat chronological, fully comprehensive look at fixing this Wizards team.

Let Wittman finish out the season, but start thinking about a long-term solution.

The Wizards play has improved post-Saunders. That much is certain. But is it a result of better chemistry in the locker room and a measure of calm on the court? Or is interim coach Randy Wittman trying some new—and successful—rotations in the team’s playbook? The answer is probably somewhere in between, and his attempt to instill accountability appears to have had some effect. But considering the team has primarily seemed comfortable pushing the ball up court to minimize half-court sets while creating turnovers on defense, it’s possible that everyone on the team just needed a fresh start.

If the Wizards haven’t shown additional strides at the end of the year does Wittman deserve to remain coach? He’s in a tough spot: it’s not just that he needs to have proven he can help develop this particular group of players, because he also needs to be the guy that will be able to attract players from other teams moving forward—and his head coaching record pre-Wizards is not seen as an asset.

Former coaches like Maurice Cheeks and Jeff Van Gundy have necessary name recognition, while assistants like Sam Cassell and Patrick Ewing are well regarded as former NBA stars. Is John Calipari worth considering? (Hint: the answer is “No”).

While someone in the Larry Brown mode would make sense for this team, it seems to me that Wittman has played an impressive “velvet hammer” thus far.

Unless a proven commodity appears on the market as Rick Adelman did last offseason (Stan Van Gundy?), the Wizards are just going to have to do their due diligence and make an educated decision based on who’s willing to undertake this daunting project.

One team’s trash is another team’s treasure

Every year there are teams who jettison contributing players for below market value. It can be an injury, a positional logjam, a fire sale (have the Hornets been sold yet?) or a straight salary dump (Nets?). Whatever the reason, good teams are unscrupulous in scooping their next bread winner off the trash heap (and apologies for the unsettling visual).

Michael Beasley is currently on the block, with Minnesota is looking for a late first round pick in return (the Lakers being one of several interested). The Wizards are desperately in need of scorers and long-range shooters, and could bring in the Frederick, MD native with zero long term risk. Beasley has a qualifying offer of $8.2MM next season which the team could easily afford if he performs, or if they aren’t in consideration for other available free agents.

Beasley is 23 but already in his fourth season, averaging nearly 20 points per game last year. His “character issues” stem largely from doing something many of the leagues players do, and his talent certainly justifies taking a test drive. After all, Josh Howard was on his best behavior in Washington just last year. The Wizards two second round picks might get a deal done, or they could opt to sacrifice one of their young forwards.

Even now, nearing the trade deadline, there are still free agents who warrant a look. Kyrylo Fesenko, a 25 year old, 7’1”, 280 pound Russian, has proven his chops as a defensive specialist with the Jazz these past four seasons. His offense needs a great deal of polish, but he can clog the lane with the best of them.

He’s fully recovered from a knee injury that kept him unsigned over the winter, and getting a foot in the door might allow the Wizards to add his bulk longer term as a defensive specialist. The Wizards front line lacks girth, and outside of Kevin Seraphin and Trevor Booker is more likely to be seen getting pushed off the block than posting up on it. Fesenko isn’t going to make them a playoff team, but the Wizards have to look to upgrade their personnel across the board—especially ones with a specific and useful skill-set.

And while Memphis has reportedly stopped shopping OJ Mayo, his previous availability suggests the Grizzlies are hesitant to offer him anything more than his $7.3MM qualifying offer for next season. If they decide to put the guard back on the market it would be a sizable upgrade for the Wizards at shooting guard—and someone they should consider into his restricted free agency.

A final possibility is to get involved in another team’s blockbuster trade by providing some key assets to make salaries work. The Rockets, Magic, Warriors, Bulls and Lakers and others look to be active in the coming days, and with various rules affecting the ability of teams to complete their deals the Wizards should look for any opportunity to get a pick or prospect.

Even more importantly, the team will need to bring in some veteran influences who demand respect and can show the younger guys how to make a living in this league—something more suited for the off-season, since quality veterans aren’t generally shipped to non-contenders.

Let’s face it: no one move is going to turn this team around, and these options are no exception. But until top free agents start believing they can win in a Wizards uniform, it’s going to mean building a roster bit by bit—effectively evaluating talent and accumulating assets in-season and out.

Trade Nick Young at the deadline.

Young is a decent starter and, at worst, a second string scorer in the NBA. He’s often given a hard time about his defense, but he’s actually turned into a respectable man defender and has the athleticism to be a force on the help-side as well. And, of course, he can score in bunches—including efficiently from the 3PT and FT lines.

Despite getting the go-ahead to chuck it these past two seasons Young hasn’t always had it easy in the Nation’s Capital. He languished behind Gilbert Arenas for years and is still pulled for long stretches of games to get Jordan Crawford minutes. The Wizards have been notorious losers these last three years, something that cannot be enticing for a young player looking for a long term deal.

The other variable, of course, is Crawford. He’s a considerably better passer and rebounder (despite being three inches shorter) and while he doesn’t have Young’s shooting ability he’ll continue to get burn because he’s younger (26 vs. 23) and on an affordable rookie deal.

Don’t get me wrong—I would love to retain Nick Young. But at what cost? Is he worth the contract the team afforded Andray Blatche? While there’s no evidence that anyone is willing to give him that kind of money, is he still expecting a deal that pays him $9 million a season?

Something tells me Nick hasn’t made up his mind to be here (maybe he’d feel more comfortable with one of his home town teams). I certainly don’t begrudge him the opportunity to find greener pastures. But is Arenas-esque personality, streaky performance, and poor body language don’t match the seriousness of this rebuild, making it hard to justify a massive commitment.

One thing is for certain: we should be using his current contract to our advantage. At one year, $3.7 million he’s not only a great value but a low risk proposition. Team’s looking to make a playoff run could be willing to part with a draft pick. A team looking to shed salary might sacrifice assets for a trade exception.

And remember, as long as it’s not a sign and trade the Wizards can offer him a contract that makes them comfortable in the offseason—and if I’m Nick Young why would I invoke my no trade clause? Don’t I relish the chance to showcase my skills in the playoffs and earn that big contract? And don’t the Wizards become a more appealing destination if they can get something out of it? It could be a rare win-win-win situation, but there is minimal benefit in having him play out the season in Washington.

Don’t re-sign Ernie, draft Kevin Pritchard.

Pritchard is currently on a one year deal with the Pacers as Director of Player Personnel, but when the Portland Trailblazers fired him in 2010 it raised eyebrows around the Association—and not solely because it came the day before the draft.

Pritchard may be known as the GM who took Greg Oden over Kevin Durant, but 80% of us would bear the same title had we been heading the Blazers draft team that year. More appropriately he should be known for identifying Nic Batum and Rudy Fernandez in the late first round, and being integrally involved in two of the most impressive fleecings in recent memory: getting Brandon Roy for Randy Foye and LaMarcus Aldridge for Tyrus Thomas and Viktor Khryapa.

The turmoil surrounding the Wizards was not entirely of Ernie Grunfeld’s making. He’s overseen numerous quality moves and constructed some playoff teams during his Wizards tenure. But while Grunfeld is respected around the league he’s not widely regarded as one of its best GMs, and if Washington is to become the “destination city” Ted Leonsis envisions it will need to embrace that new era—and that means a fresh start at the top.

Pritchard’s chops as a talent evaluator are exactly what the Wizards will need if they stick to their plan of building through the draft. His success in brokering deals via trade and free agency shows he deserves another chance at leading a front office. The Wizards can sit back and let Ernie’s contract run its course, but they would be wise to prepare for this one early.

Mavs stop the bleeding in Dallas, continue Wizards road woes 107-98

On the second game of their Texas road swing the Wizards faced a sliding Mavericks’ squad that had just been blown out in Oakland by 24 points, and was a very unimpressive 2-8 in their last ten games.

The defending champs were able to get back on track at home, eventually pulling away from the Wizards down the stretch 107-98. The Wizards fell to 9-32 on the season.

Dirk Nowitzki scored 27 points on 10-for-14 shooting and was +19 on the night, while Jason Terry chipped in 24 points to get Dallas over the century mark for only the second time in the past 14 games. It was also only the fourth time this season they notched 60 first half points.

Perhaps the biggest pick-me-up for the Mavs, however, was Rodrigue Beaubois, the Dallas fan favorite, who tallied 19 points while also notching six boards, four assists, two steals and several acrobatic plays.

Trevor Booker paced the Wizards with 20 points and 12 rebounds, becoming a focal point for the Wizards low post offense. John Wall bounced back after a subpar outing, scoring 18 points on 6-for-14 shooting and dishing out 10 assists to his one turnover.

Jordan Crawford and Nick Young chipped in 15 points each, while JaVale McGee had 12 points and 3 blocks, while sporting the team’s best plus/minus on the night (+7).

The Wizards were able to take a lead 24-20 after a 18-8 run in the middle of the first quarter, but after trading leads in the game’s first 18 minutes, John Wall missed a free throw that would have tied it at 42 and the Wizards never regained the lead.

Dallas shot 82 percent (14 of 17 from the field) in the decisive second quarter, and ended the half with a 10-3 run to take a 60-51 advantage.

Midway through the third quarter provided a snapshot of why the Wizards weren’t quite able to get back into it in the second half. After cutting the lead to eight and getting two stops on defense to close in further the Wizards fouled Nowitzki on a made 14-foot jumper. Crawford was hit with a technical foul for disputing the call, and Nowitzki was able to convert on both ensuing freebies to give the Mavs a 68-56 lead.

The Wizards eventually closed the gap to 70-68, but the Mavs went on a 13-5 run over a four minute stretch that gave them some breathing room.

Wall felt the team played hard but fell short on the defensive end. “We competed; we just gave up too many easy baskets. We’ve got to figure out how to close.”

The Wizards continue their road trip Thursday in New Orleans, where they take on another NBA bottom feeder in the 10-32 Hornets.

Wizards lose big in first game of Texas road swing, fall to Spurs 112-97

The Wizards started a six game road trip in San Antonio, and despite the need to get off on the right foot were dispatched again by the Spurs in convincing fashion 112-97.

Tony Parker led the Spurs with 31 points on 14-for-19 shooting while also carving the Wizards up for seven assists. Tiago Splitter, Tim Duncan and DeJuan Blair combined for 42 points and 28 rebounds in beating up the Wizards front line. [Read more…]

Wizards fight back from big first half deficit, fall short again versus Magic 105-98

The Orlando Magic have had the Washington Wizards number over the past three seasons. Wednesday night at the Verizon Center was much more hotly contested than the team’s previous match-ups in Orlando this season, but despite having a seven point second half lead and battling back from another double digit first half deficit the Magic held on to down the Wizards, 102-95.

The Wizards haven’t beaten the Magic since February 5th of 2010.

Ryan Anderson had 23 points and 15 rebounds to lead the Magic, who also shot an impressive 15-36 from three point range.

John Wall led the Wizards with 33 points (13-for-25 from the field), four assists, thre boards, two steals and only one turnover, while Jordan Crawford pitched in 18 points (14 in the third quarter) and led the Wizards with five assists.

Washington featured a new starting lineup that had Nick Young and JaVale McGee on the bench in favor of Jordan Crawford and Kevin Seraphin. McGee had started every game for the team this season, and Young had started 32 straight. It was Seraphin’s first start of the season and only the second of his career. It continued a post-All Star break trend reapportioning minutes to bench players.

Offense was hard to come by with their leading scorer and rebounder on the bench. The Wizards only mustered four points in the game’s first five mintues. But McGee seemed to get the message, playing great defense on his first two possessions against Howard and hitting a foul line jumper on offense.

The Magic then went on a 11-0 run to build a 25-8 lead, including two and-ones from Howard. They led 27-11 when the Wizards went on a 7-0 run to end the quarter, with five of those points coming from a motivated McGee.

The Wizards cut the lead to 40-38 on Wall’s first assist of the night, a three pointer from Roger Mason with two minutes to go in the half. But the Magic scored the next five points, and were able to escape to the locker room up 46-41.

Washington had 14 second chance points off of eight offensive rebounds to help them keep pace. Wall (13 points) and Jason Richardson (12) were the only double digit scorers in the half, as each team featured a balanced attack.

Jordan Crawford hit three quick long jumpers to start the second half, giving the Wizards a 47-46 lead, their first of the game. Wall’s layup in transition gave the Wizards a 60-53 lead, but the Magic went on a 5-0 run. They would take the lead minutes later on a JJ Reddick three-pointer that made it 68-67.

Orlando extended their lead to 79-70 on back to back threes from Ryan Anderson and Chris Duhon, capping an 11-0 run that took them into the fourth quarter. The Wizards responded with back to back baskets to pull within five, but Glen Davis scored four straight to keep the home team at a distance.

Wall responded with six straight points, two on a finger roll layup before converting on back to back jumpers. Wall had all 10 of the Wizards points in the quarter at that point, and a Mo Evans three pointer knotted the score at 83.

As they’d done all night, the Magic responded with some hot shooting beyond the arc. They hit back to back threes to regain a six point advantage.

The teams traded baskets after several hard fought possessions, culminating in a confrontation between Trevor Booker and Richardson on a rebound. The energy made for exciting basketball, but the Wizards were unable to cut into the lead. They also squandered an opportunity when Wall fouled Anderson while shooting a desperation three pointer at the tail end of the shot clock. Anderson made all three and gave the Magic a 95-87 lead.

McGee and Young were nowhere to be seen at the game’s most critical juncture, with the two accumulating 16 and 19 minutes respectively—and none down the stretch. Asked if he understood why Randy Wittman had him on the bench, McGee quizzically replied “I can’t say I do, but I’m sure I’ll figure it out sooner or later.”

Despite improved defense on Howard Orlando’s rebounders and outside shooters were able to keep the Wizards at bay, and the game’s final minute was hardly contested compared with the previous 23.

Washington has two days off before they face the Cleveland Cavaliers at home on Saturday, where Andray Blatche may be available once again for the first time since January 28th. “Saturday will feel like Christmas for me,” he was quoted as saying earlier in the day. We’ll see if Wizards fans feel the same.

How are the Wizards progressing? Revisiting our preseason projections

Before the holidays I committed to writing a preview of the Wizards 2011-12 season. I called it “a paper-trail long enough to hang myself with” at seasons end, and it’s time to see how that process has progressed.

Here’s a Bullet-by-Bullet look at my predictions, along with a bit of “Perception vs. Reality” based on some, you know, actual empirical evidence:

  1. Perception: They will miss the playoffs for the fourth straight year. Reality: that was a gimmie. The Wizards were the NBA’s last winless team, so dreams of a playoff birth were scuttled early. Unless the Wizards second half can match Miami and OKC’s first, the team will again be lottery bound—which isn’t such a bad thing for this team. And while this doesn’t seem like going out on much of a limb now, there were definite whispers in the off-season that the team culture might just have changed enough to sneak into the playoffs. It certainly won’t be this year, and the level of difficulty so far this season portends that it might not be next year either.
  2. Perception: The team will have a better winning percentage than last season. Reality: Not so fast. Right now the Wizards are winning only 21% of their games, compared to 28% last season. The team came on down the stretch last year, and if they can slightly improve on their pace post-Saunders (5-14 thus far) they may be capable of making it. Winning a third of their contests appears overly optimistic, as the Wiz would have to go 15-18 down the stretch to prove me right–or at least 12-21 to prove me technically-not-totally wrong.
  3. Perception: The Wizards won’t have any All-Stars. Reality: Spot on. Some fans had high hopes for John Wall this season, but as I mentioned in the preview he has some tough competition in the East. Rajon Rondo replaced Joe Johnson in the mid-season contest, so in a roundabout way that prediction was spot on. More generally, the lack of a truly breakout campaign from any of the Wizards youth meant a lack of invites—except, of course, for Wall and the Skills Challenge <sigh>.
  4. Perception: The team will be active at the trade deadline. Reality: TBD. This is the one that matters most to the Wizards now, but is also the only one we cannot yet evaluate. Given their poor start, I imagine this will be as important as ever.
  5. Perception: The ‘Zards will creep up to fourth place in the Southeast Division. Reality: So far so bad? Charlotte’s abysmal season has begun to overshadow the Wizards peerlessly pathetic start, so this prediction appears on track. The Bobcats, however, have suffered injuries to some of their…how should I say…better players, and still have plenty of time to leapfrog the Wiz in the standings. Neither team has much to brag about at this juncture.
  6. Perception: You’ll see a whole lot of uneven performances. Reality: Unfortunate reality. While the Wizards have not beaten the Hawks, Magic or Celtics and have beaten the Raptors twice already this season, the prediction was valid. They’ve lost to the Raptors, Nets and Kings while also beating the Thunder and Trailblazers. While five of their seven wins came against teams with the five worst records in the NBA, the Wizards have certainly been a game-by-game, and even quarter by quarter, proposition.
  7. Perception: Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee will each average career highs in rebounds. Reality: Too much to ask from both front court mates. Blatche is averaging only 7.1 boards a game, down from last year’s career high of 8.3. McGee is up to 8.8 from last year’s high of 8.0, and has shown marginal improvement in his positioning. Both players have actually increased their rebound rate—the number they collect per minute—but sadly that does not excuse from likely failure in two of the three measures of this prediction (season total, per game, per minute). Blatche has missed half the team’s games, and while McGee held up his end of the bargain it will take a herculean effort from a healthy ‘Dray down the stretch to correct his per game average.
  8. Perception: Nick Young will flirt with 20 points per game. Reality: flirtatious advances rebuffed so far. Young’s actually down a tick from last season’s career high, averaging “only” 17.2 a contest. He’s upped that to 18.4 in February, but his true shooting percentage is at a career low 51% (he shot 54% last season). Otherwise, his statistics are startlingly similar to his ones from the previous season, something the Wiz didn’t want to see from a guy finally getting his “chance” as a starter. The abbreviated preseason and Young’s corresponding contract issues have contributed, but the fact remains Young has been more productive on a per minute basis coming off the bench these past two seasons—albeit this year in a limited sample size. What affect that has on contract negotiations this summer is yet to be seen.
  9. Perception: Shelvin Mack will be the back-up point guard by the end of the season. Reality: Didn’t even take that long. Mack has already become the regular first-in for Wall, though Jordan Crawford still gets more minutes playing as a combo guard over the course of the game. That was to be expected, I think, but Mack’s ability to run an NBA offense has been a pleasant surprise. At times he’s seemed better prepared running sets than Wall, and he’s not nearly as turnover prone as his speedy counterpart (2.4 per 48 minutes to Wall’s 5.4). He’s also slowly improving his shooting percentage month over month, so while he doesn’t have the tantalizing upside, he’s proving himself capable as a NBA backup.
  10. Perception: Trevor Booker will have as many memorable dunks as Jan Vesely. Reality: Win by default. The thing is…there just haven’t been many memorable Vesely throw downs this season. He has showcased his motor, size and leaping ability numerous times this year on the defensive end—those are all real. But Vesely is making a pretty dramatic transition to NBA ball, and while he was billed as one of the draft’s more “NBA ready” prospects he’s also getting sporadic minutes in a crowded forward rotation. Trevor Booker, on the other hand, has continued to impress after some quality appearances last season. He’s got some of the most electric dunks and blocks in the game, is an above average rebounder for his size, and is tenacious on the defensive end. He sports the 3rd best PER on the team, and is posting 10 points (55% FG), seven boards, a block and a steal a game in February.
  11. Perception: The Wizards most improved player will be…Andray Blatche. Reality: Not in this world, apparently. This one was doomed by the first post-game press conference. After blowing a big lead against the Nets, ‘Dray decried the lack of touches in the post…and then went to Twitter to “clarify” his comments—which, of course, always ends well. The ensuing media frenzy turned a demoralizing loss into an even more distracting situation, and Blatche has never been viewed the same by Wiz fans. 90% would probably trade him for a can of Campbell’s soup right now. The frequent booing he hears in the Verizon Center can’t make palatable motivation for the six year veteran—that is, when he’s actually on the court. While AB has been nicked up all season and missed half of the team’s games, his biggest problem has been his shooting efficiency, which dropped to 42% from 50% last season. His rebound rate is actually up, and his turnover and usage rates are down, so not all news is bad news. Who knows how long he’ll be around, but he certainly “need it n the post ” for some high percentage shots if he’s ever going to become a salvageable asset again.
  12. Prediction: The Wizards will be within 2% of 100 points per game—on offense and defense. Reality: Juuuust a bit outside. Defensively the Wiz kids have shown improvement, down from allowing 104.7 points per game last season to a merely conference worst 100.8 this year. As you might have guessed scoring is down league-wide, so Washington is still the third most porous defense in the Association after the first half—actually worse than last season’s sixth-to-last finish. Offensively the Wizards are scoring just under 92 points a contest, though that number jumps to over 97 in February after averaging 83 in three December contests and just under 90 in January. So while the Wizards offense is improving, they’ll be hard pressed to average the 104 points a game it will take to prove me in any way right about this one. That being said, the improvement since Flip Saunder’s departure is welcome.

So there you have it Ladies and Gentlemen: five predictions unlikely, one TBD and six on track. It’s been a whirlwind first half of the season, and hopefully we can look forward to the Wizards putting it all together down the stretch—or at least showing signs of continued development after a disappointing start.

Later this week: How to fix what ails the Wizards…

Wizards start strong, stumble in second half against the Kings, 115-107

The Sacramento Kings have a lot in common with the Washington Wizards: dollops of young talent but equal parts inconsistency. Both were on display Wednesday night as the Wizards again squandered a big first half lead before falling to a road-weary Kings team 115-107.

The Kings were in the last of a six-game Eastern swing, and were able to muster just enough defense to pull out their first win of the trip. John Wall’s near triple double (21 points, 11 assists, 9 rebounds, 3 steals, 2 blocks and 5 turnovers) and Jordan Crawford’s hot shooting (32 points on 12-for-19 from the field) weren’t enough, as the Wizards gave up 96 shots (12 above Sacramento’s average, third highest in the league) and 18 offensive rebounds. [Read more…]

Wizards Run out of Gas in LA, Fall to the Clippers 102-84

Less than two weeks ago the Washington Wizards were embarrassed by the Los Angeles Clippers 107-81 at the Verizon Center, losing to a team that had just flown cross country to start a six game road swing. In their first game back at the Staples Center, the Clippers were able to fight off a considerably feistier Wizards squad, eventually pulling away for a 102-84 win.

Blake Griffin had 23 points and 15 boards, Caron Butler had 21 points while hitting 5 of 7 from the three point arc, and Chris Paul handed out nine assists to go with his 16 points

John Wall had 18 points, 11 assists and 6 rebounds, and JaVale McGee had 18 points but only five rebounds for the Wizards, who snapped their first win streak of the season.

Butler started off hot against his former team, scoring 11 points on perfect shooting in the first quarter. But Wall hit an outside jumper early on that allowed him to be effective both driving and passing, notching four points and four assists in the game’s first nine minutes.

Along with improved interior defense by Trevor Booker and JaVale McGee, the Wizards were able to avoid the slow starts that have doomed them against good teams in the past, staying within a score for most of the first quarter.

Despite celebrating their homecoming the Clippers played carelessly throughout the first half—something unexpected from a team lead by a consummate PG in Paul. Back-to-back traveling violations early in the second quarter gave the team five in 14 game minutes and allowed the Wizards to take a 27-25 lead with 8:47 remaining in the half.

While both squads played sloppily at times, they were also both active defensively. They combined for numerous spectacular rejections—several of which did not factor in to the teams’ six first half blocks due to fouls. The teams also combined for 10 turnovers—despite neither team recording a steal.

Nick Young cooled significantly from his hot night in Portland, where he hit 7-8 three pointers on his way to 35 points Tuesday night. He was held to one point one 0-for-6 shooting in a sluggish first half in his hometown.

McGee paced the Wizards with 13 points on 6-for-7 shooting, many coming on powerful dunks. Jordan Crawford added 12 and hit two of his three attempts from three point range.

The Clippers were able to take a 50-47 lead into the half, due in part to their 17 second chance points on nine offensive rebounds.

The second half saw continued defensive intensity by both teams. While Griffin ran roughshod on Washington’s big men in their last meeting, Booker made him work for every inch on the block this time around. The constant contact frustrated the Clippers big man, culminating in several heated conversations with the referees.

Washington fell behind by seven on a botched play four minutes into the third quarter, when a near turnover by Paul turnover became a wide open three pointer for Caron Butler that made it 56-49. Just as the Clippers looked poised to pull away, the Wizards went on an 11-2 run. Young hit two three pointers over that stretch, the second of which gave the Wizards the lead.

Booker was forced out of the game with his fourth foul toward the end of the Washington run, and rookie Jan Vesely was forced into duty guarding Griffin. He was out-muscled on several consecutive possessions, giving up four points and accruing two quick fouls that sent him to the bench and brought Rashard Lewis into action.

With an extra shooter on the floor, Young was able to free up for an open three that tied the score at 66. From there the Wizards went cold, coming away empty on eight straight possessions to end the third and giving the Clippers a 74-66 lead.

With Booker and McGee on the bench to start the fourth the Wiz made two quick baskets, and Wall’s second long jumper of the game brought them to within 75-72 with 10:12 to play. A three pointer by ex-Wizard Randy Foye gave the Clippers some breathing room, and his two free throws on the next possession extended the lead back to eight.

The Wizards could never quite get over the hump from there. After two Wall free throws cut into the lead, the Wizards turned the ball over with a chance to trim the deficit to four. Instead the Clippers got a three pointer late in the shot clock on the ensuing possession for their biggest lead of the game, 83-74.

Another Foye three pointer gave him 10 fourth quarter points and increased the Clippers lead 88-76 with 6:56 left.

Despite several opportunities to erase the advantage, the Wizards were repeatedly whistled for infractions—including a lane violation on a missed Griffin free throw when the game was slipping out of reach. The team was clearly feeling the effects of a back-to-back, allowing the Clippers to win going away in a game that was hotly contested for all but the final eight minutes.

The Wizards continue their 5 game road swing Friday in Salt Lake City before finishing Monday night in Phoenix.

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