Obeservations from the Last Three Games

Its been a hectic week and I have had to catch up on the Wizards thanks to the good old Tivo. Man, I need to invest in a Slingbox.

One thing that is clear is that the loss of Josh Howard hurts the team offensively. Josh Howard was one of the teams more gifted offensive players who could get his shot nearly anytime that he wanted. Josh has a jumper that you have to respect and more importantly he would often drive to the hoop. He was also important because he was a consistent second scorer to go along with Andray Blatche.

The loss of Josh Howard enables other teams to more easily double Andray Blatche, particularly since no other player has consistently stepped up as that number two scorer. Personally, I would like Mike Miller to become more assertive in that role, but he is still attempting to be a facilitator and look for his shot as a last resort. Since team’s are beginning to double Andray Blatche a little more frequently, it would be great if he and Mike Miller can play off of one another – possibly getting Miller a few more open looks if his man attempts to double Blatche.

Over the last seven games, Blatche has clearly become the teams primary scoring option. His statistics over this stretch are unlike anything we have consistently seen from him. Over the last seven games, Blatche is averaging nearly 27 PPG and 12 RPG. Statistics that if (and yes I know that is an enormous if) he were to average over the course of a full season would put him in some lofty company – top 5 after Kobe and before Dewayne Wade. Again this is only 7 games, but Blatche has never demonstrated this type of consistency, and he has never been given this type of opportunity before.

Given the way that he is currently playing, I would like to see this team continue to learn how to play with him. Since the Josh Howard season-ending injury, it is even more important to rely on Blatche. There were times in the Memphis, New York and New Jersey games in which the team began to bog down, and Blatche clearly had it going. During those stretches, I would have liked to see Blatche more aggressively call for the ball and just as importantly Miller or Foye ensure that the offense went through Blatche. If the defense was going to double Blatche, that would open up an open shot for someone else. Too often during those each of those games – two of which were losses – the team put up bad and/or contested shots.

We have 25 games (including the make up game with Atlanta) remaining to see if this team learns how to play off of Andray Blatche.

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Is Andray Blatche Becoming More Consistent?

Andray Blatche

Three games do not make a season, but this is clearly the best three games of Andray Blatche’s career. Over this period he is averaging a double-double with significant increases in his season averages in points (9.5) and rebounds (5.3). The key is that he has not previously strung together a three game stretch like this before. In part, this is likely because of the availability of Antawn Jamison and other veteran players. Over the last two seasons, whenever Andray took a bad shot, attempted to play point-forward, tried his not-yet patented behind the back dribble drive or made a significant mistake on the defensive end, he was often pulled from the game. Well now those veteran players are not with the team. Andray is playing more significant minutes and in many respects is their go-to-man. What appears to be clear is that Andray does present match up problems for teams. The Raptors even went as far as double teaming Blatche during stretches of the game.

PTS REB AST BLK STL
Raptors 24 6 3 2 1
Nuggets 18 11 3 0 1
Timberwolves 33 13 1 1 2
3 Game Avg 25 10 2.33 1 1.33

Hopefully the remaining games this season will help Andray get used to playing consistent minutes and providing consistent execution as he will clearly receive an opportunity to demonstrate his worth. While it is much too early to say that he has turned the corner – he has had flashes in the past, only to return to his past ways – he has not had a three game stretch like this over the last two seasons. If he can manage to perform like this over the course of a season, then Andray will clearly develop into an All-Star. Time and continued improvement by Andray will tell the tale.

Third Straight Win Eludes Wizards

It is true that the 09/10 Wizards again missed an opportunity to win three straight games, the fact is that this is a very different team than the one that began the season. So in this sense, a new, shortened season began for this team on February 18th. And with this hard fought loss – against the current 5th place team in the East on its home floor – this version of the team is 2-1 since the All-Star break (19-34 overall).

As I reflected on this game, I found myself feeling disappointed with the final outcome – which I thought was a strange feeling. Following all of the trades that Ernie Grunfeld made, with all of the new faces that were brought in, one would expect that this team would plummet, potentially giving the Nets a run for their money. However, the effort displayed over the first three games, has been the exact opposite of what one would have expected. I was disappointed because this team has changed my expectations of them. I expected them to win this game. And they nearly did.

The Wizards led after a stellar effort in the third quarter, but the Raptors captured the lead in the fourth after outscoring the Wiz 24-16. The Wiz did not get enough stops on the defensive end, had a few untimely turnovers and their inability to contain Jarrett Jack ultimately did them in. However, for a third straight game they brought a tremendous amount of effort, heart and grit. Three characteristics that this team has not always exhibited over the last two seasons. And these characteristics lead me to believe that if they consistently bring them into every game, they will win their fair share of games – at a minimum they will be entertaining and competitive. The Wizards new fond energy and effort is the reason that I thought they would pull this game out.

Yet, I admit that it is a strange feeling… I know. Following the trades, giving up as much “talent” as they did, and on paper at least, not receiving “equal value.” I expected to be watching the Wizards to see how many ping pong balls they would “earn.” Through three games their effort and, at times, execution have been impressive. There are times when it is easy to forget that the majority of these players have not logged major minutes together and in fact three of the players have been with the team for less than a week. They have their mental lapses – that is expected by players that barely know each other. They still have a few players – Dray and JaVale immediately spring to mind – that will reach at an offensive player, rather than cutting him off as he drives to the basket. (They desperately need to spend more time on this with these two players in particular.) But let’s face it, virtually all of the players they traded, with maybe DeShawn and Dom as the exceptions, played defense this way routinely. Now they have at least three players who are playing with effort on the defensive end and that effort can be and is contagious.

What Howard, Singleton and Ross lack when compared with Jamison and Butler on the offensive end, they have more than made up for by their effort and energy – particularly on defense. I would also point out that while on the surface this team gave up talented offensive players this team so far has been playing very well offensively. They have now had three straight games scoring more than 100 points. The last time this team did that was December 1 – 4, when Gilbert was still on the team. The point is that while they traded two gifted offensive talents, this team still has players who are capable of scoring points.

PTS FG REB AST
Blatche 24 11/21 6 3
Howard 17 5/17 7 4
Foye 14 5/13 0 6
Thornton 10 5/9 1 1
McGee 10 4/6 4 0

In the fourth quarter when the game unraveled a little and the Raptors took the lead, this team could have folded, but it didn’t. They had a chance late to potentially tie the game, but ultimately came up a bit short. The Wizards for three straight games gave great effort and played with heart. Over the last two seasons there have been countless Wizards games that were painful to watch. These last three are not included in that. Win or lose, if they continue to give this type of effort, I and many other people will look forward to watching this team play.

Refreshing Effort by the Wizards Results in a Win

Tonight’s win increased the Wizards win total to 18.  And while their overall record is still only a less than impressive 18-33, their overall effort was very impressive.  For the first time, in quite some time they actually seem to be interested in playing defense.  Consider that just a few weeks ago, this was a team that was crucified, and rightfully so, for its lack of defensive effort, or maybe more accurately in their lack of interest in putting forth an effort on the defensive side of the court.  (Truthaboutit.net details one example in painful detail.)

In other sports, like the NFL, we glorify the teams that seem to not have the best talent at every position, but manage to routinely find the hungry overachievers that form the nucleus of a successful team.  For example, how many Pro Bowl players do the Patriots and Steelers have each year, compared with other teams, but yet they are two of the most successful teams over this last decade.  Believe me; I am not letting myself get carried away by a couple of games.  I do not think that this team is going to make a miracle run to the playoffs – personally I rather they continue to play with energy and grit, while remaining in the lottery.

While not a perfect effort for 48 minutes, I was impressed with Nick Young diving for balls, players hustling back on defense, Josh Howard’s beer crunching attempt at a lose ball, the Wizards picking up their defense in the backcourt… THE BACKCOURT!  I liked the fact that this new collection of parts – or as a commenter on Bulletsforever put it, “The Replacement Killers” – are hungry!  They have something to prove and early into their tenure with the Wizards are playing like it.  I can’t remember a player on the Bullets/Wizards over the last 15 years playing defense on the other team’s superstar like Al Thornton did.

And on the offensive end of the court they made shots.  But just as importantly, they did not give up on plays and drift back up court, they actually fought for rebounds.  They fought for rebounds even with a CRAZY small lineup on the court – who was their center???  That was the craziest lineup I can remember seeing, but it worked.

An effort like this, win or lose, is great to watch.  However, it also elicits another emotion from me – anger.  It makes you wonder why this team with Gilbert, Antawn, Caron, Brendan and DeShawn couldn’t play with this same type of effort.  What could that team have accomplished if they truly played this hard?  I got used to the other team winning all of the “hustle plays.”  Today, the Wizards won those plays.  For much of this season the Wizards pretended to play defense, today they actually played some particularly when it counted most.  Could you imagine a Wizards team that actually held Carmelo scoreless in the 4th quarter?!?!?

Yes, this was a Nuggets team that just came off an emotional (and likely physically draining) overtime win against King Crab Dribble and the Cavaliers.  But this is also a Nuggets team that is deep and has superior talent.  The Nuggets were mostly playing against a collection of inexperienced young guys and cast-off role players.  I hope the Wizards learned an important lesson today.  If they play with this level of effort and passion, even as presently constructed, they can play with any team in the NBA (at least for the rest of this season).

For one game, I forgot that this was a 17 win team.  It was fun to watch this team go out and compete.  If they continue to play like this, I look forward to watching the rest of their games.

What these players offered tonight the Wizards need moving forward in 2010-2011.  Ernie and the coaching staff need to figure out how many of these guys to keep (and at what price).  But Thornton and Singleton in particular play with an edge that has been lacking in this team for quite some time.

Gilbert, I hope you were at home watching this effort tonight.

Wizards Reportedly Negotiating Buyouts for James and Ilguaskas [Update]

Updated February 22, 2010

According to reports, the Wizards are negotiating buyouts with Zydrunas Ilguaskas and Mike James. Unless the Wizards clearly and significantly benefit from buying those players out now, I would suggest that the Wizards see just how serious these two players are with having their freedom. If they want to leave, then make them buy their free agency. If they are not willing to leave significant money on the table, then they can sit on the bench, or at home, until the Wizards are willing to buy them out – preferably at the last possible moment. Since the trade deadline has passed, and no team was willing to make a trade for them, why should the Wizards go out of their way to accommodate them and potentially a playoff team. Big Z and Mike James if you want out bad enough, then you will pay up.

Earlier today David Aldridge of NBA.com posted the following about the Ilguaskas trade situation:

Here’s what we do know:

1) The Wizards aren’t going to just roll over and placate Cleveland.

2) This has to get done soon.

After Washington traded little-used forward Dominic McGuire to Sacramento Thursday, the Wizards fell under the $69.9 million luxury tax threshold, and no longer are looking at dollar for dollar payments for being over. The Wizards were initially looking to their expected buyout with Ilgauskas, acquired in the Antawn Jamison trade, to provide the savings to get them under the tax. Now, that’s not needed. It doesn’t mean Washington doesn’t want or expect a buyout to occur, only that the pressure to get it done is no longer on Washington, but on Rudoy and Ilgauskas.

The Wizards, someone in the know says, are “open” to Ilgauskas’ thoughts, but the buyout, the someone says, is not going to be cheap. While sympathetic, the Wiz can now hold out for more savings.

Adding to Washington’s leverage is time. If Ilgauskas is still on Washington’s roster a week from today, March 1, he would not be able to be on anyone else’s roster for the postseason. So he may have to leave some major bucks — maybe the trade kicker that is, as of now, around $591,000 (the prorated amount of the 15 percent trade kicker Ilgauskas is due by Washington after being dealt) — on the table in order to be free by next week. (Ilgauskas doesn’t have to be signed by Cleveland by next week; only not on someone else’s roster.)

While the Wizards may not have had much leverage when they were making trades, they clearly have leverage in these two buyouts.  According to Michael Lee’s reporting, it is clear that the Wizards would like to add a big body to the roster and are hoping to use some of these funds to do just that.  While JaVale McGee’s wrist is banged up, they can afford to wait out both Ilgauskas and Mike James.  The Ilgauskas situation clearly has the potential to become very interesting over the next few days.  The anarchist in me almost hopes to see what happens if the parties don’t come to an agreement before March 1.

Goodbye and Good Luck Antawn Jamison

Antawn, thank you for your hard work and dedication during your time with the Wizards. I enjoyed watching your “unorthodox” flip shots, your dribble drives, your ability to grab rebounds and your lock down defense (ok, I’m kidding about that). I will miss your professional attitude and the way you often spoke the truth about your teammates and what was and wasn’t acceptable. You personally helped turned this franchise around and helped provide Wizards fans with hope.

However, you are now with the enemy. 🙂 So while I would personally like to see you win a championship, unfortunately I can not say the same about your new team. Sorry, but I do not have any desire in seeing Cleveland win a championship. In fact, I am more intrigued to see if King Crab Dribble actually leaves Cleveland if the Cavs do not win a championship this year.

So while I wish you all the best… it just does not a championship, at least not this year.

Wizards Trade Reaction

I have been watching and reading all of the coverage concerning the Wizards recent changes and decided that I would take the time to jot down some of my thoughts. In broad brush-strokes, I am glad that Ernie Grunfeld and the Wizards finally decided to make significant changes. Now in hindsight it is easy to suggest that the Wiz could have probably received more in return IF they would have made changes during the summer and/or earlier in this season (before the wheels fell off). However, I do understand his thinking that with everyone coming back healthy this would be a good year to see if they could recapture what they had a few seasons ago. Sadly, it did not work.

I’ve enjoyed watching Antwan Jamison, Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood and part of me is sad to see them go. I understand the issue that some have with the trades, that it appears that the Wiz – outside of getting below the luxury tax, significant cap space and prospects (primarily in the form of a couple draft picks, Al Thornton and the rights to a Euro player) – did not get equal value. I understand those feelings, but the Wizards were not in a position of strength and each of those players had a little baggage as well – for example Antwan’s age and the size of his existing contract.

The Wizards won 19 games last season and 17 games this season with the players that were traded (or are not currently playing) primarily leading the way, so the idea that they can not live without any of them is a false argument. And in fact, as many have pointed out, the existence of many of the traded players – and the size of their contracts – prevented the Wizards from adding the talent that they were lacking. This fact finally seems to be clear to Ernie and the Wizards brass.

Assuming Gil Arenas is back with the team next season, the Wizards have the ability to go out and add a significant piece or two in free agency, as well as some young talent with their draft picks. If ultimately the Wizards and Arenas part ways, then Washington will have even more cap space, but then the rebuilding process is likely even longer as it might be more difficult to convince two or more key free agents to come to Washington together.

For the remainder of this season I am looking forward to seeing the “Young Guns” prove that they can play in this league, consistently. One of the mistakes that I thought the team made last year, was not by letting them (in particular JaVale) play heavy minutes. The Wizards now have 31 games to determine what they have in the young guys on this squad.