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The Washington Wizards and the Season that Wasn’t

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, 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 the 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 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 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 folder. 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, and am just getting started covering the Redskins for 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. . .


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