Unheralded Wizards could challenge for Southeast Division title
Posted: Tuesday August 10, 2004 2:35PM; Updated: Tuesday August 10, 2004 3:19PM
Washington's super six
2003-04 stats per 40 minutes
Think the Miami Heat are a cinch to win a Southeast Division that includes perennial patsies Atlanta, Orlando, Washington and the expansion Charlotte Bobcats?
In spite of Miami's recent trade for Shaquille O'Neal, I wouldn't be surprised at all if Washington, rather than Miami, won the Southeast Division this year.
In saying this, I realize I may be the only person on the planet who hasn't conceded the Southeast Division to Miami. I can hear the chortling already. "C'mon, dude, the Wizards? Are you stoned or just stupid?"
Hear me out. For starters, the Heat won't win 60 games, and probably not even 50 -- not with a supporting cast than includes Dwyane Wade, Eddie Jones and little else. Even if Shaq shows up angry and regains the edge that was missing the past two years, the Heat's lineup isn't nearly as good as the one he left, and he only topped 60 wins once with that gang. I expect Miami's win total to end up somewhere in the mid-to-high 40s, depending on how many games Shaq misses due to his assorted maladies.
Of course, to top the Heat, the Wizards still need to nearly double their victory total of 25 from a year ago -- no small feat. Given that the roster is almost identical to last year's, how on earth do I expect them to do that?
To understand, first let's look at why the Wizards failed a year ago. Washington's shortcomings were primarily the result of three malfunctions. First, young small forwards Jarvis Hayes and Jared Jeffries shot like they were blindfolded, which handcuffed the offense. Second, injuries in the backcourt felled the Wizards' top three scorers (Jerry Stackhouse, Gilbert Arenas and Larry Hughes), taking them out of action for an average of 34 games each. And third, the bench was too poor to overcome the injuries.
This summer Washington has remedied at least two of those problems. The arrival of Antawn Jamison in a draft-day trade instantly solves the issue of getting scoring from the small forward spot. One of the league's smoothest shot-makers around the basket, Jamison is an immensely helpful offensive player because he shoots a high percentage without turning the ball over.
Jamison should help on the injury front, too. He hasn't missed a game in four seasons -- the NBA's longest active streak -- whereas Stackhouse barely played in the 2003-04 season. Combine that with the healthy return of Arenas, who should be over the abdominal strain that cost him 27 games last year and forced him to play well below full strength in several others, and the Wizards should be much more potent.
As for the bench ... well, the bench is still a problem. But a few underrated moves by general manager Ernie Grunfeld have made it less of an issue. The Wizards matched Miwaukee's offer sheet for big man Etan Thomas, signed guard Anthony Peeler with their veteran's exception and added big man Samaki Walker to round out the frontcourt rotation. Keeping Thomas cements Washington's young, talented frontcourt trio that also includes Kwame Brown and Brendan Haywood. Together, they have quietly become among the best front lines in the Eastern Conference, wich each averaging about 14 points and 10 rebounds per 40 minutes last season while shooting nearly 50 percent. Meanwhile, Peeler's arrival means Washington no longer will depend on ball-hogging Juan Dixon to lead the second unit.
The additions of Jamison and Peeler are important on another level as well, because they can produce points without dominating the ball. Jamison just catches near the basket and flips it in, while Peeler hangs out in the corner waiting for 3-pointers. Their reluctance to dribble is an asset on this team, because one of Washington's problems last season was that so many players needed the ball in their hands. Arenas and Dixon were the worst offenders, but it was a problem with all of the perimeter players, and the result was that the talented young post players didn't get as many touches as they should have.
The biggest reason of all to like Washington this season, however, is that it's still so young. Look at the Wizards' lineup, and the one thing that stands out is that everybody on the team stands to be better this year than they were last year. Washington's six key players -- Arenas, Hughes, Jamison, Brown, Haywood and Thomas -- all are 28 or younger and already have impressive seasons on their resumés. In the backcourt, Arenas is still only 22, while the vastly underrated Hughes is 25. Both could be 20-point scorers this season. Up front it's more of the same. Haywood has become one of the East's better centers and still is just 25, while the 22-year-old Brown finally became a real basketball player last season and has plenty of growth ahead.
A year of experience should make the bench better, too. Hayes, Jeffries and Steve Blake all took their rookie lumps last year (Jeffries was technically a second-year player but missed nearly all of his rookie season with a knee injury.), but each is only 23 years old and each should be significantly better as sophomores. Add a shooter like reigning 3-point champion Peeler to the mix-- the one missing link in this team's attack -- and it's easy to see how the offense could improve by leaps and bounds from last season's disappointing performance.
Do the Wizards have their flaws? Of course they do, or they wouldn't have lost 57 games last season. While Peeler is an upgrade on Dixon, the dropoff from the starters to reserves (Thomas excepted) remains frightfully steep, so key injuries could once again lay them low. Additionally, coach Eddie Jordan still has to get the guards to give up shots for the big guys.
Picking a surprise team before the season is always perilous. After all, it can't be considered a surprise if we expect it, right? Nonetheless, it's hard to look at this team and not be excited about this season and the ones beyond it. Washington already has one of the better starting fives in the league, and that group should only get better this coming season. While the Wizards haven't been relevant for two decades, except as a sideshow during Michael Jordan's comeback, nothing lasts forever. It says here that this is the season that pattern changes.