This marks the third of a series of interviews Hoops Addict will conduct with writers who covered the Washington Wizards during the 2009-2010 season. We will get their opinions on what went wrong, what went right, what the future holds, and what were the biggest stories of a season that saw the Wizards finish 26-56, and out of the playoffs for the second consecutive year.
In this installment, we will talk to Mike Prada of SB Nation and Bullets Forever, which discusses all things related to the Washington Wizards (formerly the Washington Bullets). Prada covered the Wizards with media credentials for the first time during the 2009-2010 season, and provided in-depth analysis and reporting to the ever-expanding fanbase at Bullets Forever. He will discuss his experiences from his first season, the increased usage of “D” league players in the NBA, the importance of statistical analysis, and his top five Wizards-related stories from this season.
Rashad Mobley: For those readers who may not know about your site, talk a little about Bullets Forever. How long has it been around? What made you start it? How many readers do you have? Why did you chose this year to pursue media credentials to cover the Washington Wizards?
Mike Prada: BF started as Bullets Fever before the 2006/07 season. I was a college kid who loved the Wizards and needed to find others who did, because I went to a school in New England. I had been reading blogs for a while and noticed there wasn’t one for the Wizards, so I started one up and kept at it for a couple months, trying to get noticed among the larger NBA blogosphere. Eventually, SB Nation picked the site up in December of ’06, and the site has grown tremendously since then. We now have several writers and a ton of really, really active community members.
As for credentials, I decided to get them now because I graduated college and came back home. I was a sports editor and eventually the editor in chief of my college paper, and always felt the site could have benefited from access, but I obviously couldn’t get it while I was in college.
RM: At times you were very critical of the organization and some of the players on this Wizards team. Did you find yourself having to pull back at all out of fear for what the Wizards PR staff would say? Or did that even factor into what you did and did not write? And which two Wizards players do you think deserved the most criticism this season?
MP: I really don’t want to be seen as the “critical” guy, but this year was pretty bad, so I guess I was more critical than usual. It’d be very easy for me to say that the presence of the PR staff made no difference in how I wrote, but that’s a lie, though I hope it didn’t show too much in my writing. I have the utmost respect for what they do, and they all did a very admirable job of welcoming people like Kyle and I to the folk. They deserve a ton of credit for that. There were times when I heard from them about something I wrote, but they were always professional about it and never asked me to change my writing style. I think that’s all part of the natural balancing act any media member has to face, and I faced that this year like everyone else.
As for who deserves the most criticism, clearly it’s Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler. I’m not sure of the order and will probably be deliberating that all summer.
RM: This past 2009-2010 season seemed to be the year of the NBA Development League, as teams consistently stocked their rosters with players from there. Towards the end of the season, even the Wizards got in on the fun. by calling up Alonzo Gee, Cartier Martin and Mike Harris to name a few. Why do you think this year saw so many league wide call-ups, and would you say that the D-league is finally working as a minor league system? Which of the Wizards D-League call ups was your favorite?
MP: I do think the Wizards, like many other teams, figured out that there’s talent in the D-League that can help their teams. I wouldn’t say it’s finally “working” as a minor league system, because it needs to be much better organized, but teams are starting to catch on for sure. However, I also think that a lot of teams signed D-League guys mostly as a measure to fill out their rosters cheaply, and not necessarily because they were looking for a long-term diamond in the rough. I definitely think that this was the case with the Wizards, because otherwise, they would have made more of an effort to retain Alonzo Gee. This isn’t to begrudge them too much, because the realization that cheap, D-League talent can help even in the short term is a big step for this franchise, but it’s also too early to say they’ve fully embraced the D-League. As for which was my favorite – clearly, Alonzo Gee, though I did really enjoy talking to Mike Harris the few times I did.
RM: Last week you wrote about how Caron Butler was part of the problem this season with the Washington Wizards, and then Michael Lee of the Washington Post followed up with a similar article. Did you see that same problematic Butler show up with the Dallas Mavericks as well, and how much of the Mavs round one exit so him? And did your perception of Butler on and off the court change this season now that you saw him up close and personal?
MP: I did see it a lot with Dallas as well. His production didn’t really pick up there, and save for a couple nice moments in the final two games of their playoff series against the Spurs, Butler really didn’t come up big when his team needed him. I wouldn’t solely pin their loss on him though. He was part of a larger problem in Dallas where nobody else showed up for them except Dirk.
At the same time, perhaps the Dallas tenure really shows that it was Butler’s game that was problematic, not his attitude. He is 29, and guys like him who aren’t terribly athletic often fall off really quickly.
I did find that my perception of him did change for the worse from seeing him up close. Then again, as has become clear, this year’s Butler was not the Butler of past years. Had I had credentials in 2008 instead of 2010, I’m sure I would have grown to admire him more.
RM: Statistical analysis in all sports, but especially basketball seems to be on the rise, and the Mavericks and the Rockets are two teams that seem to be at the forefront of that movement. New Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis has mentioned a few times that he is hip to this advanced stats trend, and he plans to bring those sensibilities to the Washington Wizards as well. Why is now important to be in tune with the stats and trends of players. How do you think such an analysis would have helped the 2009-2010 Wizards in any way, shape or form?
MP: It’s important because pretty much all the successful teams are ahead of the curve on this stuff, not just Dallas and Houston. There’s a great Wall Street Journal article that reported that the 15 teams that employ at least one advanced stat guy on their payroll have won about 60 percent of their games. The reason is obvious – the teams with more information (and more exclusive information) outperform the teams with less information.
So it’s important because if you don’t invest time into this stuff, you have an information gap that dramatically affects your personnel decisions. You’re seeing this happen with a lot of GMs that were once great, but have struggled in recent years because they aren’t keeping up with the changing times. Joe Dumars. Geoff Petrie. Even our Ernie Grunfeld. Once upon a time, you could go about your job like they did. Now, you need to know more, and understanding advanced stats is key.
That said, I’m not sure how knowing advanced stats would have helped the 09/10 Wizards much. Perhaps the organization would have realized that Randy Foye wasn’t in fact improving, despite his improved per-game numbers every season before this year. Maybe they wouldn’t have made that trade, but otherwise, this ship didn’t sink because of a lack of attention to analytics. However, a better understanding of this stuff definitely would have helped in past years. Eddie Jordan never played Brendan Haywood enough minutes, even though advanced stats regularly showed that Haywood dramatically improved the Wizards’ defense. I’m confident that the Wizards would have won several more games in the past if Jordan played Haywood as much as Flip Saunders played him this year.
RM: I remember in my early conversations with you about Shaun Livingston, you had your doubts. You were worried about his outside shooting and his ability to play defense. Did Livingston’s performance in March and April make you a believer? And if he is brought back to Washington, what kind of role do you see for him?
MP: Yeah, he definitely made me a believer. Like you said, he showed a dramatically improved outside shot, though shooting percentages can be flukey and come back down to earth very easily. However, what impressed me most is his play on the pick and roll (I believe Kyle cited some cool Synergy stats a while back about how effective he was in those situations) and his ability to lift his teammates. There’s an intangible quality to him that improves his teammates’ play, and I think that would be reflected in the advanced plus/minus stats (I honestly haven’t checked). They absolutely need to bring him back, because it’ll be a sign to the other young players that good play will be rewarded.
As for his role – I don’t think the Wizards should worry too much about that. He could start, he could be a backup, it doesn’t really matter. I still think, long-term, he’s better suited to be a backup, but it’s not really an important question at this stage of rebuilding. Having guys like him on the roster in some capacity is what matters.
RM: Does Flip Saunders need to be more mindful of his personnel next year when devising an offensive strategy, or can his system work? Saunders seemed to tweak his offense towards the end of the season with some success, but will that work next year? Caron Butler seemed to imply that Flip was inflexible.
MP: I think he already has become more mindful of his personnel. Like you said, Flip did make a pretty major tweak by the end of the year, and it worked well. I give him a lot of credit for that, for a couple reasons. First of all, it’s a complete philosophical shift for Saunders to use an offense that isn’t point-guard driven, so for him to adapt like that speaks volumes. Second of all, Saunders, in contrast to Eddie Jordan, actually admitted his offense didn’t work and changed it. That mean a lot to me. It sounds like he’s going to carry that offense over next year, which is a great sign.
That said, I do believe Flip could have made his system work with this personnel if he had gone about it in another way. (As an aside, it’s kind of ironic to hear Caron imply Flip’s offense was inflexible, because the only offense he’s really ever succeeded in is EJ’s Princeton. He was a misfit in the Triangle in LA, didn’t improve in Miami’s system and wasn’t a great fit in Dallas’ either. If anything, Caron is a system player. But I digress, because it’s not like Caron’s complaint is unique). I continue to believe that Flip’s biggest coaching failure this year was not being more vigilant about his system early. He admitted on several occasions that he was more lenient about shot selection at the beginning of the season as the team adjusted to the system, and only later got on people more for that. If you’re trying to install your system, that’s a completely counter-intuitive approach. Any teacher will tell you, it’s much easier to start off strict and get looser than to do the opposite. As was explored on BF many times before the season, many of the players on the roster in theory should have fit Flip’s system very well. They didn’t in part because Flip wasn’t strict enough at the start.
Regardless, that’s water under the bridge right now. I’m excited for Flip to install this new system next year, mostly because I believe it suits Gilbert Arenas better. Flip seemingly has concluded that Gilbert isn’t Chauncey Billups, and that’s a good thing. I was willing to give Flip a shot in changing him, but it clearly didn’t work, and I’m glad Flip is going back to a different system.
RM: Ernie Grunfeld comes to you and says Mike, give me a five step plan to improve the Wizards through the draft and/or free agency. What do you do?
MP: The first thing I’d do is to hire an advanced stat guy and open an analytics department. In particular, I’d ask them to focus most of their research on lineup combinations. The Wizards were always talented under Ernie Grunfeld, but the pieces didn’t always fit great on the court. Hopefully, this helps combat that.
Second, I’d plan on letting all the veterans go and committing to a youth movement. That means no Josh Howard, no Mike Miller and no Randy Foye. Keep Livingston and try to keep James Singleton, but don’t overpay.
Third, I’d employ the Bring Out Your Dead strategy on draft day. Stake out teams that have payroll issues and will give you a draft pick in return for you also taking one of their high-priced veterans off their hands with your trade exceptions and cap space. Preferably, these veterans would have just one year left on their contracts. In particular, I’d be looking at teams like Philly, Indiana and New Orleans in the lottery, as well as Atlanta, Miami (more cap room), Oklahoma City (more cap room, they don’t need more rookies, many picks), San Antonio and Utah. You get more young guys this way, as well as placeholder vets that can help mentor them. You can also think about acquiring someone else’s young guy, but make sure he fits into the culture you want to build.
Fourth, I’d look for bargains in free agency this year, but otherwise, I’d keep the powder dry for 2011, when you have a better idea of the direction of the team. Right now, too much is up in the air to rebuild quickly. Build the foundation first.
Finally, I’d make more public appearances and allow other members of the staff to speak to the media. Right now, only the head coach and the GM can, but assistants should be allowed to talk if they’d like. This is partially selfish, since I really want Sam Cassell to be able to talk, but I also think it’ll go a long way toward building a connection with the fanbase. We want to know the people behind our team, or at least feel like we know them.
RM: In your opinion, what were the top five stories surrounding the Washington Wizards this season and why?
MP: 1. Gungate, obviously.
2. The lingering resentment between Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler. This story is starting to be told, and it’ll continue to be told in the coming months. More than anything, this torpedoed the season before the gun thing. Right now, most people are writing about this team as if the gun situation destroyed them, but the reality is they were already destroyed by terrible play and selfishness, especially among Arenas and Butler. If those two got along and sacrificed in the truest sense of the word, this team would have done much better.
3. Abe Pollin’s death. It’s tough to say how much that impacted the on-court product, but it clearly signaled a changing of the guard for the franchise.
4. The trade deadline moves. I put this fourth because people knew they were coming for a while, so it wasn’t like they were a surprise.
T5. Shaun Livingston’s improved play. This was more of a big NBA story, but I strongly considered putting this higher. It really is remarkable how he was cast aside by so many teams and came back on this team, which had such a terrible season.
T5. Andray Blatche’s journey as he continues to mature. And I call it a journey, because he did make strides, even though there were also several setbacks. Maybe the reason I “defend” him so much is that I’m fascinated with his inner struggle, how far he’s come from his sleeping at the VC days and how far he still has to go. It’s interesting to see it happen it real time.
RM: JaVale McGee and Nick Young were two of the most frustrating players to watch this season in my opinion. They both showed flashes of brilliance, only to follow them up with extended stretches of inconsistent play. Can the Wizards go to battle with them next year, or is it time to figure out a way to get rid of them?
MP: I want to see how they respond to larger roles for a longer season before I make an ultimate call. They made strides by the end of the year – now it’s time to see if they can take another step. Getting rid of them now doesn’t really serve much purpose unless you get some value back, and I don’t see that happening.
RM: This was first year covering the Wizards with credentials. What was your favorite game to cover? Which was the least favorite? And next year, assuming you get media credentials again, what would you do differently?
My favorite game was the first Cleveland game. It’s a pleasure to talk to these guys after they win. They were just such a fun and interesting team.
Least favorite? Probably the Dallas game when Caron Butler “went rogue.” Everyone was on edge.
As far as what I’d do differently – I’d probably be a little more aggressive in tracking people down, and I’d probably try to do some more offbeat stuff like Kyle did by the end, though I wouldn’t want to overlap with his shtick too much since he does it well. In general, less sitting around and more doing, more talking to people idly just because. Not to say I was lazy or anything, but it’s easy to kind of take it all in. Sometimes, I got caught up in that.
RM: Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon, two respected journalists in this town, have had harsh words about two players on the Wizards franchsie. Kornheiser blames Arenas for the Wizards struggles the past two seasons, and Wilbon says Andray Blatche is a loser, and the Wizards will be losers too if they rely on him. Are these two statements fair? And are they true?
MP: They’re both vast oversimplifications (hard to say whether they’re “true” because they’re intentionally vague), and honestly, they both illustrate a lot wrong with media coverage. Nuance goes away in favor of declarative, vague statements and extended thought. The truth is, nearly everyone in this league is capable of being a “winning player” in the right situation, though finding that situation can be more elusive for some than others. Rather than deciding whether a person can be a “winning player,” we should be examining what situations would allow him to prosper. Rather than applying blame to one person, we should be spreading it around and examining multiple factors.
As for the specifics: I don’t take Kornheiser’s opinion seriously because he’s never around and rarely pays attention to the team. Clearly, Arenas deserves some blame, but to pin it all on him is ridiculous. So ridiculous that I really do wonder whether TK actually believes it or is just trying to get attention. I take Wilbon a little more seriously since he’s more plugged in, but again, his opinion is so vague that it’s tough to even respond to it. I do think there are some serious, legitimate questions about Dray’s approach, but I have a hard time writing anyone off, especially someone like Dray who has made significant strides. Again, let’s not lose sight of this – Dray took some huge steps this year, whether it was getting more serious, shouldering a heavy load relatively well and becoming more of a team spokesman. He’s got a long way to go still, but he has grown up a lot.
Anyway, in the case of Dray, the question is largely irrelevant for now. He’s the closest thing this team has to a foundational piece. If you trade him away, you lose that and likely don’t get a foundational piece back, so you’re really not making much forward progress. If you draft a star and that star clashes with Dray, then sure, you can Zach Randolph-him, but we’re not there yet. Until (if) we get there, there’s no reason to write him off, especially because he’s still just 23 and is so, so skilled.
RM: Who should the Washington Wizards sent to the NBA draft?
MP: New BF writer Jon Kelman argued for sending Irene Pollin, to honor her family’s legacy in a ceremonial matter. That’s an interesting choice, and a sentiment I understand. However, I’d probably send Ted Leonsis myself, to usher in the new era.