Washington Wizards: A Cautionary Tale Of Rebuilding

Blake Griffin – drafted in 2009, made the playoffs in 2012.

Kevin Durant – drafted in 2007, made the playoffs in 2010.

Chris Paul – drafted in 2005, made the playoffs in 2008.

Dwight Howard – drafted in 2004, made the playoffs in 2007.

Lebron James – drafted in 2003, made the playoffs in 2006.

Notice a trend?

1.) All of those teams were built from the ground up – Blake Griffin only had Gordon and Jordan when he came into town. Kevin Durant, CP3, Howard and Lebron — most of them had just a few players to depend on.

2.) All of those teams would slowly add pieces to their roster in the following years. The Clippers would eventually strike gold with Chris Paul. OKC would add Westbrook, Harden (and by extension, Martin), Ibaka, Perkins and Thabo to the roster in the next 2 years. The Hornets acquired Tyson Chandler, Peja Stojakovic, Mo Peterson and James Posey. The Magic would get Turk, Lewis, Lee and company. Lebron would get Delonte West, Mo Williams, Daniel Gibson, and Larry Hughes (yuck).

Lastly, for teams fortunate enough to draft a talent that was deemed to be “superstar” material, it took them 3 years to make the playoffs after drafting said player.

The Washington Wizards, on the other hand, have endured two losing seasons after drafting a similarly colossal talent like John Wall. They’ve endured a 22-60 and a 22-44 season. This year was supposed to be their year. They have a wealth of young potential outside of Wall in Beal, Crawford, Seraphin, Booker, Vesely and Singleton. They have veterans in Webster, Ariza, Okafor and Nene. So it was supposed to be their time. They looked like they made the right decision, they looked like they made the smart decisions. But, that’s the thing. Life is unfair. Sometimes, even if it looks like you did the right thing, you didn’t. What went wrong?

“Drafting “

A team automatically wins the draft whenever it gets the chance to draft a talent like John Wall. So 2010 wasn’t their problem. It was the years that followed that were.

Before I start talking about the Wizards draft blunders, it’s important to note that hindsight is always 20/20. We can always go back in time and say “if they had done this, they would have been this”. But that’s not what we aim to do. What we want to ask is not “did they draft the right player?” but rather “did they do enough to develop their draftees?”

Drafting doesn’t end the moment the pick is announced or when the ink dries on that rookie contract. No.  Drafting ends once you’ve either traded the player, he moves to another team or if he retires. That’s it.

Because the draft is as much a choice as it is a commitment. It doesn’t usually matter who you pick – it’s why the “Draft the Best Player Available” always holds ground. What matters is the amount of time you invest in that choice. It takes time and effort to develop players. This is why teams like the San Antonio Spurs are capable of remaining competitive even as age eats up their star players’ abilities – because they’ve consistently found players willing to buy into the system and find time to develop these players. Kawhi Leonard, Patty Mills, Danny Green, Tiago Splitter, DeJuan Blair, George Hill. The list of players that the Spurs have developed is long. Heck, even Parker – the youngest of their triad – was a project back in 2001. Look at him now.

So no, I won’t talk about how bad the choice was at drafting Vesely – a skinny PF masquerading as a SF. It’s the lack of a game plan.

They never identified what Vesely’s tendencies were and where they were heading – is he more comfortable in the paint or in the perimeter? Does his instinct remind you of a big or a guard? Are his fundamentals in check?

After identifying his strengths and weaknesses, they never focused on helping him make his strengths stronger and to make his weaknesses weaker. He’s shot is still broken. His body still isn’t where it should be. His skills are still limited. His understanding of the game is still lacking.

Of course, putting the entire blame on the front office would be wrong. Vesely must do his part in developing his game. But to not blame the front office would also be a clear disservice to organizations that have put their players in the best position to succeed. The Wizards, clearly haven’t.


One of the keys to being a successful front office is to give yourself as many options as you can. Everything is then built on giving your team as many options as it can. This means developing your picks – so that they can either be traded or re-signed. Making good signings – so they could still be traded if a great offer comes around. Making your cap space as clean as possible – signings and trades are easier to execute when you have cap space or when you’re below the luxury tax line. Having many options is important because you need to be available when the right opportunity comes along.

The Wizards have not done that. They haven’t developed their rookies and they’ve made some questionable moves. Trading McGee’s QO (which would have yielded more cap space than usual) for Nene’s 13 million deal. They traded Rashard Lewis‘ 22 million contract (with a 13 million buyout which means more cap space) for Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor. Again, more cap space = more options. That’s almost 15 million of the books (9 million difference between McGee’s QO and Nene’s salary, 6 million difference between Lewis’ buyout and Okafor + Ariza’s contract). That’s cap space they could have leveraged for something far greater than the combination of Nene/Okafor/Ariza.

Culture and Fit

Lastly, the Wizards have made it a point to change the culture of the team. Gone are Blatche, McGee and Nick Young; enter Okafor, Ariza and Nene. The culture of the team should have been better right?

Wrong. Because changing the culture of a franchise starts from the top – from owner Ted Leonsis, down to Ernie Grunfeld, down to Randy Wittman. Stick to the game plan. Ted Leonsis subscribed to the idea of “building from the team, from the ground up”. It was noble of him to accept a few years of losing seasons (and a clear red on the balance sheet) for the Wizards fan in order to build a sustainable contender. But how come in the 3rd year of the rebuild — the year supposedly young teams decide to show up — the Wizards decided to fast track their success when they traded for the veteran trio of Nene/Ariza/Okafor and signed Webster.

I can understand fast tracking the rebuilding scene but make sure they fit. Okafor/Nene/Ariza? Especially the Okafor/Ariza deal (Thank you Grunfeld – a Hornets fan). They don’t fit in well with John Wall. What Wall needed was more space in the paint (and a jumpshot). He also needed a secondary scorer to depend on. Nene fits that – a solid midrange jumper, a workable post game, and a devastating Pick and Roll partner with anybody – but he’s at his best when he’s playing against “centers” – where he can use his quickness to blow by them on faceup situations. (PS: I don’t believe in positions anymore hence the quotations).

Okafor on the other hand, lacks a jumper (he did show some improvement from 9 to 15 feet last year, but we never knew if that was a case of small sample size or was it real improvement) and is also better equipped playing against “centers”.

Ariza on the other hand is John Wall without the dribbling ability and the passing ability. He lacks a jumper – a skill he left behind in the Lakers locker room – and is not a good enough creator to make his shooting deficiencies adequate. Did they have to do the Okafor/Ariza trade? Maybe, maybe not. Who knows? But was it the best move? No. There were other, cheaper and more flexible ways of fast tracking the rebuilding. This wasn’t one of them.

How do we fix the Wizards? Well, for the next 2 years, it’s going to be really hard since both Okafor and Ariza’s deals expire after the 2013/14 season. At that point, we’d already be in year 5 of Wall’s career. But prior to that? It’s going to be really hard since the Wizards have made their options fewer with some questionable moves (trades) and nonmoves (development of their young players).

Injuries to Wall and the slow progression of Wall’s career has clearly helped make this rebuilding process a painful one. But John Wall showed some juice last season – despite playing for a team that was clearly not fit to maximize his abilities – when he averaged a 19.2 pts (48% FG on 14 attempts), 8.6 assists (on 4.1 TOs), 4.6 rebounds, 1.4 steals, 0.9 blocks. In total, he registered an ORTG of 111 – which was +4 better than the average.

21 games into this season and the Wizards sit at 3-18. In the last 5 years, the 7th and 8th seed in the East have averaged 40.9 wins. This means that in order for the Wizards to end their 4 year playoff drought, they’d have to go 38-23 for a W-L% of 62% over their next 61 games. I think we can all agree that’s not happening. So the Wizards next obligation is to make next season a definite playoff appearance – which means making sure Wall’s healthy and then fixing his jumpshot, focusing on the development of their youngsters’ skills in the context of their roles, and just make bang-for-the-buck signings and trades. Those are difficult things to do – but that’s the thing, nothing in life is easy.

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Tags: Emeka Okafor Jan Vesely John Wall Nene San Antonio Spurs Trevor Ariza Washington Wizards

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