Website: Bullets Fever
Author: Mike Prada
The psyche of a Washington basketball supporter is one that is unlike any other in the NBA. Let’s consider the history. One playoff series win from the end of the Bullets Fever era of 78-79 to 2005. No seasons with more than 45 wins since 1979. 10 different head coaches in the last 10 years. One ridiculous name change. These are just a few of the things that drive a Washington fan crazy.
But it’s not just that the Washington franchise has been in a constant state of mediocrity for the better part of the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s. Unlike their mediocre brethren in the Clippers, the Wizards have always had some sort of a novelty among the league. Consider that former stars like Spencer Haywood, Gus Williams, Moses Malone, Bernard King, Rod Strickland, Mitch Richmond, Charles Oakley, and, of course, Michael Jordan all teased the Bullets/Wizards with their star power at the end of their careers. On top of that, whenever the Wizards got it right with a promising young player, they either got hurt (Chris Webber, Gheorghe Muresan), were traded too early (Manute Bol, Muggsy Bogues, Rasheed Wallace, Webber, Richard Hamilton), or underperformed (Juwan Howard, Calbert Cheaney, Kwame Brown). For years, Washington D.C. was essentially the league’s one-stop shop for aging veterans and underachieving youngsters.
If you ever wonder why the guys at Wizznutzz act like they do, try being a fan of Les Bullez for your entire life.
Why do I bring this all up? Because for the first time in ages, the Wizards actually have a real team that should be taken seriously. Sure, Gilbert Arenas is a strange dude, but the guy can play, and he has a ton of help on the court and in the front office. There’s reason for the hometown faithful to be excited about this team, so while I may not be as crazily optimistic as some of the previews so far, I’ll certainly struggle at times to contain my excitement.
When we last left the Wizards, they came out on the short end of a compelling six-game series against the Cleveland LeBrons…I mean Cavaliers. This loss followed a season where the Wizards were like the yo-yo in Gilbert Arenas’ head; up again, down again, up again, down again, and back up again. Early-season wins against San Antonio and Detroit were the bookends for a five-game losing streak. After falling to 12-18, the Wiz picked it up and put themselves in a prime position to match their 45 wins from the year before until a late 5 game losing streak pushed them down to 42 wins. You never knew which team was going to show up last year, but you knew they would be fun to watch
In the offseason, the Wizards said goodbye to Jared “The Enigma” Jeffries, letting him go to New York, where he will baffle Isaiah Thomas when healthy. In his place, the Wizards signed Darius Songalia from the Bulls and stole DeShawn Stevenson from the Magic for the league minimum. In the draft, the Wizards took two random guys from Europe who both won’t contribute this season.
The Strength of the Offense
It’s obvious that the Wizards’ strength is on the offensive end of the floor. When you have the highest scoring trio in the league for the second consecutive season, your offense is doing something right. What makes Washington particularly consistent offensively is their ability to get to the free throw line. Arenas, Caron Butler, and Antonio Daniels in particular do such a great job of getting to the charity stripe off the dribble without turning the ball over. This allowed the Wizards to finish sixth in the league in scoring ability despite finish 21st in true shooting percentage.
The great thing about this ability is that it doesn’t go away from night to night. Teams will have games where their jump shots aren’t falling. However, because the Wizards attack the basket so well off the dribble, they will rarely be subjected to off nights offensively.
Making this offense even scarier is the potential return of Jarvis Hayes from knee surgery. Without Hayes, the Wizards had trouble kicking the offense into full throttle unless each of the Big Three had monster games. Hayes adds a new dimension to the attack with his instant offense off the bench. He gives the Wizards a spot-up shooter on the wing that will benefit from Arenas’ penetration. Now, if only he could stay healthy…
The Weakness of the Defense
It’s no secret that the Wizards were poor defensively last year. They ranked 23rd in defensive efficiency last year, a ranking they need to raise about 8-10 spots in order to be a real contender.
It’s very easy to judge based on the Cleveland series that the Wizards need a physical, defensive big man to ever get to the next level. While that certainly was a problem in the playoffs, the reality is that there are bigger problems than that with this defense. Getting a big man like Joel Pryzbilla in free agency would not have been the best way to fix the problem.
The biggest problem was that the Wizards allowed far too many open looks at the basket in games. Had the Cavaliers’ shooters been playing at the top of their games, the result of the series could have been worse. For all of Arenas’ strengths offensively, he tends to drift off his man when he’s defending off the ball, allowing them open shot after open shot. Butler struggled with this problem as well, although he’s a much better on the ball defender than Agent Zero. While they both have been extremely dedicated to improving this in training camp, we have yet to see it translate to actual game play, although Arenas’ insistent to guard LeBron in the teams’ preseason game against Cleveland is certainly a good sign.
The other major weakness was on-the-ball defense. Jeffries was hyped as a great perimeter defender, but his sole value was his versatility rather than his man-to-man defense. Butler is a tough defender, but he lapses a lot of the time. DeShawn Stevenson should help, but on the ball defense remains a significant worry.
Many people have the Wizards pegged for a similar season, with a possible drop out of the playoffs. Naturally, I disagree with those predictions. There are those who wonder aloud whether the defense can ever be decent, and while those are legitimate claims, we need not look further than Dallas last season and Seattle the season before to illustrate that teams can improve their defense without making significant changes to the team’s core. In addition, the Wizards had the point differential of a 46-47 win team last year, and I don’t expect them to be as unlucky again. They’ll win more of those close games this season.
I don’t think the Wizards can contend for the title, but I think they will improve on last season. Stevenson gives the Wizards much-needed toughness on the wing, and Hayes’ return will make the offense even better. If Darius Songaila can come back healthy, the Wizards’ frontcourt will also be deeper than before. Throw in anything from Andray Blatche and a healthy return of Etan Thomas, and the frontcourt suddenly isn’t so shallow anymore.
Finally, I expect Caron Butler to have a monster year this season. It took the Wizards half a year to figure out how to use him effectively, and it was no accident that the Wizards’ 5 game losing streak at the end of the season occurred without Butler in the lineup. If he can stay healthy, he should approach 20 points a game and provide strong perimeter defense. It feels like we’ve been waiting on Butler for ages, but with a starting spot ensured and increased familiarity with Eddie Jordan’s offense, I see Butler finally showing his full potential.
There are certainly concerns, yes. The Wizards still aren’t particularly deep and I am concerned about the frontcourt depth, the defense, and the lack of a pure point guard. In addition, Orlando and their young players scare the crap out of me, and Miami is always the Wizards’ kryptonite. However, in the end I think this team will make the city go crazy with basketball fever for the first time in over a quarter of a century.
Predicted Record: 50-32, fourth seed in the East