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Should We Fear Them? The Wizards

 

Picture 23In: Mike Miller, Randy Foye, Brendan Haywood’s body, Gilbert Arenas’s knee, Fabricio Oberto’s hair

Out: Darius Songalia, Etan Thomas, Oleskiy Pecherov, Juan Dixon, the potential of drafting an exciting point guard from Spain.

The Wizards are talking big. Here’s Antawn Jamison in the Washington Post: “I’ve been around here for six years, and championship talk wasn’t the norm around our locker room. That’s all we’re talking about now.”

Tom Ziller at FanHouse thinks the Wiz will be the most improved team in the league, and Dave Berri’s wins produced formula suggests the Wiz could be a 50-win outfit.

The ‘Zards became instantly interesting when they dealt Thomas, Songalia and the #5 pick in the ’09 draft to KAAAHNNN! for Randy Foye and Mike Miller. Both should be productive offensive players given the decreased burden they’ll have to carry on a more complete ‘Zards team. Combine those two with the return of Arenas, and there’s no question Washington will leap up the league’s offensive efficiency rankings, where they finished 26th last season. (That was in part because of the team’s inability to hit three-pointers, which should change this year).

But are we ready to invite them into the Cleveland-Orlando-Boston club of Eastern Conference contenders? We said no to the Raptors, and we’re saying no to the Wizards unless they can answer some of these questions positively.

1) Can Arenas stay healthy and play well?

This one’s obvious, so I won’t say much more. But to hear Tim Grover (the guy who trained MJ) talk about Arenas’s left leg, well, it almost sounds like that leg was dead. Here’s Grover in an outstanding Washington Times piece:

“A lot of things weren’t firing – his glutes, his hips, thighs. I wouldn’t say his condition was the most severe, I wouldn’t say it was the best. … But if I were to classify it on a scale of one to 10 with 10 being the most extreme, I’d say he was definitely in the seven, eight category.”

So, yeah. Arenas is going to have to prove he can be productive for the haul. Grover is optimistic, and as a fan of the game, I’m crossing my fingers. Without Arenas scoring at least 20 a game, the Wiz are just another Eastern Conference also-ran.

2) Can this team ever learn how to play defense?

The Wiz were putrid last year on defense. They were 29th in defensive efficiency, and they could not guard the three-point shot—arguably the most important thing you have to do on defense. The Wiz allowed more three-point attempts than any other NBA team (1,740, or 21 per game), and opponents still hit 38.7 percent from deep—the fourth-highest percentage allowed in the league.

Fine, you say. Last year doesn’t count. Haywood, the team’s most accomplished interior defender, missed all but six games, and Arenas played in just two. Just toss out the statistics.

Except:

Wiz Defensive Efficiency ranking in 2007 (Arenas’s last healthy season): 28th

Wiz Opponents three-point percentage in 2007: 37.7 (29th)

Wiz Defensive Efficiency ranking in 2006: 22nd

Wiz Opponents three-point percentage in 2006: 36.3 (21st)

So it’s not like this team was a defensive juggernaut when the Arenas-Butler-Jamison-Haywood nucleus was healthy.

The one area in which the Wiz were “good” statistically last year was limiting shot attempts in the paint; only 32 percent of opponent attempts came on inside shots, according to 82games, the sixth-lowest mark in the league. That’s great, until you remember two things: 1) Why shoot from inside when you can take open threes all game? 2) Teams hit a stunning 65.5 percent of those inside shots, far and away the highest mark in the league, according to 82games. (Memphis was second-worst, allowing opponents to hit 63 percent from inside). Haywood will help here, obviously.

The overall message: The Wizards stink at defense. And there is no reason to suggest they are going to get much better at this season, unless some of the young guys in the rotation (Andray Blatche, Dominic McGuire, Nick Young) improve on that end. Because there isn’t much statistical evidence to suggest that Miller or Foye is going to make much of a difference on D.

The Wiz can score all they want. But until they learn to play defense with at least a league average efficiency, they are going to have trouble competing for even the fourth seed in the East.

A few more questions for the ‘Zards, after the jump.

3) At what pace?

The Wiz, when they were good (if a high water mark of 45 wins in 2005 can be called “good”), played fast on offense. In 2006, only six teams averaged more possessions per game, according to Basketball Reference. In 2007, they averaged 94 possessions per game—fifth-highest in the NBA.

But their head coach is Flip Saunders, and Flip hasn’t coached a fast-paced club since his T’Wolves ranked 12th in pace factor way back in 2001. His Pistons finished dead last in pace in 2007 and 2008 and 29th in 2006, and his last three Wolves teams ranked toward the bottom of the league in possessions per game.

With guys who can shoot the three all over this roster, the Wiz have a chance to a potent offensive club. They may have to go through an identity crisis to get there. Flip’s early T’Wolves teams—the ones with a point guard named Marbury—ranked near the top of the league in pace factor, so he’s shown the willingness to adapt to his personnel before.

4) Can the young guys develop?

If you read Bullets Forever and Truth About It, you know how frustrated/enamored Wizards fans are with Andray Blatche. They sound like disappointed parents when they talk about Blatche’s unfulfilled potential. He shoots too many jumpers. His rebounding numbers have gotten worse in each of the last two seasons. He may be more productive at center, but he may not rebound or defend well enough to play there regularly.

With Haywood back, Blatche will return to his role as one of the first guys off the bench. Still, the Wiz are going to need something from him on both ends if they are going to contend.

As for Nick Young, he’s got big-time potential as a scorer off the bench, but he has yet to prove his scoring can translate into easier looks for his teammates. His sub-10 assist rate—meaning he assists on fewer than 10 percent of Wiz baskets while he’s on the floor—is terrible for a guard.

On the other hand, the Wiz defense gave up 6.9 fewer points per 100 possessions with Young on the court last season. That’s a huge number. I have no idea what to make of that.

Then there’s Foye, who has a (fairly) big name despite never putting up a league average PER and shooting a shade below 41 percent from the floor last season. If you to want to learn about Foye, I’d highly recommend reading this great post at Bullets Forever, which combines the knowledge of several Wiz and T’Wolves bloggers to break down Foye’s game.

The quick summary is this: He’s a nice spot-up jump-shooter who doesn’t seem to realize he’s a nice spot-up jump-shooter. He drives to the rim wildly, gets his shot blocked often inside and turns the ball over almost twice as often per minute when he plays the point versus when he plays the two guard.

And, really, that presents question 4a: How will the Wizard’s back court rotation shake out? How does Flip manage a crowded back court that contains a lot of guys with a mix of PG and SG skills in Arenas, Foye and Mike James? How do Nick Young and Javaris Crittenton fit in? How does Flip divvy up the minutes at SG between Foye, Miller, Young, DeShawn Stevenson and even Dominic McGuire? Who’s the back-up PG?

On the one hand, these are good problems to have. On the other, the answer will be determined in part by the uncertain development of young players. How those players develop may make the difference between a 40-win team who sneaks into the playoffs and a 50-win club who makes one of the East Beasts sweat.

  • http://www.celticshub.com Zach Lowe

    Thanks, Mike. I hadn't noticed that about Haywood, but it makes sense. I really look forward to watching this team play this year, and I'm crossing my fingers about Arenas.

  • http://www.truthaboutit.net/ Truth About It

    This is a great piece … rarely do other teams cover other teams so well.

    One thing I will say about defense … Yes, while the capabilities of the personnel continue to be very questionable, the coaching change could have a noticeable effect (albeit likely not at the level that Wizards fans desire).

    One of Flip Saunders' stated goals is to create a much more efficient offense (as opposed to Eddie Jordan's gunning ways of the past), and that in turn, that increased efficiency will limit easy opportunities for the opponent (such as in transition).

    But that seems to be only a small part of it as you hit the nail on the head with the Wizards' inability to defend the perimeter.

  • http://www.bulletsforever.com Mike Prada

    Nice breakdown. I’m impressed by your Wiz knowledge and level of analysis.

    One small thing to mention re: the defense: If you look at on/off numbers from 82games from the past few years (i.e. 04/05-06/07, not as much in 07/08), you’ll notice that the Wizards defended significantly better when Brendan Haywood was in the game. This is a very simplistic way of looking at it, but it’s as if the Wizards were a league-average unit with Haywood in the game and the worst defensive team in the league (by far) with him out.

    Despite that, Haywood played only about half the game because he wasn’t a good fit offensively in Eddie Jordan’s Princeton offense and because he was perceived to be a whiner and a loafer (incorrectly, I might add) by Eddie. Eddie never realized what he had in Haywood. The two years Haywood played the most (04/05 and 07/08) were the two years the Wizards played the best defense during this stretch. And even then, Haywood probably wasn’t playing enough. You also saw what happened to the defense last year when Haywood was injured — it fell apart.

    So basically, just having no more Eddie Jordan will mean more playing time for Haywood, which means the defense should be better. How much better, I don’t know, but it’ll be better assuming Haywood plays the type of minutes he should. Considering Flip’s a much better coach than Eddie and the lack of options behind Haywood, that’s a pretty easy assumption to make.

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