Just An Average Joe

LeBron James. Dwyane Wade. Amar’e Stoudemare. Carlos Boozer. Chris Bosh.

When the names of those five players are brought up these days, the words “2010 Free Agents” are not very far behind, and with good reason.  All five players have the ability to change the fortunes of whatever franchise they happen to chose this summer.  And with the exception of Bosh, all of them have done exemplary jobs of showcasing their talents in the playoffs.

James is flirting with averaging a triple-double, despite his constant battle with a mysterious elbow injury; Wade’s Miami Heat squad was bounced in the first round by Boston, but not before he dropped an impressive 46 points in a classic game four performance; Stoudemire and Boozer are basically the only low post threats for their respective teams, and they are averaging 20 points each.

Bosh’s Toronto Raptors narrowly missed the playoffs, but the general feeling is that he did all he could do, despite limited help.  It is believed that if he gets with the right team, he can help lead them to a championship — much like Garnett and Ray Allen did for the Boston Celtics.

But there is one player who is also a free agent this summer, whose name has slipped out of  that elite status, based on his poor playoff performance.  His name is  Joe Johnson.

A cursory glance at Johnson’s playoff averages, will lead one to believe that he is indeed having a solid postseason.  He’s averaging 18 points a game (just three below his regular season average), but his rebounds (5.2) and his assists (5.0) are slightly higher.  But a closer look at his stats show a much different picture.

Johnson is shooting 39% in the playoffs, which is well below is regular season average of 45%.   In this current series with the Orlando Magic, he is shooting a dismal  28% from the floor, and in Game 3, he shot 3-for-15 and scored just eight points.  To make matters worse Johnson is the captain of an Atlanta Hawks team that is on the verge of being swept out of the playoffs for the second consecutive year.

In this Magic/Hawks series, it seems like every Joe Johnson possession has the same beginning, middle and end.  He’ll bring the ball up the floor and attempt to lull his man to sleep with a series of side-to-side and crossover dribbles.  Then, after over-dribbling and working down the shot clock, he’ll attempt to blow by his man.  But instead of driving all the way to the basket, he’ll take (and miss) a mid-range jumper, and his body language screams of a lack of confidence.

Things have gotten so bad in Atlanta, that the fans have not only started booing the Hawks, but they’ve specifically booed Johnson’s missed shots.  After practice yesterday, Johnson added fuel to the fans’ fire by saying he could care less whether the fans showed up or not.

Any of these issues in isolation would not be a big deal to an All-Star player of Johnson’s caliber.  But when a player who is seeking a maximum contract, is putting up average numbers on a team that is dangerously close to being swept out of the playoffs, and he seems to have allowed the fans in his head, things change a bit.

Instead of prospective teams looking at Johnson as the savior or the missing piece to a championship team, they would be well within their right to ask themselves, “What’s wrong with Joe Johnson and why is he looking so average?”

Luckily for Johnson, as putrid as his play as been in this Magic/Hawks series, there is still time for him to prove he’s an above average player.  He can look to Wade’s 46 point performance on the brink of elimination, and play inspired basketball tonight in Game 4.  If he loses and plays well, he’ll be looked at as a warrior in defeat; however, if the Hawks can win, and push this lopsided series to a game five, his sunken stock will rise even more.

If Johnson can ditch the excessive dribbling, and bad shooting,  and then play an all- around brilliant game like he did in Game 2 of the Milwaukee series, he’ll win back the confidence of the fans, his coach, his teammates—and yes even teams vying for his services via free agency.  Then his name will rightfully be placed back on the Mount Rushmore of 2010 free agency.

Anything short of those type of heroics, will leave Joe Johnson and his reputation looking just plain average.

Podcast: Conference Semifinals Update

In the latest edition of the Hoops Addict podcast, Ryan and Rashad discuss each of the four series, in the second round of the NBA playoffs.

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Vince Carter Needs To Elevate His Game

This morning as I went through my daily ritual of reading as many NBA-related articles as I possibly could, I noticed that Andrei Kirilenko’s name was mentioned quite a bit.  The 6’9″ Utah Jazz forward has been out of action since March 26th with a strained calf, and the rehabilitation process had taken a bit longer than expected.  The combination of some encouraging practices, and the Jazz trailing the Los Angeles Lakers 0-2 in their series, led Kirilenko to declare himself fit and ready to go for game three.

In one article I read, Carlos Boozer praised Kirilenko’s abilities and mentioned that he had been sorely missed the last month and a half.  Even Kobe Bryant acknowledged that, in a limited capacity, Kirilenko still had the ability to cause some match-up problems for the Lakers.

But there was one quote about Kirilenko made by Utah Jazz head coach Jerry Sloan that jumped off the page more than the others.

“We just hope we can get some minutes somewhere along the line and give us some help,” Sloan said. “We’ll take anything we can get. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

I read that quote and immediately I shoved Kirilenko, Sloan, and all things Utah Jazz-related aside.  Instead, I decided to thrust  two prepositional phrases with Vince Carter’s name in the sentence to see if it would hold true.

“We just hope we can get some minutes out of Vince Carter somewhere along the line and give us some help. We’ll take anything we can get from Vince Carter.  We’ll just have to wait and see.”

I have spoken to Magic coach Stan Van Gundy several times during his visits to D.C., but I’ve never asked him about Carter’s inconsistency.  But if I did, that’s the answer I imagine him giving me.

By now, you know that Carter put on quite an offensive display in the Orlando Magic’s 112-98 victory over the Atlanta Hawks.  He scored 20 of his 24 points in the second half, as the Magic took control of a previously tight game, and he did it in every way imaginable.  He hit mid-range jumpers; he hit three-pointers; he scored on dazzling lay-ups; and he wouldn’t be Vince Carter if he didn’t throw down some emphatic dunks as well.

At one point Carter drove down the lane, jumped, remained in the air under the defender came down, and then gently shot the ball with one hand, for an “easy” two point basket.  Shortly after ESPN replayed that amazing shot, Bethlehem Shoals of FreeDarko.com, via his Twitter account proclaimed, “That shot by Vince they just replayed was totally Dr. J”

But as good as Carter looked last night, and as integral as he was in his team’s victory, that type of focus is not there each and every night.  In fact, if someone were to ask me if Vince could score 24 points a night for the rest of the playoffs, my answer would be two-fold:  Talent-wise? Yes.  Attitude-wise? I don’t know; we’ll have to wait and see.

In the first half of Thursday night’s victory, before the second half explosion, Carter had just four points on four shots, and he looked content to play the passive role.  He passed up open shots, and the few shots he did take, seemed to always be off-balance.   He made no attempt to draw contact and get to the foul line, which is when he is at his best.  Sure, Dwight Howard was in the midst of a monster half, and Jameer Nelson was playing well, but Orlando was trailing most of the half and Carter and his game were missing in action.

Prior to this current series, there was Game 3 of the Magic/Bobcats series when Carter scored just 10 points, as his team eked out victory.  Carter shot just 4-of-11 for 10 points and he had virtually no impact in the game.   Even that performance was better than the one he produced in game one of that series, when he played 30 minutes, shot 4-of-19, scored 12 points and  fouled out of the game.

I am quite sure someone is reading this article and saying to themselves, “Orlando is winning all these games. Who cares if Carter isn’t consistent? It doesn’t matter.”

Oh, but it does.

First off, Carter plays for Stan Van Gundy, who must be a perfectionist because he’s never happy–even after a win.  So Carter has  to contend with him after a bad performance.

Secondly, assuming the Magic get past the Atlanta Hawks, they will have to play either the Cleveland Cavaliers or the Boston Celtics. Both teams have strong post defenders who can neutralize Howard, and it will be up to Carter, Rashard Lewis and Jameer Nelson to wreak havoc on the perimeter.  Nelson has been doing his part by averaging 22 points this post season–10 points more than he averaged during the regular season.  Lewis has yet to find the shooting touch that was crucial to the Magic’s success during last year’s playoff run.  A consistent Carter would offset Lewis’ struggles and only make Nelson that much more potent.

And finally, Carter has a career playoff average of 24 points a game, which means he is capable of playing like an All-Star nightly, as opposed to once or twice a series.

This isn’t an average player who is being asked to play great.  This is a great player who seems to content to play average.  If he aggressively drove to the basket, he would take pressure off of Howard, free up Pietrus, Lewis and Nelson, and the Magic would be impossible to stop on the defensive end.  Van Gundy could bring in four bench players, give his others starters an ample amount of rest, and allow Carter to run wild.   But that doesn’t seem to be possible for Carter–it’s always “wait and see” from one game to the next.

Tonight the Jazz will face the Lakers in Utah, and Kirilenko will finally be back on the floor with little expected of him except a good effort.  Tomorrow night, the Magic will face the Hawks, and Carter will be fresh off a monster second half, and sadly, little will be expected of him either.  The Magic will just hope to get some minutes out of him and somewhere along the line, give his team some help. They’ll take anything they can get from Vince Carter.  They’ll just have to wait and see.

I’m hoping I’m wrong.

Catching Up With Mike Prada of ‘Bullets Forever’

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.

Atlanta Lacked A Solid Game Plan

When you’re Orlando Magic head coach Stan Van Gundy, and you have a player that averaged 18 points and 13 rebounds during the regular season, it isn’t terribly difficult to come up with a team game plan:  Get the ball to Dwight Howard.

That plan took a serious hit for the Magic in their first round series against the Charlotte Bobcats, as Howard consistently stayed in foul trouble.  He fouled out of two games, and he had five fouls in two other games.  He averaged just nine points and nine rebounds in that series, although he still mustered a whopping five blocks per game.

After the Magic’s  114-71 victory over  the Atlanta Hawks in the game one of the second round, Van Gundy’s game plan once again looked productive.  Howard played smarter on both ends of the floor, and although he only played 29 minutes total, he still put up 21 points,  12 rebound and five blocked shots.  With more shots (he only took 10) and a better free throw percentage (50%) that point total could have very well increased–but the Magic didn’t need it.

The Atlanta Hawks aren’t lucky enough to have a player of Dwight Howard’s caliber on their roster.  Their main players are  Joe Johnson, Jamal Crawford, Al Horford and Josh Smith and on any given night,  one of these players can get hot and lead their team to victory.

But as was the case last night, when none of the aformentioned main players can step up and have a meaningful game, and none of the bench players seems to have that shooting touch, the Atlanta Hawks (especially on the road) can and will get blown out of the gym. 

First there was constantly one-on-one play instead of ball movement, then Smith and Horford got frustrated and started barking with the refs, and then the Hawks found themselves trailing big en route to the 43 point loss. 

The sad part about what happened last night is that it could have all been avoided with one simple concept: coaching.

Coach Mike Woodson, who seemingly has been on the hot seat since his tenure with the Hawks began five years ago, did not do a good job of coaching last night.  He coached like a man who had not faced the Magic before rather than a man who had seen this team four times during the regular season;  he coached like a man who did not take a peek at the Magic/ Bobcats series, when  coach Larry Brown’s sent cutters in the lane to get Howard in the foul trouble;  Woodson coached like a man without a plan, and he basically admitted as much after the game.

“I didn’t expect Orlando to play Howard as long as they did,” Woodson told the media last night. “We have to adjust to that Thursday and see how we play.”

Van Gundy’s plan in the first half was to feed the ball to Dwight Howard in the post.  This got the Hawks’ big men in foul trouble, it boosted Howard’s confidence on offense, and it gave him the confidence to play a little smarter on the defensive end of the floor.  That’s why Howard played so much.

Coach Woodson’s game plan should have been to feed the ball in the post to Al Horford, Josh Smith, Zaza Pachulia, and maybe even Marvin Williams as well.  This approach would have almost certainly got Howard in foul trouble, and it would have forced the entire Magic team to collapse a bit on the inside.  That collapse would give the Hawks shooters open shots, and cause further problems for Orlando.  This almost certainly would have cut down on Howard’s minutes.

Lakers Coach Phil Jackson is in the process of using this very inside/out strategy against the Utah Jazz right now, and considering they are up 2-0 in their series, it must be a successful one.  Granted, Jackson is mainly using it to exploit Utah’s lack of an inside presence.  Woodson would be using that strategy to get Howard out of the game first, and to open the floor for his players second.

There is a reason why Coach Woodson is constantly in a tenuous position as head coach of the Atlanta Hawks – the criticism is that he seemingly has no control over the team.  During the regular season they get by on talent and natural ability, but in the playoffs, where coaching adjustments can often make or break a series, Woodson seems to continually fall short. 

In round one, his team nearly lost to a Milwaukee team that was led by a rookie (Brandon Jennings) and that was missing Andrew Bogut and Michael Redd.  They pulled the series out in seven games, and  the consensus was that a wakeup call had been placed, and now the Hawks were ready to make their mark–then they got blown out by 43 points last night.

With Game 2 of this Hawks/Magic series on Thursday night, Coach Woodson has one off day to come up with a plan to counter Van Gundy and the Orlando Magic. 

If he succeeds, his team is right back in the series and he can return to Atlanta for game 3 looking like a genius.  If he fails and his team goes down 0-2, Woodson will rightfully be back on that hot seat.

Kyle Weidie Discusses the 2009-2010 Washington Wizards

This marks the second 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.

Today, we will talk to Kyle Weidie, who runs the site “Truth About It”, which is a part of ESPN’s True Hoop Network.  This was Kyle’s first season covering the Wizards, and he had the unique distinction of being one of the few writers or bloggers, to attend every home game.  In this interview, Kyle will discuss his feelings about covering the Wizards for the first time, his top five Wizards-related stories this year, his experiences with Andray Blatche, and much much more.

Rashad Mobley:  This was your first year covering the Wizards with credentials?  Did the experience meet, fall short or exceed the expectations you had going in? And how much did going to training camp last summer help you during the regular season
Kyle Weidie: Yep, my first year covering the Wizards … and what a year it was. From a basketball standpoint, the season fell way below expectations. I predicted this team to win more than 50 games. But I don’t think that’s the kind of expectations you’re asking about. In terms of covering the team, gaining full access as a “blogger”, I had no idea what to expect.

I was able to get some ideas because you were gracious enough to, with a year of credentials covering the Wiz already under your belt, meet beforehand for beers with myself and Mike Prada of Bullets Forever and SB Nation to give us some tips, etc.. He and I were subsequently granted interim access to media day, training camp, the preseason game in Richmond and the preseason game at the Verizon Center, which obviously gave the closest feel to covering home contests on a nightly basis. The team media & PR staff seemed amicable to our presence and things just happened from there. I ended up going to all 41 home games.

Looking back, if these Wizards had to be bad, thank god they were interesting. They were the anti-expectations. By the end, we could only expect the unexpected. Or … it got worse when Flip Saunders told us not the think it couldn’t.

RM: Who was your favorite Wizard to talk to before and after the game? Who was your least favorite?
KW: It would have to be Gilbert Arenas. I don’t think any other member of the media would tell you otherwise. Brendan Haywood wasn’t bad either, albeit more guarded than Gil, but candidly above average in his own way.
After all the suspensions, trades, etc., I found that Shaun Livingston gave well-thought, professional answers and that James Singleton had a pleasurable interview demeanor.

On the other hand, JaVale McGee is young and still learning the ropes, but he was probably the hardest to prod answers out of. Most of the time, I couldn’t tell if he was heavily guarded or if he just didn’t have a personality.

RM: What was your initial reaction when you heard that Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson had been traded to the Mavericks? What about when Jamison was traded to the Cavs? And which of the two teams were you rooting for, since the Wizards are not in the playoffs?
KW: I was initially irked when I heard about the Dallas trade. I simply didn’t believe Ernie Grunfeld got full value, or even 70% value in return. I’ve heard some in the organization felt the same way, but that Grunfeld was anxious to get something done lest he squander the opportunity. Since, I’ve come down from that stance. Now I just shrug my shoulders and look to the future. It’s kinda nice to know that Caron Butler was just as crappy for the Mavericks as he was with the Wizards … if you’re the type who cares about vindication.

My initial reaction to the Jamison trade was one of disappointment. Not so much because he was going to the rival Cavaliers, but because it happened right before a game against the Timberwolves and I didn’t get a chance to see him play one last time in a Wizards uniform. I was also disappointed that I decided to head up to my perch above section 104 before the game instead of lurking around the arena hallways to catch Jamison departing the Verizon Center like other members of the media … but mostly to observe the actions of the television camera/reporter combos chasing him. One thing I enjoyed doing this season was watching the at times peculiar mannerisms of the media.
Sad to see the whole thing with the Big Three come to an end, but that’s the cycle of life sometimes.

But yea, the Mavericks have now been bounced from the playoffs. I wasn’t rooting for them, but that’s more because I’ve kinda liked the Spurs as a secondary team since they drafted David Robinson. And the Cavs? I’d root for any other team in the NBA against them … even the Lakers and the Celtics, which is very hard for me to do. Sorry, Antawn.
 
RM: There were several games when I felt like I did not ask the right question or follow up properly with a question I had asked earlier. Do you have a story involving a question you wanted to ask but didn’t? Or a player you wanted to interview, but you just didn’t get the opportunity?

KW: Oh, definitely …. there were several occasions where I thought of a follow-up I should’ve asked hours later, but no specific instances. Forgetting a follow-up is certainly worse than missing a player I wanted to talk to, which happens when they leave early or while someone else is answering questions from the media.

Missed follow-ups probably happen to even the most experienced of reporters. The key is having a direct “in” to a player (mobile phone number) in case it’s really important. Otherwise, they will become further and fewer in between with experience.

RM: What were your Top 5 Wizards related stories this year and why?
KW: 1) Gilbert Arenas, the whole ordeal — because that’s one of the top five stories in the NBA.

2) The death of Abe Pollin — because of all he did for the franchise, for the D.C. area, and because it happened unexpectedly right before Eddie Jordan’s return to Washington on the very day he was fired a year ago while handing out Thanksgiving turkeys to the needy. It was the most whirlwind game night all season.

3) The death of the Big Three (Arenas/Butler/Jamison) — because they were re-packaged and sold to fans so much. Having to break them up is one of the most significant player personnel stories in this franchise’s history.

4) Shaun Livingston — because of his seemingly impossible comeback from a devastating knee injury to not only making significant contributions (although on a bad team), but getting to the position where he’s going to be an attractive free-agent this summer. As you and I experienced, we couldn’t write about the guy enough.

5) All things Andray Blatche — which, although negative, brought me a ton of hits on the site … Ha! — (speaking specifically of his benching/ignoring of Flip Saunders and his failed triple-double attempt). All I can saw about Andray is, “Bless his heart.”
 
 
RM: Assess the jobs that both Ernie Grunfeld and Flip Saunders did this year as coach and GM respectively. What grades would you give to them and why?
KW: I give them both a C and tell them that they better get their GPA up else they’ll lose their scholarship.
 
RM: You’re the GM of the Wizards. You have tons of cap room, a lottery pick and an All-Star possibly returning to your roster. What moves would you make? Who would you get rid of, who would you keep, etc
KW: Keep Arenas, Blatche, McGee, Thornton & Quinton Ross (only because he’s probably going to take his player option). Nick Young is the only other guy under contract going into next season and is probably the most expendable, albeit with little market. And this plan obviously involves not extending a qualifying offer to Randy Foye, thus wishing him the best at his next stop.

But say the team keeps Young …. They should try to resign Shaun Livingston and get Josh Howard at a bargain. Then the Wizards would have three draft picks in the top 35. Keeping all them would make 11 players. After that, there’s not a lot of attainable free-agents out that who I’d want. Carlos Boozer, Joe Johnson and Amare’ Stoudemire are all semi-attainable and I wouldn’t want any of them. If the market is there, I wouldn’t mind bringing Brendan Haywood back. The team needs to have much more of a post presence on both ends to compete.

But as GM, I slow-play this summer, see if any reasonable young talent is left desperate for a contract, or if a juicy BOYD (Bring Out Your Dead) presents itself (via Mike Prada of Bullets Forever). Otherwise, I save most of cap room for the summer of 2011 (or the 2011 trade deadline). No need to rush into any unreasonable contracts.

RM: Talk about the experience of watching Shaun Livingston develop from a bench player to the starting point guard of this team in March and April.
KW: Watching Shaun develop really made the ending to such a crappy season bearable, and that’s probably why I wound up writing about him so much. The fascinating story of his comeback was only compounded by his great play (I never really had a chance to watch him as a player before).

But almost even more impressive was how he handled himself off the court. His interactions with the media showed maturity while remaining interesting. No, he wasn’t goofy and quote-ably candid like a Gilbert Arenas (or even Haywood), but he also didn’t give the boring/mundane/cliche answers that you see from most athletes.

As a player, Livingston seems to have that natural “it” that can’t be explained by stats — although, the numbers I used in a recent post about him tell the story of how affective he was at running Flip Saunders’ offense. Guess the smoothness we saw out of him is what made him the fourth overall pick in the first place (and recruited by Coach K to Duke).

Livingston needs to get much stronger, physically and on the defensive end. But if he’s made it this far, I trust he can be a dedicated player and a solid contributor worth the price it will cost to keep him.
 
RM: You spent a great deal of time talking to Andray Blatche this season. You saw him in training camp when he seemed to be dedicated, you saw him fade a bit during the season, you saw him sulk on the end of the bench, and you saw him play at an All-Star level. Do you think he’s a player the Wizards can build around? And do you agree with Tony Kornheiser’s assessment that he’s a “loser”?
KW: Tony Kornheiser is filled with more irresponsible rhetoric than Blatche will ever be a loser.

One thing I can say about being around him in person is that he’s a likable guy. He’s not a malcontent. He’s not a jerk. Andray’s just misguided, a large affect of his age/maturity, which one can somewhat look past with his improvement.

However, there’s a more frustrating aspect of him … he doesn’t always try hard. This is mostly evident with his work on the glass. Maybe once dubbing him as the Tin Man, as in he plays with no heart, was a little harsh. But I’ve also observed countless times where he pays little attention to detail and just lacks the moxie to be physical.

That being said, Blatche is a keeper. Some of that has to do with his affordability, but he’s clearly a unique talent whose maturity will get better with time (hopefully). As far as someone to “build” around — I don’t think so. At best he will be a complimentary player like Lamar Odom or Cliff Robinson.
 
RM: There’s been plenty of talk about Gilbert Arenas this year, whether it was his comeback, his guard play, his silence, his gun play, his contract, etc? Give us your Top 3 Gilbert interactions from this past season. And from your vantage point, what do you expect from him next year?
KW: The first interaction happened early in the season after a November 23rd practice. Arenas conspicuously said, “There’s about 15 players on the team … 14 get along.” Since he was fined $25,000 by the NBA for not talking to the media in mid-October, Arenas readily did so with his usual demeanor, but not always on practice days. On this day, to the surprise of many media members, he volunteered his speaking services.

At the time, the Wizards had sputtered out of the gate with a 3-9 record, and Arenas was asked about the team’s trust level in each other when he made the 14/15 remark. Toward the end of his interview, I asked Arenas whose responsibility it was to get everyone on the same page instead of 14 out of 15 as he alluded to. He said it was his and Antawn’s … and this is were I was on my toes for a follow-up question, I suppose … but I guess Gil was also setting it up like ducks on a pond — so I followed up, asking Arenas, “Is Caron in the picture since he’s one of the three captains of the team?”

“Come again?,” he said with a boyish smile on his face, seemingly purposely making me repeat the question. I did.
Gil responded with a simply meek, “Yea,” but while cracking a deviously coy smile, leaving the media to their analytic devices to translate that there was a rift between Arenas and Butler.

Of course, the usual team beat reporters were able to follow up with both Gil and Caron via cell phone and the supposed beef was thus supposedly squashed.

By the way, I wrote an in-depth post of the whole scene, including a video of the Arenas interview.

2) The second instance game in early December when I asked Arenas about his frustration from not getting calls when he was seemingly determined to drive to the basket. I certainly didn’t mean to bait him into talking about NBA referees, which as all league fans are aware, can quickly get a player fined. On the court, Arenas was visibly frustrated and it seemed like a valid question as to if the non-calls affected his game.

Well, Arenas kinda went off on the refs. He said they were profiling him as a player and said that referees needed to change the way they call games. Arenas actually said a decent bit more, but those were the most flagrant comments … and they are certainly on par with the comments Dwight Howard recently blogged which got him a $35,000 fine.

A player claiming the refs are profiling him is certainly a bloggable offense, and I did so, promptly … but still with somewhat of a guilty conscious in mind. I didn’t want to be the blogger who got an NBA player fined. But ultimately, any worry on my part quickly subsided. I didn’t put those words in Arenas’ mouth. Turns out he didn’t get fined … much to my surprise. I guess you could say it all caught up to him in the end though.

3) The third noteworthy Arenas incident came way back in the innocent days of 2009, when we thought he brought guns to the Verizon Center to get them away from his children — that turned out to be a lie.

After the Wizards got their butts kicked by the Oklahoma Thunder on December 29th, dropping their record to 10-20, and after Antawn Jamison went through his Groundhog Day routine, after Arenas said, “Right now, we stink,” an out-of-town reporter from the New York Post, who looked exactly what I thought a NY Post reporter would look like, short of wearing a fedora with a card saying “Press” tucked in the band, began to stalk Arenas.

I couldn’t hear all that was said/asked, as the locker room media scrum had died down and dispersed significantly at that point, but I did observe a member of the Wizards’ PR staff attempt to stop Arenas from saying anything. Gilbert didn’t really stop to talk to the reporter, clearly irked by his opening line of questioning (which I could tell was about guns in the locker room, but not to the extent we would later come to find out).

As he made a beeline for the exit, Arenas said something to the effect of, “I’m going to go rob banks, be a bank robber on the weekends.”

And that was it. A couple days later, we would all wake up on the first day of 2010 and learn that the gun incident was much different. I wish I had my Flip Cam running that night.

Expectations for next year: Well, as a player, I expect Arenas to be pretty much the same we saw this season — a guy who can still play but who is trying to find himself like the puppy who lost his way (any Billy Madison fans out there?).

The most captivating story about Arenas’ return, and one which we really have no idea of what to expect, is how will his personality and interactions with the media be … at least early on. In any case, get ready for a media circus.

RM: From a personal standpoint, what do you plan on doing differently next year if you obtain media credentials once again?
KW: I’m sure I’ll get more ideas as the next season approaches, but I want to try to show the more personal side of players (for example, the interviews I started doing toward the end of the season, asking them about nicknames, basketball scenarios, opinion of losing building character, etc.). I’d also like to continue showing the fan/game night experience and other interactions the franchise and its players have the DMV (DC/Maryland/Virginia) area.
 
RM: Let’s say JaVale McGee and Nick Young came to you and said, “Kyle, what should we do to improve our game this summer?” What would you say to them?
KW: Last summer, via some Tweets, McGee bragged about how nobody was doing what he was doing (in terms of working out) …. or something like that. I’d tell him that it’s time to think that was nothing. He needs to hit the weight room, weight room, weight room …. take muscle milk and whatever else within the allowed rules and regulations of the NBA. Dude needs to get bigger first and foremost. And that should be the easy/evident task for JaVale to accomplish. The other part, gaining maturity and being a smarter basketball player, are improvements that Wizards fans can only hope come with time.

Nick Young … basically the same thing. He’s gotta get stronger. And with both of these players, it must be visibly evident. I could go on to outline how Young needs to work on his passing and JaVale needs to work on post moves, but you gotta figure they will be working on basketball skills anyway — well, and this applies to both, how do you tell someone to go out and become a better passer in the summer, especially when the summer leagues in which they play are nothing but slightly more organized And1 games?

Neither McGee or Young are close to being solid mentally. So, the only thing I can really say is work hard. Entering his third year, one in which NBA players usually show the most improvement, a lot of eyes will be on McGee. But Young’s entering his fourth year. This is make-or-break time for him. The pressure is on in a major way.
 
RM: Explain to Hoops Addict, why you chose to call your site, “Truth About It”? How do you get your start in covering this team?
KW: Well, I’ve had a passion for writing for a long time now (my dad was a syndicated columnist/small-town newspaper editor when I was growing up, before my family moved to D.C. when I was 10). I used to start these long email chains with friends, writing about this and that, mostly sports … and it wasn’t always a reciprocal conversation, usually just some dude (me) typing out his thoughts and sharing them.

Eventually, in late 2007, I thought, “why not start a blog?” The first step was to decide what to call it and get a URL. I wanted to be candid … tell the “truth about it” — and there you go. At first posting was infrequent, as I didn’t exactly know what direction I wanted the blog to go in … but conveniently, the Wizards’ 07-08 season was about to start up. I already was a visitor to Bullets Forever, but otherwise, there weren’t many blogs covering the team. And since basketball is my favorite sport and the Wizards are my favorite team, it just felt right to write about them.

With hard work and countless hours spent on a hobby, which I take very seriously and am passionate about, things just took off from there.

Catching Up With Mike Jones

This marks the first 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.

The first writer we will talk to is Mike Jones. When the NBA season started, Jones covered the Washington Wizards for the Washington Times; however, due to financial issues, the Times was forced to do away with the sports section entirely.  Still, whether it was through his own website, or CSNwashington.com, Jones wrote and reported on the day-to-day happenings of the Wizards.

In this interview, Jones discusses the top Wizards-related stories this season, the possible roster changes in store, the Wizards draft prospects, and which former Wizards players he is rooting for during the playoffs.

Rashad Mobley:  To say this season has been an eventful one would a supreme understatement.  From Flip Saunders being hired last offseason right up until the last bit of drama involving Alonzo Gee, this Washington Wizards team saw a little bit of everything.  If you were to rank the top 5 Washington Wizards stories, what would they be and why?
Mike Jones:  Well, the No. 1 story hands down would be Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton’s locker room gun dispute and the convictions and sentences that followed. It garnered national attention, it basically was the clincher that this was indeed a lost season, and the end of the Wizards as we know them. The team was already struggling mightily, but the gun incident was proof of what Flip Saunders had said “Don’t ever think it can’t get any worse, because it always can.”

No. 2 would be the trade deadline because it was the official taking a stick of dynamite to the roster, and Ernie Grunfeld’s admission that the team that he had assembled wasn’t working and wasn’t going to ever work again.

No. 3 Andray Blatche’s development. No one, not even Ernie Grunfeld or Flip Saunders saw this coming. Perhaps they thought Blatche would have a double-digit scoring night every night, but not the roughly 22 points and nine rebounds that he put up night in and night out. Seven-Day-Dray proved that he is a starter in this league and capable of being future All-Star. He still has areas to grow — including his attitude — but this appears to finally be the long-awaited turning of the corner for Blatche.

No. 4 and 5, I guess would be a combination of the hiring of Flip Saunders and all the big expectations, and the much anticipated return of Agent Zero…. only that nothing went right at all — and you can throw Josh Howard’s injury, losing Gee to the Spurs, you name it, into that — and here the Wizards are again in the lottery and very much in the rebuilding stages.

Mobley:  When Arenas was suspended and Butler was traded, Andray Blatche clearly stepped up his level of play.  Nick Young and Randy Foye also had those same chances to step and consistently be counted on, but both of them fell short.  Young came on at the end of the year, but at that point it really didn’t matter.  Foye never seemed to get comfortable at either guard slot.  Why do you think that is? And do you see either of them being with the team next year?
Jones:  I think part of the problem with both players was trust. Flip never really seemed to trust Randy at either position and so Randy was pressing all the time. He did a decent job when Arenas was first suspended, but then there were still times that Flip would go to Earl in the late stretches of games, and then when Shaun Livingston was in the mix, Saunders sent Foye back to the bench and soon after made the statement that Foye wasn’t really a point guard or a shooting guard. Saunders had in his mind what he wanted his point guards to give him and Randy wasn’t his type of guy.

As far as Nick goes, Flip didn’t trust him very much either. But then down the stretch of the season with the roster down to the bare bones, he had no choice but to play Nick. Nick responded by playing his most solid ball of the season — and that eight game stretch at the end just might be the most consistent run of his short career. Nick didn’t make as dramatic strides as Blatche, but he definitely proved that he’s getting there. He’s starting to understand how to do some of the little things that he was neglecting before. I think he’s on this team next year and with a key role. Of course a lot of how key it is has to do with free agency and the draft, but I expect Nick to be in the mix. I don’t see Foye here next year. I really like him as a person and player, and he was taking steps forward in his career until this season, so I’m pulling for him to go somewhere that he’s utilized in a similar way to when he was in Minnesota where he played off the ball much of the time and was the go-to guy especially down the stretch.

Mobley:   Despite the dismal season, one of the more uplifting stories of the Wizards’ season was the emergence of Shaun Livingston.  Flip went from hoping he could contribute some valuable minutes here and there, to inserting him in the starting lineup and counting on him every night the last part of the season.  Can you talk about Shaun’s play this year, and what you think his future holds with the team or elsewhere?
Jones:  Shaun was a very pleasant surprise, and if the Wizards are smart, they will make sure they hold onto him. He definitely has those special point guard instincts that you can’t teach. If you’re starting Arenas and have Livingston coming off the bench, that’s a great tandem. I can even see them sharing the backcourt a lot next year. That’s if the Wizards can re-sign him. I imagine that he’ll get quite a good deal of interest this offseason. I think he proved he definitely is good enough to start, and he’ll only get stronger as he continues his comeback. So whether or not he returns will depend largely on what types of offers he gets and on how badly he wants to be a starter.

Mobley:   How would you evaluate the jobs that Ernie Grunfeld and Flip Saunders did this year, despite difficult circumstances?  And, based on what you know, will they be back next season?
Jones:  It appeared that Ernie did a pretty good job of giving Flip Saunders everything he needed to put a winning product on the floor. During last summer, the main questionable move was passing on DeJuan Blair with that second-round pick when the Wizards clearly needed some bulk and power down low. Otherwise, everything seemed to make sense for the most part. The Wizards were in win-now mode and Miller and Foye were supposed to bring the perimeter attack they needed. Those two for the No. 5 pick — which ended up being Rubio, who no one expected to be there at the time — seemed like a good deal at the time. We now know, however, that the Wizards would’ve been better off using that pick on Stephen Curry or Brandon Jennings. So, with hindsight being 20-20, the draft-pick-for-vets move, and passing on Blair, were both bad. But Grunfeld did a good job of putting the Wizards in a position where they can rebuild pretty quickly, so that’s a positive. Taking all that into account, I’d have to say Ernie did a decent job.
Now, as far as Flip goes, like most everything surrounding the Wizards, he didn’t live up to expectations this season. He has to carry some of the blame for the terrible chemistry of the Wizards’ top players as well as their not being able to get the job done. I think Flip — like everybody — thought success would come pretty easily. On paper, this was a legit contender. They had three All-Stars, who had played together and experienced success in the past. I think that’s a big reason why Flip didn’t really make them play within the framework of his offense early in the season. When the Wizards were struggling before the trades, Saunders on more than one occasion pointed out that he had given his players a lot of freedom to freestyle as they got re-acquainted to playing together. That probably wasn’t a good thing. We didn’t see any of the offensive genius that Saunders was supposed to have brought. Ernie Grunfeld credited Saunders with the development of Blatche, McGee and Young in the second half of the season. It’ll be interesting to see how next year goes with a retooled roster.

Mobley:  When I saw Gilbert Arenas do an interview with Esquire a couple of months back, I must admit I was a bit taken aback.  I wondered why he didn’t talk to you or Michael Lee, considering that you all always wrote about him fairly.  Did you attempt to get an exclusive interview with Arenas? And have you spoken with him at all since his suspension in January? Once his halfway house stay is over, I wonder how he’s going to approach this offseason strictly from a basketball standpoint.
Jones:  I wasn’t too terribly surprised just because when dealing with Gilbert, you learn to expect the unexpected. I talked to Arenas about three weeks before the story came out and he told me that he didn’t want to do any interviews until the sentencing was over. But you always know that there’s a good chance he’ll change his mind on a whim, and so you just do your best and keep stepping. It’ll be interesting to see how he carries himself after he gets out. You’d hope he grows up, but Gil is who he is, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he remains quirky and unpredictable. Now, from a basketball standpoint, I expect him to work hard like always and to try to come back and compete for the scoring title next season.

Mobley:  Michael Wilbon, via his Washington Post weekly chat, came out and basically said that Andray Blatche is a loser, and a team built around him is going nowhere.  Do you agree?
Jones:  I have more respect for Michael Wilbon than I do anyone else in the journalism business, but I don’t know that I’d say Blatche is a loser. I do think he has a lot to learn, and I think he knows that as well. This offseason and next season will be the indicator. He ended the year saying the right things, that he wasn’t satisfied and has nothing to be satisfied about. Now we’ll see if he continues to work and get better. I agree that he’s not a franchise player. I think he can be a very good second option on a very good team, however.

Mobley: I know the draft positions have yet to be determined, and free agency will be largely based on what LeBron James does, but I’m still going to attempt to put you on the spot.  Put your GM hat on for a second, and tell me what moves you would make in the offseason. Who would you keep, who would you cut, who do you like in the draft, etc.
Jones:  The Wizards need a lot. Shooting guard, small forward and center are the question areas. I know Nick played well in the final eight games of the season, but the jury’s still out on whether or not he can be an effective and consistent starter. Al Thornton is young and talented, but he seemed to do better coming off the bench in relief of Josh Howard. JaVale McGee showed growth, but I’m not sure he’s ready to take over as starting center. He needs to get stronger and develop a go-to post move. So, those positions need to be addressed. The Wizards need a more physical presence, so whether its through the draft or free agency, that should also be added to the checklist. Obviously it’s going to depend on what spot the Wizards are in the draft, but Evan Turner could be a nice fit at shooting guard, or DeMarcus Cousins to add some more size, and I also like Wake Forest’s Al-Farouq Aminu at small forward because he’s another long, versatile player that can create matchup problems.

Mobley:  Antawn Jamison is now with the Cavaliers. DeShawn Stevenson, Brendan Haywood and Caron Butler are now with the Mavericks.  Which team are you rooting for in the playoffs?
Jones:  I’d love to see Cleveland vs. Dallas haha. I’m pulling for the Ex-Wizards to make deep runs, and I know the Wizards fans hate LeBron, but if it’d mean Antawn got a ring, then it’d be A-OK with me for Cleveland to win it all.

Mobley:  The last time you spoke with Hoops Addict, you were writing for the Washington Times, and since then, their sports section has folded.  What are you up to now?
Jones:  I’m still looking for a full-time job, but in the meantime, doing a little bit of everything. I’m still freelancing for CSNWashington.com, and am just getting started covering the Redskins for CBSSports.com as a stringer doing their Rapid Reports. I’m also going to be doing some work with the NBA Nation Tour, but those details are still being hammered out, so stay tuned. . .

Podcast: 2010 NBA Playoffs Preview

In the latest edition of the Hoops Addict Podcast, Ryan and Rashad discuss all things playoffs.  They analyze all eight of the first round matchups and give their bold predictions as well.

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Three Things You Should Know About The Utah Jazz

1. Deron Williams is the best point guard left in the Western Conference

In a conference that has Jason Kidd, Chauncey Billups and Tony Parker all vying for the opportunity to represent the West in the NBA Finals, that is saying a lot. But its true. Williams averaged nearly 12 assists after the All-Star break, and he kept his team competitive each and every night when injuries to Andrei Kirilenko and Carlos Boozer could have potentially caused them to slip out of the playoffs. Williams has all the intangibles you want from your point guard: He can get to the rim, he’s a threat to score or dish when he gets there, and he’s aggressive on the defensive end of the floor. Billups and the Denver Nuggets will be standing in front of Williams, and that’s a tough matchup for any team (as the Lakers found out during last year’s playoffs). But Coach Jerry Sloan has to feel a lot better about that matchup, knowing that his point guard can give Billups all that he can handle and then some.

2. AK-47 will be back

When I was reading previews about the upcoming Nuggets/Jazz series, all I kept reading was how much of a game changer Nuggets guard J.R. Smith can be on any given night. He’s a legitimate threat to go for 30 points on any given night, and if he gets hot from three-point land, the 40 point mark is not safe either. But the Jazz have that same type of game changer in Kirilenko. He’s been injured since mid-March, but when the Jazz played the Wizards last month, I asked him about Kirilenko, and he seemed to think that AK-47 would return for the playoffs. He has been practicing and running drills with the team, and all indications are that he will indeed play.

Kirilenko’s defense is very similar to the way LeBron James plays defense. He’s a good on-the-ball defender, but he can play free safety and get steals that way, and he can block shots from the weak side. And at 6’9′ he can create matchup issues on the defensive end–specifically against a shooter like J.R. Smith. On the offensive end, Kirilenko is not a big scorer, but he possesses the ability to get out on the fastbreak, and be on the receiving end of a Williams’ pass or alley-oop. That type of versatility has been missing from the Jazz lineup, and a healthy AK-47 could definitely make a difference.

3. The Boozer factor

Going into this season, it was far from a given that Carlos Boozer was going to be a member of the Utah Jazz. He and management traded tense statements in the media last offseason, and during the season there were rumors abound that a Boozer trade was imminent. But Boozer never went anywhere, and he put up consistent 20/10 numbers all season, right up until his injury earlier this week.

Boozer strained his oblique muscle on this right side on Saturday, and it caused him to miss the last two games of the season. According to True Hoop, when asked whether he would about his availability for Saturday’s opening playoff game against the Nuggets he said he was playing, “no matter what”. That statement alone told me three things:

1)Boozer is well aware that he is a free agent after the season is over and he wants to make a good impression
2)He will be totally focused and intense as long as the Jazz are in the playoffs, and that will make this first round series against Denver very interesting.
3)Kenyon Martin better bring his “A” game.

Rashad Mobley On KRNU

After a four month hiatus, I reappeared in Studio 201 with the Sports Dude on 90.3 KRNU radio in Lincoln, Nebraska.  I discussed whether the Lakers and the Cavaliers are the favorites in the upcoming NBA playoffs, other possible intriguing first round matchups, the state of the Washington Wizards, and my feelings on the trade of Donovan McNabb.

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Examining Why People Dislike Duke

The  morning after Duke defeated Butler to win the NCAA championship, ESPN personality, Dick Vitale was on television ranting and raving as usual.  I honestly started to ignore everything that he was saying, until I heard him say that he was puzzled about the amount of dislike that seemed to be directed towards Duke University.  In his mind, Duke played the right way, went to class and excelled, succeeded after college and he attributed most, if not all of that to Coach Mike Krzyzewski.

After Vitale went on his rant,  I sat there and wondered how and where this dislike for Duke originated with most people.  I know that my own personal dislike for them, stemmed from the 1991 National Semifinal game, when Duke defeated UNLV (my favorite team at the time), 79-77.  Just a year earlier, UNLV crushed Duke 101-71, and that 30 point drubbing still represents the largest margin of victory ever in an NCAA final.  I wasn’t sure how Duke was able to win just one year after being humiliated, but I was not at all happy about it, and a legitimate dislike for Duke was born.

But I am only one man, and the dislike for Duke seems to be much bigger than just me, so I still needed some answers.  I decided to seek out two players from the Washington Wizards and one from the Golden State Warriors, who had direct and indirect ties to Duke.

First, I talked to Wizards forward Al Thornton, who attended Florida State University, and played against Duke for four years.  Then, I briefly talked to Warriors forward Corey Maggette who attended Duke for one year during the 1998-99 season. And finally, I talked with Wizards guard Shaun Livingston, who accepted a scholarship to attend Duke in 2004, before opting to head directly to the NBA. All three men gave their perspective on Duke, and why they are so disliked.

Al Thornton

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Corey Maggette

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Shaun Livingston

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Catching Up With Cedric Jackson

After getting his first bit of playing with Washington Wizards in their 109-99 victory over the Nets, Cedric Jackson took some time to talk to Hoops Addict. Jackson talked about what his game plan is when he enters a game, how the Wizards offense differs from others he’s learned this year, and new sense of purpose “D” leaguers now have.

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An Illinois Reunion In D.C.

With four minutes and 20 seconds left in the third quarter of last night’s Wizards/Bulls game, Wizards guard Shaun Livingston took a pass from Cartier Martin deep in the paint, and maneuvered himself free for a short jumper–his 10th point of the night.

Almost as soon as the ball went through the net and hit the ground, Chicago Bulls All-Star guard Derrick Rose, took the inbounds pass, sprinted down the court, weaved around until he could find an opening, and went to the basket, where he was fouled by Wizards forward James Singleton.  He hit both free throws to bring his point total to 20.

Shortly after this exchange, Michael Lee of the Washington Post typed the follow sentence via his twitter account:

“Nice intrastate PG battle as Peoria (Livingston) & Chicago (Rose) are going at each other. Chicago 20-3-2 while Peoria has 10-5-3.”

Blame it on it being Friday, or blame it on my lack of pre-game research, but up until that tweet, I had failed miserably to make the connection, that both Rose and Livingston were from Illinois.  I did some quick research via the Google search engine, and was able to glean some quick facts.  Both players were Mr. Illinois basketball (Livingston in 2004, Rose in 2007), both players won two high school titles, and both were named to the  McDonald High School All -American team.

But what I was not able to find is if these two gentlemen had ever played against each other on any level.  I also wasn’t able to find any real quotes about what they thought about each other’s game now and in high school.  Rose had to have heard about Livingston as he went through grade school, and Livingston had to have at least had an opinion about a player who was accomplishing the same things he had three years earlier.  I don’t know whether my Google skills are declining or what, but I did not find anything.

And thus a post game assignment was born.

Right after the Bulls 95-87 over the Wizards, I made my way over to the Bulls locker room to get some quotes from Rose about Livingston.  Initially, there was quite the scrum around Rose, so I just thrust my recorder as close to his face as possible, hoping to get some good quotes.  And lo and and behold, he addressed Livingston.

“Shaun, he’s a good player. One of the players I looked up to in Illinois,” Rose said. “He won Mr. Basketball, I think, two years in a row[he won it once]. Won state two years in a row. First player ever to do that. He’s like a legend in Illinois. For me to be playing against him, he’s a veteran player, means a lot.”

Once the scrum subsided and I had the chance to talk to Rose alone, I asked him to compare Livingston’s game now, post-surgery, to his game in high school.

“Man, he’s gotten much better and his confidence is just soaring, ” Rose observed.  “He was always known for passing the ball and getting everyone involved, but now he has a post game  and he’s better at scoring the ball, so that’s the biggest difference right there.”

I also asked Rose what specifically about Livingston he admired and whether he planned to talk to him before leaving the Verizon Center.

“I’m not a big guard like he is, but I think I’m bigger than most point guards, so I watched how he used his size.  Plus he just always seems to know the right pass to make, and I could always get better at that. I can score all day long, but my passing is not quite as good as his.  And I want to talk to him before I leave, but we have a game tomorrow, so I might not be able to.  We’ll see.”

I shook Rose’s hand, and then made my way over to the Wizards’ locker room.  Trying to do double locker room duty in the NBA is always a risk, but its even more risky when the second locker room you’re visiting is the losing team.  With the exception of former Washington Wizards forward Antawn Jamison, who would stick around and talk to the media win or lose, most players dress and leave quickly after a loss.  And even if the players don’t leave right away, they aren’t always up for a conversation.

Sure enough, when I entered the Wizards locker room, it was virtually empty.  JaVale McGee had just finished getting dressed, and was making his way out of the locker room, and directly across from him, there was one other player holding court in front of a group of about 15-20 reporters.  That player was Shaun Livingston.

I arrived in time to hear him talk about Rose.

“He is who he is.  He’s definitely a world class athlete.  He has definitely earned everything he has received,” Livingston said while wiping the sweat from his forehead.   “There is definitely talent coming out of Illinois.  He was freshman when I was senior.  He grew up watching me take those titles, and then he got one[Rose won two].

Once Livingston was alone, I informed him that Rose looked up to him, and admired his game.  Livingston smiled, and then made some additional observations about Rose and his game..

“Like I told them[the media] before, everything he’s getting right now he deserves.  There’s a reason why he is where he is right now, “Livingston said.  This is his second year in the league, but he has all the tools, he’s been a point guard since the eighth grade, he’s been bred to be a point guard, and obviously that process is showing right now.”

I ended my questioning by asking Livingston if he had played against Rose before.

“That was my first time actually..and he’s real, ” Livingston said while laughing.

I left the Wizards locker room, and I hung around in the common area, hoping to see and record the possible meeting between Livingston and Rose, but it never happened.  Still, as a basketball fan/writer, it was nice to see two players from the same state have a genuine appreciation for one other during and after the game.  And to get a story out of it too, was a definite win-win.

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Video Courtesy of Brian Jackson of ComcastSportsNet Washington

In The Scrum With Derrick Rose

After scoring 24 points, and leading the Chicago Bulls to a 95-87 victory over the Washington Wizards last night, Derrick Rose met with the media to discuss why he didn’t take the Wizards lightly, how good it was to get everyone back healthy, and Joakim Noah’s ability to lead the fastbreak.

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A Tale Of Two Franchises

When I arrived at the Verizon Center for the Wizards/Jazz game Saturday afternoon, I was trying to convince myself that Jerry Sloan was not that intimidating. I’m a grown man, and he’s an older grown man, but for some reason his stature, his stare, his experience, and his reputation as a tough player and a tougher coach is enough to make even the hardest man have a few doubts about his confidence.  Even so, I was determined to get in on his pre-game presser, to hear his take on the Jazz, the Wizards, and everything in between.

While I waited for Sloan, I sat courtside and watched the Jazz players go through their pre-game ritual.  Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer ran on the court together for their respective drills, and they joked around a bit, then got serious.  Williams alternated between taking mid-range jumpshots and driving hard to the basket, while Boozer did the Mikan drill and other various post moves to get himself lathered for the game.

I remember thinking to myself how sweet it must feel to be a Jazz fan.  They basically went from Stockton and Malone to Williams and Boozer, and although they missed the playoffs a couple of times during the transition, they are contenders once again.  Part of that is a good front office, and another includes having the same coach for 22 years in Sloan. I didn’t dwell on this line of thought for too long because time was getting away from me, and I had to trek over to the Utah locker room for Sloan’s talk.

For approximately 10 minutes, I listened to Sloan cover a myriad of topics.  He compared possibly losing Boozer after this season to losing Shandon Anderson and Howard Eisley in past years.  He praised his front office for getting him good players after Stockton and Malone left, and he talked about how fun it is to watch young players go from being inexperienced to seasoned.

While I was listening to this man take the media through a mini-trip down memory lane and back again, I again could only marvel at this consistency.  How many coaches in any sport can speak about players who started in the 80s, 90s, and the current decade? And how many franchises can say they stayed championship contenders at the same time?  Just as I allowed my mind to drift a bit to answer that question, it was rudely interrupted by the voice of another media member.

“You know Ernie[Grunfeld] is talking at 6:30 right?”

Instead of being afforded the right to continue my Utah Jazz stream of consciousness, I was violently jarred back into a Washington Wizards state of mind.  Earlier in the day, Gilbert Arenas had avoided jail time but still been sentenced to a halfway house, probation, and a fine.  As a result, Team President Ernie Grunfeld would be speaking to address Arenas’ future and all things Wizards-related.

Instead of speaking about continuity and waxing nostalgic about the good ol’ days of past Wizards teams, Grunfeld had to discuss matters of a very different nature.  He refuted reports that Arenas’ contract would be voided; he vowed to shake up the roster in free agency and via the draft; he spoke harshly about Andray Blatche’s treatment of Flip Saunders; and he spoke about why he was qualified to work for new owner-in-waiting, Ted Leonsis–assuming Leonsis is officially approved.

The tone of Grunfeld’s press conference was not all gloom and doom.  Despite the Wizards’ 15 game losing streak, Grunfeld mentioned that he was more than pleased with the play of newcomers Shaun Livingston and Alonzo Gee (although Ridiculous Upside reported today, the Gee will sign will the Spurs now that his 10 day contract has expired).  He explained that although it was tough trading Haywood, Butler and Jamison, the Wizards as a team had gotten stale, and their departure meant plenty of cap room–which is quite the commodity in the upcoming free agency bonanza of 2010 and maybe 2011.

But as I left Grunfeld’s press conference and headed to the court to watch the Jazz defeat the Wizards by 16 points, I could not help but notice the clear disparity between the two franchises.  The Wizards’ best player is halfway house-bound; their current best player cannot be trusted; and next year’s roster and ownership are uncertain.  The assumption is that head coach Flip Saunders is coming back, but that’s not a given.  This was a far cry from the seemingly placid surroundings on the Jazz side of things I had visited just a few minutes earlier.

Of course, in a perfect world, the Wizards would draft Evan Turner or John Wall, welcome back an Arenas with a chip on his shoulder next year, pick up a free agent or two, build the confidence and game of JaVale McGee, Blatche and Shaun Livingston, and come back a contender next season. But those are wishes for a franchise that hasn’t seemed to be lucky as of late.  Meanwhile the Jazz probably will have Sloan as head coach and Deron Williams running the point.  And even if Carlos Boozer does decide to leave, they still have a formidable backup in Paul Milsap.  That is still quite a foundation.

The best example of how comfortable, relaxed and at ease Coach Sloan seems to be with the Jazz came in the middle of his pre-game press conference.  He had a birthday coming up at the time (he turned 68 on Sunday), and he was asked about it.

“Coach, tomorrow you turn 68. How do you feel?” the reporter asked.

“I feel with my fingers,” Sloan deadpanned.