The sight of Derrick Rose making one of those dynamic, twisting, acrobatic drives to the basket or Russell Westbrook breaking down a defense and dishing to Kevin Durant should serve notice that the NBA is moving a little more swiftly these days.
The playoffs used to be a time when veteran teams used their experience and patience to brush aside young, exuberant upstarts and make them wait their turn. But this postseason is showing that, aside from the Dallas Mavericks, the youngsters aren’t willing to wait. And why should you expect them to when they are accustomed to getting everything else at the touch of a button? There is no better time for a takeover than right now.
So, while vanquished Boston and the Los Angeles Lakers — the participants in two of the past three NBA Finals — claim that their respective title windows haven’t closed, it appears that the league has moved over to the kids’ room.
The Wizards can look at this postseason in a number of ways. They can be encouraged with how quickly Oklahoma City lucked into Kevin Durant and went from lousy lottery team to title contender in about four seasons. They can be thrilled by how the Chicago Bulls have been able to build an elite team around an uber-athletic point guard in a short amount of time. Or they can be discouraged that Eastern Conference finalists Chicago and Miami — with LeBron James and Chris Bosh entering their primes, and Dwyane Wade on the tail end of his — aren’t going anywhere for the foreseeable future.
Wizards owner Ted Leonsis has made it known that he would like to see his team copy the model set by the Thunder (or for local sports fans, the Capitals plan), which means that the team will look to build through the draft and develop young talent.
But there really is no team-building blueprint for success, no definitive way to create a contender. The methods of the past two NBA champions and the current four finalists were vastly different. There is, however, a consistent formula that includes rebounding and a serious commitment on the defensive end.
Taking the leap requires considerable luck. The Thunder and Bulls overcame incredible odds to get Durant (the youngest two-time scoring champion in NBA history) and Rose (the youngest MVP in NBA history), respectively. Dallas spent years accumulating veteran talent around Dirk Nowitzki until it took advantage of Michael Jordan’s cost-cutting ways to get to Tyson Chandler. And the Heat used the unusual friendship of the game’s two-best players — and the patience to save up in free agency — to get them together in Miami.
The Wizards had their first dance with good fortune when they won John Wall with the No. 1 overall pick last summer. They have made several great moves since then — dealing away Gilbert Arenas, getting multiple draft picks and Jordan Crawford for Kirk Hinrich. And now they are hoping to do well on Tuesday during the NBA draft lottery in Secaucus, N.J. But there is no clear-cut choice for the top pick, winning the lottery isn’t as important as making sure you don’t slip too far from being able to get the right player to pair with Wall.
Wall has said repeatedly that he’d like to follow the path previously taken by Rose and Westbrook, two young and extremely athletic point guards. But unlike those two 22-year-old all-stars, Wall has a pass-first mentality and he could really do something special if he has one or two studs to work with him. Add some defensive-minded players to balance out the lineup and the Wizards could be on to something.
If the Wizards stay in the top four but fail to get in the top two (where they can draft Arizona’s Derrick Williams) they might want to take a look into Turkish big man Enes Kanter, a skilled but rugged player who could provide a consistent interior presence. Wall, who will represent the Wizards at the lottery, has already mentioned Kanter as a player he’d like to see the team tab in the draft.
A Western conference assistant general manager said that the 6-foot-11 Kanter has limited upside but is a tough competitor and can contribute off the bench right away. The assistant GM added that Jan Vesely, a 6-11 string bean from Czech Republic is most ready to help a team right away while 6-11 Lithuanian Jonas Valanciunas, rated as the top European prospect, has the largest upside of the trio. An Eastern Conference scouting director agreed that Valanciunas had the most star potential and could eventually become a solid center. Either way, the Wizards have some options to get bigger.
With the free agent crop looking less appealing than the draft, the Wizards should then look into seeing what Memphis plans to do with Rudy Gay, since the Grizzlies will have a hard time retaining restricted free agent center Marc Gasol with so much money already tied into Gay, Zach Randolph and Mike Conley Jr.
Now that they have a franchise cornerstone in Wall, the Wizards have to be focused on acquiring only players that they believe can help them win a title. They can’t settle for just being a team that makes the first or second round and bows out. In order to that, they have to get winners; players that come from winning programs — either in college, international basketball or the NBA.
If you look at the Bulls, they figured out that the best way to break out of that post-Michael Jordan funk was to draft players from successful programs. It started with Hinrich (Kansas), then they added Ben Gordon (Connecticut) and Luol Deng (Duke), who helped make Chicago playoff contenders. Now, the team features Joakim Noah, who won back-to-back titles at Florida, and Carlos Boozer, a national champion at Duke and Olympic gold medalist. Rose also reached the national title game in his one season at Memphis and went from all-star to MVP after winning a gold medal in the world championships.
Westbrook reached the Final Four at UCLA and also won a gold medal with Rose and Durant but the Thunder became a more serious threat the moment it imported Kendrick Perkins, an NBA champion with a defense-first mentality, from Boston. Even though Memphis was eliminated Sunday, the Grizzlies were able to push Oklahoma City to seven games with the help of two defensive-minded perimeter players in Tony Allen, who won a title in Boston, and Shane Battier, who won a title at Duke.
It’s easy to get lured by incredible athletes, which the Wizards have targeted in recent drafts. But eventually, if they are going to win, the Wizards will have to raise the overall intelligence quotient of the team.
You can’t win in the NBA with guys worried about numbers or highlights alone. It’s okay to have a few, but losses will continue to pile up without a balance. Players like to say that they only care about winning, but there is a cost to success and the Wizards have to find players that are willing to pay the cost. And that comes on the defensive end, where the final four remaining teams are getting the job done.
The Wizards are a few years away from being a perennial playoff team if they stay the course, but they have to show progress next season by ending the string of three straight 50-loss win campaigns. But as the Bulls and Thunder are showing, the rise can be rapid by getting the right pieces. And, if they want to crack through sooner than later — and see Wall providing his own playoff moments — this is a really big offseason for the Wizards.