Regular Season Eastern Conference Rank: 11
The year of 2009 was supposed to be a year of redemption and promise; after seasons of playing mediocre basketball in a weak Eastern conference, trotting out the “Big 3” of Antawn Jamison, Caron Butler, and Gilbert Arenas, and getting so far as only a middle seed in the Playoffs, the Wizards had hit rock bottom in 2008.
In 2009, the Wizards expected to rebound in a big way. After a 19-win 2008 season that was plagued by inefficiencies and sluggish play, to go along with selfishness from teammates and a lack of discipline which uprooted all the chemistry which had once been evident, leaving many to question the talkative, quirky team’s methods, the Wiz had finally gotten Gilbert Arenas back from injury. The Wizards hoped this would mean a return to the freewheeling, offensive powerhouse of a few years earlier which was at least good enough to garner a Playoff berth.
Arenas had been injured badly during the 2007 season, and with a lack of patience and overzealousness in the recovery period, he had reinjured himself for the 2008 season, missing most of the year after having 3 surgeries on his knee. But heading into 2009, with new coach Flip Saunders at the helm with his offensive creativity, a healthy Arenas, and his wingmen Butler and Jamison, the outlook wasn’t too bad.
The year started out alright for the Wizards, with Arenas playing somewhat like his old self and getting back into the flow of things, slowly wearing off the rust which had covered him in his time away from the game. But he was getting better and stronger as the time wore on, averaging nearly 23 points and 7 assists.
And then the infamous gun incident occurred, and the Wizards couldn’t recover. Jamison was eventually shipped out to Cleveland, Butler to Dallas, and Arenas suspended. It was the end of an era. And it concluded with a 26-56 record.
The team looked disjointed and at odds with one another throughout the whole season, and each player seemed to be gunning for his own stats, in particular Nick Young. All the progress which had been made seasons earlier had come crashing down, and although there were a few bright spots like Andray Blatche, on the whole the lack of discipline and direction was startling.
Saunders had brought with him a reputation for offensive wizardry, fitting in perfectly with a team full of offensive minded players – he was supposed to turn them around and lead them back to the offensive efficiency which had characterized the team ever since Gilbert was the go-to guy.
Instead, the offense looked stale and slow, inefficient and unproductive. The ball movement wasn’t there, and there were murmurs around the league that the Wizards had just flat-out stopped listening to Saunders. The team, once described as a group of confident, energetic, unique players, became just uncoachable, brash, stubborn, and untalented. The season couldn’t have ended any faster for the team.
But just as things looked their bleakest, the Wizards hit the lottery and selected highly touted John Wall in the draft, a potential franchise point guard. And in free agency, they made a flurry of moves, acquiring Al Thornton, a player I like, Kirk Hinrich, a puzzling move although he is a useful backup point, Josh Howard, a former All Star with the Mavs, and Yi Jianlian, a solid shooting big man.
And although the Wiz seem to have improved on paper, their prospects for this following season still look mighty sketchy. There will be a lot of question marks surrounding this team.
Firstly, there is the issue of Wall’s ability to coexist with Gilbert, the previous face of the franchise who remains with the team mostly because his contract is an albatross. Both players need the ball, and both players were bred to be the alpha dog. Wall is the younger, more raw player who management will most likely want to feature as their cornerstone, but with him at the helm there will be bumps and bruises along the way, as with any other rookie. How will Gilbert deal with this? Just a few seasons earlier he was given a $100+ million dollar contract, but what will his reaction be to slowly being phased out? Gilbert’s attitude and his approach to this subject, along with Saunders’ ability to successfully juggle the lineup to utilize both players effectively will largely affect the team’s win totals.
Then there is the issue of Wall’s support system and chemistry in the locker room. He has immense talent and great leadership abilities, or so has been said, but I just don’t trust it – with a team like the Wizards, where there are a few bad seeds on the roster, his friends and mentors on the team will shape his style of play, his attitude, and also his career. With players like Nick Young, a gunning ball hog who didn’t seem to enjoy listening to his coach, Josh Howard, who soured his way out of Dallas with erratic off-the-court behavior, and Andray Blatche, always perpetually pouting or complaining and himself involved in some controversy outside the court, and I fear for Wall’s development.
If he had somehow found his way onto the Spurs or the Celtics or the Jazz, where there is strong management, strong coaching, and an excellent support system of professional players, I would have no doubt in my mind that Wall would end up at least an All Star. In his current situation on the Wizards, where immaturity runs rampant, I am not so sure.
But in spite of it all, I think the Wizards have decent talent on paper – Blatche was spectacular after the All Star break and JaVale McGee has shown flashes of brilliance. However, during this first season back from the depths of the lottery, and with heavy reliance on a rookie and several other young players like McGee, Blatche, and Young, in addition to a rusty Arenas, I don’t believe the Wizards can put it all together.
They will first need to develop some rapport with one another and get back to listening to Flip Saunders, and mesh as a team, not just a group of selfish individuals. Wall will be spectacular at times and also frustrating at others, and Gilbert will show flashes of his young self (all indications from Wizards camp are that Gilbert is looking good) although it should take him a while to get back into the groove of things.
With so many young players or potential bad seeds, the team probably won’t react well to adversity, and an inevitable stretch of losses has a chance to derail the club. The team has much more talent than a year ago, and has a bright future if their players can mature, but for this season I can’t see them getting anything more than 30 wins and another trip to the lottery.