Where Do The Wizards Go From Here?
It’s been sixteen months since the Washington Wizards ended the Gilbert Arenas era, but the squad is still nowhere close to returning to the postseason for the first time since 2008.
Sadly, for Wizards fans, the 2013 season will in all likelihood be another stage of the rebuilding project.
With six games remaining in this lockout shortened season, the Wizards (14-46) are currently a whopping 28 games behind the Southeast Division leading Miami HEAT and just six games ahead of the league worst Charlotte Bobcats.
If there is a positive for Washington emerging from this season it’s the fact the team will have a strong chance of securing a top five overall pick in the upcoming draft lottery (if it were based on record alone the Wizards would have the second pick).
The 2012 draft is loaded with potential at the top and the main goal for any rebuilding franchise is to stockpile young talent, clear cap space and surround the developing youth with established veterans willing to mentor.
Obviously, at the top of most draft boards looms University of Kentucky standout power forward Anthony Davis who led the Wildcats to the national championship as a freshman.
If the ping pong balls don’t land the Wizards a shot at Davis, who has yet to officially declare, there is still a strong crop of frontcourt talent sure to be available.
The Wizards will more than likely look to strengthen their talent at center, power forward or small forward.
In the event they’re eliminated from the Davis sweepstakes, expect the Wizards to take a strong look at former UCONN center Andre Drummond. The 6’10 prospect didn’t dominate the collegiate landscape by any stretch but did average 3 blocks and close to eight rebounds per night as a frosh. The presence of Drummond would allow the Wizards to eventually shift Nene to power forward full-time.
Other big men likely to be available in the top five are Kansas’ Thomas Robinson and Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger.
But one prospect who will be sure to get some looks is Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Davis’ teammate at Kentucky this past season. Gilchrist, who already possesses an NBA ready frame and freakish athleticism, would be able to slide into the starting small forward spot for the Wizards from day one.
From a financial standpoint, the Wizards will enter the offseason with around $58.6 million in salary commitments to ten players for the 2013 season.
The majority of the team’s salary cap for next season, $35.7 million, is owed to veterans Rashard Lewis ($22.7 million) and Nene ($13 million).
Washington could create more breathing room cap-wise depending on how they handle the last year Lewis’ deal which is only guaranteed for $15 million next season.
If the team stays pat on Lewis they won’t be major free agent players during the summer as the cap figure will be no lower than $58 million (but could be slightly higher).
It would be hard to imagine another squad offering real assets in return for the fourteen year veteran via trade coming off his worst season as a pro and the fact expiring deals have lost most of their old value under the new collective bargaining agreement.
Nene was acquired by Washington at the trade deadline from Denver, but has played in only six games for the Wizards averaging 14.8 points and 9.3 rebounds and likely will not play again this season.
In Nene, the Wizards now have an established veteran post presence who matches up well against the Eastern Conference’s assortment of big man talent such as Dwight Howard, Brook Lopez, Al Horford, Roy Hibbert and Joakim Noah.
But the team’s ultimate fate in the win-loss column will rest on the slender shoulders of their franchise player – point guard John Wall.
Wall undoubtedly possesses All-Star level talent, but his sophomore campaign has failed to live up to expectations as his numbers across the board seemed to have plateaued.
The club traded away their leading scorer, shooting guard Nick Young, at the trade deadline and decided to roll with high scoring second year guard Jordan Crawford.
To his credit, Crawford has responded well to the challenge averaging 17.7 points per contest after the All-Star break, but the combo of him and Wall make up one of the league’s most inefficient starting backcourts in terms of field goal percentage.
On a positive note, the Wizards are positioned substantially better for the future from a chemistry standpoint.
Much of the 2012 season has been about changing the culture of the franchise.
The team fired head coach Flip Saunders after an abysmal 2-15, where Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld said he felt the embattled coach hadn’t done a good enough job developing the younger talent.
But before Saunders was removed he and JaVale McGee’s mother exchanged barbs in the media over her son’s role on the team.
Further cleaning house, the Wizards shipped McGee to the Nuggets in the Nene trade at the deadline.
There were also reports of Lewis, the team’s veteran leader, getting into a heated dispute with assistant coach Sam Cassell.
In another surprise move, Washington also shipped Young to Los Angeles in the Nene deal.
The trading of McGee and Young, both set to become free agents, sent a clear message to the rest of the team that regardless of talent level the franchise was looking for high character guys.
“I think it’s a combination of things,” Grunfeld told the Washington Post, explaining the motivation for the deal. “We want to have guys that are competitive, that care about winning and losing. It has nothing to do personally with the two players. It has more to do with getting a player [Nene] that does come from a winning situation and is competitive and is a good defender and a good passer and a good all-around player.”
Heading into the 2013 season the Wizards will also need to make a decision on their permanent head coach.
Interim head coach Randy Wittman has led the team to a 12-31 mark, but there is expected to be bigger names on the market.
Guys such as Mike D’Antoni and Nate McMillan are already on the unemployment line.
Orlando Magic head coach Stan Van Gundy may join them once the season is over.
Another candidate may be current New York interim coach Mike Woodson if the Knicks decide to look in another direction. Woodson has a proven track record of success in leading rebuilding projects (see the Atlanta Hawks).
The franchise is probably a good two years away from seriously flirting with the postseason, but with a strong probability of getting a high draft pick, a decent salary cap position, good young talent, an established veteran presence inside and most importantly a new culture – the Wizards appear to be at least heading in the right direction.
Follow Lang on Twitter @LangGreene