By Mike Wise
Monday, May 5, 2008
I used to be a back-up-the-truck guy who believed blowing up a roster was the best way to improve an NBA franchise. Not only did the Mavericks and Suns prove me wrong, taken out in one round after making blockbuster midseason trades this past season, but the Wizards have made me reconsider that thinking altogether.
Two days after LeBron James dispatched them to Mexico and all points Caribbean, I'm convinced they're not far from going deep into the playoffs with the roster much as it is.
Ernie Grunfeld, the team president, has already assured at least one player the club plans to re-sign free agents Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison. And Caron Butler sounded certain this afternoon, after his exit meeting with Coach Eddie Jordan at Verizon Center, that Washington's Big Three would stay together and try to advance past the first round for the first time in four years.
The thinking is the Wizards' all-stars will be healthier, their youngsters will add muscle and maturity and Grunfeld will find a key acquisition to help Eddie Jordan's cause.
It's not a sexy strategy. It's certainly not going to shake up the league. But in the NBA today, where continuity has helped keep San Antonio, Detroit and Utah alive, it works.
So on the day they cleaned out their lockers, here are five questions worth answering before the old gang reconvenes in October:
1. Are the Wizards better without Gilbert Arenas? Yes, they were better off without a one-legged Arenas, just as the Spurs are better off without a one-legged Tim Duncan and the Lakers are better off without a one-legged Kobe Bryant.
Long haul? No.
Don't confuse the player who returned from knee surgery and did what his physically ailing frame could to compete the past month with the guy whom the franchise needs to re-sign.
Arenas at full strength gives Washington a shot at going deep into the playoffs. Without him, first-round-and-out is a good year.
Never mind the antics, the blogging and the goofy, carefree kid who is 26 going on 12. Trust me, he's not going to become Dennis Rodman.
But Arenas is also not going to be that ultra-serious, win-or-die guy, because that's not who he is.
But the notion that a healthy Arenas somehow hurts the team just doesn't carry any weight. You want to make that argument next February when he's fully healed, go ahead.
You can take Arenas's game and his behavior apart all you want, but mark my words: The day he is no longer a Wizard will be a very dark day for this franchise.
2. Should Eddie Jordan remain as coach? Yes.
He did not have Arenas for 69 regular season games and two playoff games. In light of two knee surgeries in seven months, it's probably fair to say Jordan never had the explosive incarnation of Arenas everyone remembers.
Jordan, who has next season and an option year remaining on his contract, didn't have Butler for 24 games. Though Butler became a top-tier all-star, he was never the same after a torn labrum suffered in his left hip in late January.
Missing his two best players for long stretches, the Wizards grabbed the fifth seed in the East -- their 43-win mark better than their 2007 record. Along with new assistant Randy Ayers and a staff committed to protecting the rim, Jordan got several offensive-minded players to buy into the notion that defense wins games.
His biggest accomplishments were the gradual trust he developed in his young players, swallowing his pride and breaking bread with Brendan Haywood -- who, given real playing time, became a bona fide starting center -- and dealing with the eccentric personalities on his team by playing to their strengths. Jordan never got down on them unless their on-court play suffered.
The glass half-full crowd will point out three straight first-round eliminations at the hands of LeBron James. But any grade given to Jordan's playoff coaching the past two years, especially last season, has to be incomplete.
He hasn't had his horses healthy since 2006. The realist will see it this way: only one other Eastern Conference team has been to the playoffs four straight years: the Detroit Pistons.
3. What kind of contract do you give Antawn Jamison, a three- or five-year deal?
If Jamison accepts three years at a little more than $10 million per season, that makes sense for future flexibility -- especially for a 32-year-old who would be 35 by the end of the contract. But if Jamison wants more years, give them to him at a smaller annual salary.
He has done all he could to keep this team afloat the past two years. Even when he wasn't in a contract year, he kept himself in unreal shape and doesn't appear on the decline at all.
4. What to do about the bench?
A year ago I wrote it would be hard to win a summer-league run, let alone an NBA playoff game, with Brendan Haywood, Antonio Daniels, Roger Mason Jr., Darius Songaila and then-Wizard Michael Ruffin on the court at the same time, which they were in Game 2 against Cleveland in 2007.
A year later, I owe those players an apology -- especially Mason, who I also stupidly mentioned as a player the organization should part ways with.
Not only was he a consummate professional in the locker room, he worked on his game until he became an indispensable role player -- Vinny Johnson in training. Now he's a free agent and there is concern about whether the Wizards are too guard-heavy (Nick Young needs more minutes) and will have enough salary-cap room to re-sign Mason. The Wizards don't need to get any younger; they need veterans off the bench who can fill it up like that.
Butler essentially put Andray Blatche on notice this summer, saying how much he needed to improve. If he's ever going to amount to a difference-maker in April and May, Blatche has to show it now.
Depending on whether Etan Thomas can resume his career, they need a veteran power forward-center who can give them quality minutes, one who has Butler's take-no-prisoners 'tude.
5. If everyone is healthy on the current roster, do the Wizards have enough to make a Finals run?
Uh, Carlos Boozer would help.
Bottom line, the East is still a crapshoot. Boston's Big Three look older every day and LeBron still doesn't have a Scottie Pippen, much less a James Worthy, to complement him. Orlando is getting better and Atlanta will be scary for years to come. But who might well meet up in the NBA Finals again in a month?
That's right, the geezers who stayed together in Motown and San Antonio. Months after Jason Kidd flamed out in Dallas, and Phoenix lasted a mere five games against the Spurs, continuity is again proving to be king in the NBA.
Before anyone backs up the truck, the Wizards, with minor alterations and the blessing of health, deserve one more shot with all their key players returning.