Commentary

Hollinger's Team Forecast: Washington Wizards

Originally Published: September 30, 2008
By John Hollinger | ESPN.com

Gilbert ArenasJesse D. Garrabrant/Getty ImagesThe Wizards will be without the services of Agent Zero for at least the first month of the season.
GO TO: 2007-08 Recap     Offseason Moves     Biggest Strength/Weakness     Outlook

2007-08 Recap

It's hard to know whether to classify the season as a surprise or a disappointment -- Washington's best player was wracked by knee problems, but the others overachieved and led the Wizards back to the playoffs.

Washington's season went topsy-turvy right out of the gate, as the Wizards started 0-5 and then lost Gilbert Arenas soon after when he needed additional knee surgery -- microfracture, as it turned out -- to repair the knee he first injured the previous spring. Throw in open-heart surgery that kept Etan Thomas out all season, and the Wizards were shorthanded in both the frontcourt and the backcourt.

HOLLINGER'S '07-08 STATS
W-L: 43-39 (Pythagorean W-L: 40-42)
Offensive Efficiency: 106.0 (12th)
Defensive Efficiency: 108.8 (22nd)
Pace Factor: 92.0 (27th)
Highest PER: Caron Butler (20.73)

Somehow, they persevered. Washington responded to the loss of its best scorer by spreading the wealth a bit more, led by career years from Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood and the emergence of two young players, Andray Blatche and Roger Mason, who had contributed little a year earlier. Between those four, an All-Star season from Antawn Jamison and solid campaigns from Antonio Daniels and DeShawn Stevenson in the backcourt, Washington had a strong seven-man nucleus to rally around.

Thanks to that group, the Wizards were able to put together a decent offense. No, it wasn't the juggernaut they had a year earlier with a healthy Arenas, but they still finished well above the league average in offensive efficiency. The tricky part is that they did this without shooting particularly well -- Washington was a jump-shooting team but shot below the league average on 3-pointers and took a subpar number of free throws.

But the Wizards simply took more shots than their opponents on most nights. Washington ranked eighth in turnover rate and ninth in offensive rebound rate; consequently, only five teams averaged more shots per possession. Thanks to those extra shots, the Wizards could succeed even without Agent Zero.

Interestingly, they played much slower than they had with Arenas. The drastic change in pace was probably the least-discussed aspect of the post-Arenas Wizards, but it was the most glaring difference. Their offensive and defensive strengths and weaknesses weren't much different compared to the season before, but Washington went from being the league's fifth-fastest team in 2006-07 to playing the league's 27th-fastest pace last season.

Obviously, eliminating all the quick shots by Arenas was a major factor, but so was the fact they had nobody who could push the ball. With Butler operating as a point forward and Daniels as more of a facilitator than a creator, Washington frequently ran down the shot clock in running its Princeton offense before somebody finally squeezed off a jumper.

Defensively, the Wizards improved enough to offset the post-Arenas dip in their offensive numbers. But to say they were better on defense is damning them with faint praise. Washington had been awful in previous seasons but "improved" to 22nd in defensive efficiency, with a strong first half undermined by a decline late in the season. Nonetheless, the defensive performance was good enough for their offense to shoot them into the playoffs, and many wondered whether Arenas' absence was helpful in this regard.

Worst 3-Point Defenses, 2007-08

TEAM OPP. 3-POINT% OPP. 3PA/FGA
Washington 38.6 .270
Indiana 38.6 .230
Seattle 38.5 .221
Milwaukee 38.4 .233
Chicago 37.5 .231
League average 36.2 .222

Washington's D still had some severe problems, though -- most notably in defending the 3-point line. Washington was last in the league in both 3-point percentage and in conceding 3-point attempts (see chart). This one area completely undermined an otherwise solid defense: The Wizards were in the middle of the NBA pack in opponent 2-point percentage, had a below-average opponent free-throw rate, forced an above-average number of turnovers and rebounded respectably.

Basically, the only thing that kept them from having a league-average defense or better was an inability to guard the 3-point line. As the chart shows, Washington was even a step worse than the other bad 3-point defenses; at least those teams gave up fewer shot attempts from behind the arc. But Washington both permitted a ton of 3-point shots and conceded a high percentage. Had the Wizards been average in this respect, they would have given up nearly two points fewer per game and finished near the league average in defensive efficiency.

If you're looking for reasons why the Wizards gave up so many threes, they're not hard to find. For starters, Eddie Jordan has always been fond of traps and zones, which tend to create openings for weakside shooters. Second, Washington often had no choice but to double-team post players given the mismatches that presented themselves when the likes of Blatche and Darius Songaila were guarding the post. Finally, dribble penetration on the perimeter was another problem, creating easy kick-outs for triples.

% of Opp. Assisted Field Goals, 2007-08 Leaders

TEAM OPP. AST/FG%
Washington 64.9
Philadelphia 63.4
Denver 63.2
Minnesota 62.1
Milwaukee 60.8
League average 58.4

Between those causes, there were lots of opportunities for teams to swing the ball around to an open shooter, and that can be seen most easily in the huge assist totals Washington opponents racked up -- 64.9 percent of their baskets were assisted, the highest rate in the league by a wide margin (see chart).

Obviously, Jordan's hands were tied a bit strategically -- once he lost Thomas he was forced to utilize undersized players like Blatche, Songaila and even Jamison at the center position, and he had to do something for them to avoid getting killed on the blocks. That said, Washington's effort level at this end continues to underwhelm, and last year's results were another example.

But despite the defensive shortcomings -- and despite giving up more points than they scored -- Washington managed to roll into the playoffs. At that point the Wizards got another surprise, as Arenas returned in April and tried to play in the postseason series against Cleveland. He looked rusty, however, and shut himself down before Game 5 -- his second aborted comeback of the season. The Wizards fell in six games, their third successive playoff defeat to the Cavs.


Biggest Strength: Perimeter scoring

Washington is such a difficult team to guard because everybody can score, and nearly everybody can score from distance. Although their two best players, Butler and Jamison, are more midrange shooters than long-range bombers, the fact they must be defended closely still opens all kinds of space for the other four players on the court to go to work.

OFFSEASON MOVES
What roster moves did the Wizards make over the summer? Were they the right moves? John Hollinger breaks it down. Insider Insider

And except for Daniels, the secondary players can all stroke it too. Stevenson is a midrange marksman who has added the 3-point shot to his arsenal the past two years; Nick Young, Oleksiy Pecherov and Songaila aren't 3-point aces but they're strong midrange shooters who must be guarded from 18 feet, and Blatche can hit from there too. And when he comes back, Arenas has virtually unlimited range that shouldn't be impacted by the knee injury.

The quality of the Wizards' shooters is what allowed them to be such a low-turnover team the past two years: There's not as much risk of losing the ball if you don't have to dribble into traffic to get a shot off.

Biggest Weakness: Backcourt

Washington has to be seriously worried about its backcourt situation now that Arenas is on the shelf. Starting in his place will be steady veteran Daniels, but he's a riskier proposition than one might think. He's 33 and a poor outside shooter; the track record of poor-shooting guards in their 30s is not a pretty one, and he was a marginal starter even a year ago. The other true point guard on the roster is Brown, who may be overmatched at this level; Dixon, the only other quasi-point on the roster, is a shoot-first gunner who hasn't shot well in recent years.

Washington probably will end up having Stevenson run the offense for large chunks, and while he has done this before it's not the ideal role for him -- he's not a good passer and mostly wants to spot up for jumpers. Additionally, it opens up a hole at the 2 that must be filled by Young -- who himself may not be quite ready for prime time after a turnover-laden rookie campaign.

All told, we're talking about two starters with a multi-year track record of PERs well below the league average in Stevenson and Daniels, backed up by a question mark in Young, a replacement-level player in Dixon and a marginal-at-best Brown. This is how it looks on opening day; should anyone else get injured then things really get ugly. Granted, the Wizards only need to make it through half a season before Arenas returns, but I have a feeling it may seem longer than that to Washington's fans.


Outlook

If they won 43 without Gilbert, the thinking is they'll win 50 with him.

Hold on a sec.

For starters, Arenas is going to miss half the season, and there's no guarantee that when he comes back he'll be the same player. (For that matter, there's no guarantee he won't need another surgery -- we've already had three false alarms on his return.)

Second, the Wizards had the point differential of a 39-win team a year ago -- they finished four games better thanks to a bit of good fortune, but as mentioned above, point differential is the better indicator of future success.

Heading into this season, two additional red flags stick out. First, center Brendan Haywood had a fluke-rule season a year ago -- that means we can expect his PER to dip by roughly three points from his career year of 2007-08. Second, Mason couldn't have picked a worse time to leave. As mentioned above, his departure combined with Arenas' injury leaves the Wizards doing a rubber-bands-and-duct-tape job on their backcourt for the first half of the season.

One positive is the return of Thomas, who may improve the defense, but temper your expectations because Washington was horrible at defending the 3-pointer the year before, too, so size in the paint isn't a panacea. Also, that presumes he's capable of staying healthy (always a big if) and defending the way he did before the surgery.

A more likely positive for this year is that several of the young players, most notably Young and Pecherov, should be able to contribute more than a year ago. And if Blatche can cut his obscenely high foul rate, he might be able to soak up enough frontcourt minutes that Jamison and Butler can each slide down a spot, alleviating a bit of the worry in the backcourt.

But sum it all up, and what you're left with is a team with two proven, star scorers and a lot of question marks surrounding them. The Wizards still don't defend well and their offense is largely predicated on long jumpers, which is a tough way to make a living consistently.

The East is soft enough that if they're unusually healthy and Arenas comes back to play a decent half-season, the Wizards will squeeze into the playoffs. Short of that, they probably won't. On the bright side, at least that means they won't have to play Cleveland.

Prediction: 36-46, 4th in Southeast Division, 11th in Eastern Conference

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.