When I wrote yesterday that the Bucks would be one of the NBA’s teams to watch next season, a lot of readers got me wrong. I never said the Bucks would be good — only that they’d be (finally) worth watching in terms of entertainment value. Remember, I spent all of last season following the Pacers, a team that put points on the board, played an exciting brand of basketball, and found itself in a bunch of down-to-the-wire games. Indiana lost most of them and wound up in the Lottery, but they were still fun to watch. Milwaukee can be that team in ’09-10.
Besides, if I were gonna try to sell you on an Eastern Conference team that will make a resurgence and shoot its way into playoff contention, it’d be the Wizards.
First off, throw last year’s 19-63 record in the trash. That was a disaster from Day One, with too many injuries paving the way for too many inexperienced players asked to take on big roles, which paved the way for a mid-season coaching change that happened to coincide with the rest of the Southeast Division getting significantly stronger.
The Wizards will be better in ’09-10. A lot better. The injured guys are (allegedly) healthy, the young guys gained some experience, and there’s some sense of stability on the bench with new coach Flip Saunders in place. And say what you want about Flip, be he has guided his teams to the playoffs 11 times in his 13 seasons as a head coach.
It all starts with Gilbert Arenas. Everything I’ve read out of D.C. lately says Arenas is lighter, quicker, and more importantly than just the physical condition of his problematic knee, Arenas mentally trusts his knee on the court. For somebody in Gil’s situation, the psychological hurdle is often the toughest to clear. And when he came back for spot duty at the end of last season, Arenas showed flashes of a style that could take the Wizards into the postseason; he was more of a playmaker than a straight gunner. If he wants to, Arenas can be one of the better all-around point guards in the League. People forget because he’s been gone so long, but few players can match his ball-handling ability (Arenas wasn’t mentioned once in our big “Who has the best handle?” debate). He’s got the vision, and he has plenty of scorers around him. If Saunders can impress some of what he’s picked up from working with Sam Cassell and Chauncey Billups on Arenas, he could average 8-9 assists per game easy.
About those scorers: Caron Butler has become a go-to guy who just happens to be a second or sometimes third option on his team. He can average 20-plus points no problem, but with Arenas’ return alleviating the pressure to carry the offense, Butler can now focus on being the lock-down defender he’s capable of being. At his best, Butler is a younger Ron Artest defensively who has more offensive weapons and a more consistent jumper.
If nothing else, Antawn Jamison will get his 20 points and 9-10 boards. The key is if he remembers how to play like he knows the score and how much time is on the clock. Jamison is another player defenses have to account for, and again, Arenas’ return makes his job that much easier.
Then there’s combo guard Randy Foye, scoring specialist Nick Young and hired gun Mike Miller to bolster the offense, and if this is the year Andray Blatche finally figures it out, that’s just icing.
Second-year center JaVale McGee will battle Brendan Haywood (also coming back from a significant injury) for a starting spot, and win or lose, McGee gives the Wizards a much-needed defensive presence all over the court who can pick up weak-side blocks and challenge jump shooters. McGee shined in the summer league on both ends of the court, and could thrive if Saunders doesn’t yank around his playing time like interim coach Ed Tapscott did last year.
Aside from a tough Southeast Division, the other biggest thing working against Washington is their defense. They were maybe the worst team in the League last season at defending the paint, and with Butler and Jamison worn down from carrying the offense, they also slipped on defense. Saunders has to get this team re-committed to making stops, and he has enough athletes on the roster to make it work. They won’t become the Cavs or Celtics overnight, but if they can keep the opposition from going absolutely lights-out, the Wizards can score with anybody and at least give themselves a chance to win.
If the core guys stay healthy, a seventh or eighth seed isn’t just a lofty goal, it’s a likely scenario.