Where are the Wizards going?
I mean, the first and obvious answer is “down.” After a 1-10 debut this season – tied for the worst start ever by the franchise – and the firing of Head Coach Eddie Jordan, you don’t need to get Miss Cleo on the phone to know the Wizards’ playoff chances are vanishing rapidly. Gilbert Arenas is still injured and his newly-debuted wax statue has made more of a contribution to the District since he signed a six-year, $111 million contract this offseason.
In fact, that wax figurine could have played better defense than the Wizards did on Saturday, when Washington lost to the New York Knicks, 122-117, a new low point in a remarkably disappointing season. Four Knicks scored in double digits and they won using only seven players in the game a day after trading away their top two scorers. Those moves were meant to free up salary cap space for already famous free agent summer of 2010 that includes headliners like LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade.
And that’s the really scary part. When the Wizards re-upped Arenas and Antawn Jamison this offseason, they weren’t building for the future. They were playing to win now. And now, they’re 1-10.
Other teams, like the Knicks, have already admitted that this season and next are essentially forfeit. Their commitment is to 2010 and no sooner. The front offices for those teams are literally okay with stinking like hot garbage until then.
The Wizards are trying to win and they still started 1-10 against teams that are selling off their best players.
Call it 20-20 hindsight, but it’s ludicrous not to question what the Wizards were thinking when they re-signed Arenas and Jamison. In retaining the pair, GM Ernie Grunfeld and the front office clearly believed they could contend for an Eastern Conference title this season and the next. They believed that the pieces were already in place. They believed it was just a matter of time before the Wizards broke through in a conference where two teams with losing records made the playoffs last year.
The 1-10 start doesn’t make the off-season signings bad deals. What made them poor decisions is that the front office saw a championship-caliber team where there was no sign of one.
Since the Wizards assumed their current look with Caron Butler’s arrival in 2005-06, Washington has finished fifth (42-40), seventh (41-41), and fifth (43-39) in the weaker Eastern Conference.
The numbers, much like Miss Cleo’s tarot cards, don’t lie. This is not a championship roster. This is a perennial .500 team. Yes, when Arenas, Jamison and Butler have been healthy at the same time the results have been better. Of course, over the last three seasons at least one of them has missed 95 of those 246 games.
This team needs something more. It needs a low post presence (fifth fewest rebounds in the league this season). It needs a point guard (sixth fewest assists). But where will it come from? There’s some cap flexibility, but a mid-level player like Roger Mason, Jr. or Matt Barnes is not going to fix this team.
As Arenas already stated publicly, a lottery pick is always welcome consolation for an awful season, but will a rookie (18-year-old PG Ricky Rubio? 19-year-old PF Blake Griffin?) be enough to push the Wizards over the top next season?
JaVale McGee and Nick Young (first-round picks in 2008 and 2007 respectively) have shown promise this year. However, they’ve also made some rookie mistakes that cost the Wizards games. Lottery picks aren’t immune from errors of inexperience either.
To this point, it seems the contracts given to Arenas and Jamison have put the Wizards in a tough place. This isn’t to say Arenas or Jamison didn’t earn their money, but it is an indictment of the team’s road map for the next few years. The present is not working and the future looks little better. Cue the crystal ball.
Even if you assume Arenas returns to form in 2009 and beyond, Butler’s contract comes up 2011 and he will almost certainly command max money. Can Washington afford him too? And while the Wizards balance the contracts of their Big Three, they’ll be missing out entirely on the big free agent class of 2010. These look like dismal days ahead.
So where to, Wizards? How can things possibly get better this year? Next year? The year after?
With or without Eddie Jordan, the question remains. Where are the Wizards going?