September 22, 2014

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: Washington Wizards Partner with Special Olympics

Group photo (Photo Courtesy of Washington Wizards)

Wizards Girls (Photo Courtesy of Washington Wizards)

WASHINGTON, D.C. – In support of the Special Olympics’ fourth annual “Spread the Word to End the Word” awareness day, Washington Wizards players Andray Blatche, Jordan Crawford, Rashard Lewis and Nick Young attended a basketball game featuring athletes from Special Olympics Unified basketball teams on Tuesday, March 6, at St. Coletta of Greater Washington Gynamsium. Blatche and Lewis served as celebrity coaches while Crawford and Young served as referees. The Wizard Girls, G-Man and the Secret Service Dunkers were also be in attendance and perform at halftime.

Fans attending the Wizards game against the Lakers on March 7 were encouraged to sign a banner pledging their commitment to “Spread the Word to End the Word.” The banner, which will also be signed by the entire Wizards team, will be presented to St. Coletta of Greater Washington.

The Washington Wizards are committed to the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area and will focus on the following five pillars to maximize its impact on the community:  education and scholarship, hunger and homelessness, military and veteran’s affairs, pediatric health and fitness and youth basketball.

For more information on how to get involved with Special Olympics in Washington D.C., please visit http://www.specialolympicsdc.org/

Spread the Word to End the Word is an ongoing effort by Special Olympics, Best Buddies and their supporters to raise the consciousness of society about the dehumanizing and hurtful effects of the word “retard(ed)” and encourage people to pledge to stop using the R-word. 

Special Olympics Unified Sports Program helps raise the consciousness of society about how people with intellectual disabilities should be accepted by all.  Special Olympics athletes with intellectual disabilities are paired as teammates alongside athletes without intellectual disabilities to foster an environment of acceptance for all.  The athletes with and without disabilities playing as teammates at Coletta school will demonstrate why it is important to take the R-word pledge.

The campaign, created by youth, is intended to engage schools organizations and communities to rally and pledge their support at www.r-word.org and to promote the inclusion and acceptance of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

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…

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